Jodie Noel Vinson
Among the great collectors, few have been more thorough, more comprehensive, or more scrupulous than Carl Linnaeus. When, in 1783, the Swede’s collection passed from his descendents to a British collector, it consisted of 3,000 books; thousands of minerals, insects, and shells; as well as his coveted herbarium of around 19,000 dried and mounted plants.
The collection had formed the base reference for Linnaeus’ reclassification of the natural world and was so prized that when it was sold to the British, the Swedish King Gustav III sent a warship in its wake.
I’ve always been a collector. My first enterprise was, unoriginally, rocks—a common theme among amateur collectors. It’s not hard to appreciate the appeal of rocks to a child. Small. Solid. Infinitely claspable.
Then again, rocks are pretty much as original as you can get. To the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, a rock is just a “momentary getting-together of sand.” But to see it that way, you either have to be a physicist or a billion years old. Perhaps this is why many of the most avid rock collectors are children.
My collection was kept in a cardboard box in the basement of my family’s home. Many of the rocks were culled from my first travels outside of Iowa: flakes of mica and sparks of fool’s gold panned on a camping trip to South Dakota, an agate from a gift shop in Minnesota, and an arrowhead from a ranger talk in Colorado. Collectibles are often souvenirs.
These were the really stand-out specimens of that first collection, which otherwise was composed of gravel mined from our driveway. Crouched for hours over excavations, my two sisters and I unearthed hundreds of front-yard fossils, shipped to our land-locked state from who knows what deep quarry.
As my fingertips traced the concave shapes of scallops, curly-cues of worms, and feathery imprint of ferns, these strange hieroglyphics spoke not only of unknown lands, but of a time that no longer existed.
In this, I have since come to believe, lies the true value of rock collections. When you are young and know only the present, such tangible evidence of time gone by is needed if one is to have any real faith in the past.
Or the future. In the months leading up to his passing, the neurologist Oliver Sacks took up rock collecting. He gathered bits of metal and minerals about him, just as he had as a child, taking comfort in what he called “little emblems of eternity.”
Just as Sacks saw in his stones an era after him, long before my friends had cause to consider history, I believed in a time before me.
Linnaeus published his Philosophia Botanica in 1751 in an attempt to classify his collections and to establish a systematic study of botany. The book is composed of short, numbered epigraphs that methodically drill down to a comprehensive philosophy of nature, which Linnaeus saw as divided into three kingdoms: animal, vegetable, mineral.
Of these kingdoms, Linnaeus considered himself a sort of ruler. When he was born, it is rumored that his parents decorated his cradle with flowers. When he died, Linnaeus recommended that his gravestone read Princeps botanicorum: Prince of Botanists.
Perhaps the fossils led me to shells. I wanted those rudimentary shapes to be clarified into the delicate seaborne objects that had impressed themselves into a timeline longer than their own, hitching a ride out of history and into my home.
My first shells were not plucked from the surf but rather passed on, inherited by necessity—I lived nowhere near the sea. A great aunt in Daytona Beach sent a few specimens—a Florida fighting conch with a glossy caramel cone and horned turret; a fluted bay scallop.
When my sisters and I convinced my parents to take us to Florida to visit Great Aunt Julia (and Disney World), my collection more than tripled in size. I couldn’t stop touching these latest acquisitions, spotted by my own eyes half buried in fine sand, farmed from the sea and endowed by that watery expanse with the scent of fish and rainbow burn of phosphorescence. Over and over my fingers learned the smooth surface of a banded wedge, the rough ridges of a cockle, the sharp spiral of a horn snail.
I took the shells to school for show and tell; my classmates found them most exotic. I demonstrated how, by pressing the largest specimen to ear, they could hear an ocean they’d never seen.
To clarify, Linnaeus had something of an ego. He would have been pleased to see the 100-kronor (literally: “crown”) issued in Sweden in 1986, which bears his image alongside an illustration of his favorite flower, a sketch of the Linnaean botanical gardens in Uppsala, and, on the reverse, a rather stylized depiction of a pollinating bee.
“It may very well be possible to teach an entire botany course based on this single banknote,” writes Paul Alan Cox in his introduction to Philosophia Botanica, for the bill contains several other detailed symbols, and, to the right of Linnaeus’ portrait, the motto OMNIA MIRARI ETIAM TRISTISSIMA: “Find wonder in all things, even the most commonplace.”
Linnaeus’ likeness later appeared on a few commemorative coins—on one the botanist’s inquisitive eye peers up through a magnifying glass—and on several postage stamps (IV).
The coin collector is not strictly concerned with money—that is, with currency that can be exchanged for goods or services. A numismatist may be the truest of collectors because she gathers objects which, as legal tender, hold value apart from the collection. By eschewing the temptation of wealth, the base greed of a common banker or accountant, the coin collector holds the standard for all collections: accumulation itself.
The coin collection, of course, is valued not only for its size, but for its aesthetic merits: the metal, mint, age, origin, and imprint of each specimen. In other words, a coin is honored and hoarded for its rarity. I loved my pennies with wheat borders (minted 1909-1956) because they were different from those found among the loose change at the bottom of my mother’s purse. I kept my Canadian coins from a summer trip to Niagara Falls because they came from across a border.
My collection was a weighty piggy bank that gained heft throughout my childhood as I learned to appreciate denomination and difference. I was, at that time, defining myself against my sisters and, later, against my classmates. I was this, not that. My worth was inherent in who I was, and in who I was not.
For a coin to be of value to the collector, it must be stripped of its economy—either carried to a foreign land where it is worthless or aged out of circulation. Taken from their native environment, my coins were reduced from money to objects, or, as I saw it, elevated from currency to collectible. In this, I knew, I was rich.
Linnaeus was a fine orator, popular teacher, and beloved mentor. His lectures were always packed and his field trips into the countryside well attended—possibly because they often included picnic fare, banners, drums, and—whenever a collector found a rare specimen—the triumphant bleat of a bugle accompanied by the shout: “Vivat Linnaeus!”
When Linnaeus had gathered a healthy following, he began sending his most promising pupils on expeditions to increase his collections with specimens from the world’s farther reaches. These students were collectively known as Linnaeus’ Apostles. Of the seventeen faithful, seven disciples died on assignment.
Aside from a fruitful foray into Lapland, Linnaeus preferred to stay in Sweden, where he owned a small farm called Hammerby. Today the farm operates as a museum and botanical garden for students of the nearby university.
As a young philatelist, I was encouraged by my father, who, when I was eight, took me to a stamp show where I could sift through shoe boxes full of postage. I remember feeling this sort of abundance was a bit like cheating and preferred to collect whatever showed up in the wilds of my family’s mailbox. Dad sometimes let me steam off the stamps from his correspondence—little flakes of world that floated into Iowa on strange winds from distant lands.
I kept my stamps in a pink plastic three-ring binder with pages filled with rows of pockets in which I mounted each tiny messenger. With patriotic pride I loved the crisp, coral-colored one cent stamp showing Lincoln with his monument. But the postage decorated with the unfamiliar characters of a foreign land were the most thrilling.
My favorite came from Switzerland: a graceful white rectangle with serrated edges and a large purple thistle printed at its center. Years later, when I studied abroad among the Swiss Alps, the stamp felt like a prophesy.
Along with his compulsion to collect Linnaeus had an incredible inclination to name his specimens, establishing the two-part binomial classification system by which much of the living world is known today (see: Homo sapiens).
Though his specialty was flora, Linnaeus made efforts toward cataloging the world’s known fauna, which at the time included some hard-to-categorize creatures such as the unicorn, the satyr, and a mysterious giant tadpole.
Linnaeus’ own relationship to animals was mixed. The naturalist adored his pet raccoon Sjubb, for example, but when Sjubb was mauled and killed by a dog, Linnaeus had no qualms about dissecting his former friend. The botanist also had a pet monkey, Diana.
In childhood, some of my more intimate connections were with animals. A triangular hammock hung suspended above my bed, overflowing with teddies and bunnies and Pound Puppies, several glowworms (Arachnocampa luminosa), three cats, two koalas, a caterpillar, and a pterodactyl.
And throughout my childhood, I was rarely without a pet: a string of four rabbits, a guinea pig, a ferret, and a large orange Felix domestica named Butterscotch who outlived them all.
My compulsion to keep these animals was different from previous impulses to collect—less a desire for ownership and more of a bid for companionship. After all, these collectibles had something rocks, shells, stamps, and coins didn’t: a life of their own.
Up until the time Linnaeus started publishing his research on plant sexuality, botany had been considered a proper pastime for well-bred women. Linnaeus changed that by basing his entire classification system on stamens and pistils.
Many scholars, like the academician Johann Siegesbeck, were offended by this overt acknowledgement of plant genitalia. Siegesbeck called Linnaeus’ sexually inspired nomenclature “loathsome harlotry.”
Linnaeus called a small, ugly weed Siegesbeckia orientalis.
Around the time I started collecting stamps, I heard about the world’s largest ball of wax. I assumed the ball was composed of ear wax.
To my family’s horror, I began collecting my own.
I kept my specimens, large and small, flaky and spongy, in a palm-sized ceramic container. This collection was rarely on display.
For my efforts, I was teased by my sisters who held my collection in contempt and did their best to imbue it with a sense of shame that was new to me. But their derision only deepened my defenses. With a kind of fated patience, I waited for each new deposit, quietly determined that my ball of wax would one day be the world’s largest.
Years after I’d been convinced to abandon the hobby, I visited a wax museum in London. As I strolled past life-sized casts of historical figures, effigies of royalty, and exact replicas of the famous—at times unable to distinguish wax sculpture from live patron—I began to understand my collection as a will toward self-preservation.
And the compulsion to collect as a desire to be present. Forever.
Linnaeus himself was named after a plant. According to Swedish tradition, his father Nils would have simply called himself “son of Ingemar,” but to attend university he was required to have a surname. Nils, a collector himself, chose “Lind” after the linden tree.
When it came time to enroll in college, Nils’ son Carl Lind upgraded to a Latin name: Carolus Linnaeus. Still later, his need to name all things—including, apparently, himself—not yet satiated, Linnaeus took the opportunity of being ennobled by his government in 1761 to advance yet another nomenclature: Carl von Linné.
Seeking a more sophisticated pastime, at ten I started collecting autographs. I was at the age when one begins looking out on the world. When the possibility of fame looms large just before it begins to wane.
I began examining the mailbox not for stamps, but for my name.
I discovered a book containing addresses of the famous at the downtown branch of the public library. You couldn’t check the book out but had to request it at the reference desk. This made the endeavor special—almost scholarly.
I collected with an academic fervor. After the first ten or so, my letters solidified in form. I began by introducing myself as the addressee’s biggest fan before rushing on to claim my prize, signing off with a labored Sincerely.
A surprising number wrote back. Now, looking over the collection, the specimens speak of a particular era and orientation in the world. From behind their permanently marked names, figure skaters twirl, NBA stars dunk, boy bands pose, a local news anchor grins, teen dreams gaze, Jane Seymour gloats.
Back then, the very swoop and scrawl of the signatures seemed to spell an intimacy with those who had achieved what, to my pre-teen mind, was close to immortality. The curiosity that drove me to gather rocks and shells had by adolescence raged into a restlessness for the world beyond my reach, even before I knew if it was real or not.
In that sense, my collection could be seen as a sort of inquiry into the nature of reality.
By the end of my tenure as autograph collector, I’d gained the ability to discern between real and fake, between fan clubs and former stars, between the gratitude of a waning glory and too busy to reply.
While on expedition in Lapland, Linnaeus discovered his favorite plant. The flower was, of course, named after him: Linnaea borealis.
From his field observations, Linnaeus was able to place flowers into three categories: those that open and close with the weather, those that follow changes in daylight, and those that, as he puts it in Philosophia Botanica, “open precisely at a certain hour of the day and generally shut up every day at a determinate hour.” From this last category, Linnaeus envisioned his Horologium Florae, or, flower clock.
Noticing that, for example, the Spotted Cat’s Ear opens at 6:00 a.m. while the Prickly Sow Thistle and the Common Nipple Wort close at 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. respectively, Linnaeus speculated that, by placing plants in a circular pattern based on when their petals open and close, he could keep track of each passing hour.
I don’t collect now as I did as a child, but the tendency to accumulate, to hold, to treasure remains. Despite being able to catalog and keep them digitally, printed photographs collect in albums around my apartment. Like books (which also congregate), these photo collections grow exponentially as each specimen contains a world within itself, a piece of time that opens onto a time before. In that way, the photographs are like rocks, too.
As a child, past and present were compressed; memories, when made, were strong impressions—scents, sounds, tastes, and, sometimes, trauma—which imprinted themselves with enough force to ensure they would be carried into adulthood as fossilized bits of self.
Over time, these impressions became less vivid, or perhaps there were simply too many to carry, and some were lost.
By age twelve, I owned a blue plastic camera with a detachable, disposable flash, with which I took copious photos, often of family members or pets, and of the places where we traveled each summer. The photographs often proved, once developed at the local drugstore, to be out of focus, or in the foreground there would be that ubiquitous corner of pink: an eager fingertip strayed over lens.
As my photography skills improved, so did the technological ease with which I could capture, edit, discard, or keep moments, which now reside in stacks of thick albums beneath my coffee table.
Lately, however, I’ve noticed how, rather than granting access, a picture can stand in for memories, false substitutes for lived experience. Fossils, not the shells themselves.
Linnaeus first laid out his system of taxonomy in Systema Naturae, an 11-page tract published in 1735. By the time of his death in 1778, Linnaeus had catalogued around 4,400 animals and 7,700 plants, and the book had grown to 3,000 pages. The frontispiece of one edition features himself as Adam, naming the plants and animals. “God created,” the botanist was fond of saying, “Linnaeus named.”
He also wrote: “If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost.”
My greatest collection now is one of words. Over one hundred thirty volumes of my journals stand shelved as something apart from the record they were when I first wrote them. The journals range from the durable Moleskines of my college years to the tattered dream notebooks of junior high to my first legitimate lock-and-key diary, picked up at a garage sale when I was ten.
Back then, at the moment of composition—or collection, if you will—the purpose of each word was to name and order my experience. Now, they hold it.
Unless I open a diary and read the words, as I seldom do, the journals remain simply a collection. And sometimes that’s enough. To know my life exists in some tangible form, if not as durable as stone, then at least more permanent than a passing moment.
Over 180 years after his death, Linnaeus was designated the lectotype of Homo sapiens, meaning that, according to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Homo sapiens is defined as “the animal species to which Linnaeus belongs.”
So that, in a way, Linnaeus has managed to go from collector to collectible, from scientist to specimen, from preserver to the one preserved.
Other things named in his honor: towns (in Maine and Missouri), an arboretum (in Minnesota), a crater (on the moon), a university, a genus of flies, several plants, and a mineral (Linnaeite).
Which either brings us back to the beginning, or means that there is no end.
I no longer own my old collections, aside from the autographs, and even those are fading.
The rocks were the last to go. When my parents decided to sell the house that I grew up in, they asked my sisters and me to reclaim whatever remnants of our childhood we’d left behind, or else throw them out.
When it came to my rock collection, I had trouble doing either. The whole thing wasn’t worth the postage it would take to ship to Seattle, and I had no space in the one-bedroom apartment I was renting there. But neither was I ready to release back to nature what I had over the years so painstakingly collected.
My mom offered an alternative: She would bring the box to her office at the elementary school where she worked and bequeath a rock to each of her students.
I shadowed my mom at her job that day. As I watched my collection dwindle before my eyes, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of regret overcoming my more charitable instincts. I saw a flash of white, a prized collection setting sail for foreign lands.
Then again, it was sort of gratifying to see the students’ delight and hear their exclamations of wonder—touching, even, to watch the more scrupulous hesitate and ponder over their choice.
Vivat, Linnaeus, I thought as my rocks were carried off by the clasping hands of a new generation of collectors. Vivat.
Read Jodie Noel Vinson’s “The Collectors” in the print edition of The Arkansas International 7.
Jodie Noel Vinson holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College. Her essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Creative Nonfiction, Agni, The Gettysburg Review, Nowhere Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. Jodie lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is writing a book about insomnia.