The early practitioners of science in Europe formed collections, cabinets of curiosities,  bits and pieces of art, natural history and antiquities. The boundaries of these early collections were undefined —  fossils, shells, a stuffed mammal, some minerals, plant specimens, a tusk. These cabinets were the precursors to museums, which have become very popular.

But our human tendency to collect was the precursor to the collections. People tend to gather stuff — food, Christmas ornaments, clothes, junk anything. There is an asphalt museum in Sacramento. Ever help someone move who has lived somewhere more than five years? Overwhelming.

I was in the Louvre recently. The collection thing has gotten out of hand.  I got lost, hunting treasures among the treasures. If you have never been lost in the Louvre, then you have never been to the Louvre. I walked by the Venus d Milo so focused on my map that I didn’t see her the first time by. Travesty! She is so fine; it is absolutely de rigeur that she be ogled by the girls and boys alike.   

I have a box of arrowheads in my garage. I gathered them when I was in grade school. I got the idea from my school bus driver, who was also a farmer and collected the Indian artifacts he found on his farm. One day, on the bus, he gave me an arrow point he had found in a field. It was almost perfect, but it had the tip broken off. How did the tip break off? I used to walk with my eyes down, looking for more mystery. My bus driver also gave me a smooth, soft red rock. War paint!

I’m impressed by Hans Sloane, an 18th Century London physician who put together a really nice natural history collection along with some other curiosities. Upon his death,  it became the foundation of the British Museum.  I like Hans; he is my type of guy — one fascinated by arrowheads and by making  a cabinet of wonders. Hans started something good. I’ve been to the British Museum, and the whole thing has progressed quite nicely to say the least.  Wow, do I love the winged lions from ancient Assyrian, five meters high, five legs strong —  grey, stylized stone gone super-powered.  Hans would be thrilled by the big kitties.

Thrilled gets at it. It’s all about the hunt, the find, the thrill of the interpretation. Several nights of my life I have had  dreams: I am on my knees, digging in the earth, and as I dig, I uncover a hoard of arrowheads.  I keep digging quickly with my hands, and I uncover more and more perfect arrow and spearheads.  Cool! It is the adventure of living in an old world, treasures lie buried in the ground.

One of the colossal lions in the British Museum was excavated in Iraq by Austen Henry Layard in the 19th Century.  He enjoyed the dig and the thinking that comes after. Part of the fun in this kind of thing is figuring out how to interpret the things found. Austen suggested that the giant cats embodied the strength of the lion, the swiftness of  the bird (indicated by the wings) and the intelligence of the human head. The rap on these divine creatures is that they protected the Assyrians against demonic forces. They didn’t; the Assyrians were brutal killers. Demons of violence controlled them.

Whatever the interpretation of the artifacts, the Assyrians lions are awesome and the British Museum is some cabinet. If Hans knew, what it had all come to, he’d go wild. But not everyone is happy,  Iraq for instance. The Brits have their stuff.  And the Greeks are not that happy with the British Museum because the collection  includes the Elgin marbles taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early 19th Century.  Now the Greeks want them back, and they have built a “cabinet” to house them, the New Acropolis Museum in Athens.

It’s the power struggle again; it keeps showing up, even in the arts.  Somebody should figure out a win-win regarding the Elgin marbles; we need to put these historical artifacts in range of as many people as possible. Museums are crucial for all of us.  I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I walked out with my jaw set, and I said very clearly on the steps outside, “This should never have happened.” I got it. I hated what was done the Jews. The museum got it for me.

But here’s the rub: not everybody gets to go Holocaust Museum in D. C. or the British Museum in London. It costs, if not to get in, at least to get there. But historical cabinets aren’t limited to these cities of course and there is something else to understand about cool stuff.

In Paris one day, we rode the metro down to the Grand Plais to see a major exhibition of Monet, excluding 53 paintings taken from the Muse d Orsay. We were very excited. We could hardly wait, the cathedral at Rouen, more water lilies. But through a bit of confusion and a miscalculation on our part, it didn’t happen, and we were left standing outside the Grand Palis empty-handed.

I was depressed, which was the only valid response possible,  considering Monet and his work, but as we turned away, there along the edge of the walk  — Chrysanthemums. They were big, beautiful yellow explosions amidst dark green leaves. It was fall, and the trees were losing their leaves and some of them were bare and so the Chrysanthemum were a  startling contrast to the other plants in decline along them. I was smitten; I started shooting pictures, from every angle capturing the eight to ten blooms glowing like suns in the midst of falling leaves and dying plants. It was like uncovering a trove of arrowheads —  lovely, unexpected, astonishing.

My daughter, remarked from the sidelines, “You didn’t get to see the pictures, but you got to see the real thing.” We haven’t all been to all the great museums, but not to worry, the world itself is a cabinet of wonders. We don’t have to go; we just have to open our eyes to see.

G.K. Chesterton, in his classic little work Orthodoxy, wrote of the human “instinct for astonishment” that children possess and is resident in the fairy tales. He remarks that most of us are astonished when the door is opened and behind it is a dragon. But the little child is delighted and astonished just to have the door opened. It is an always so; every door opening is amazing. 

Since I have opened myself to God and all  his wonders, I seem to be regressing. As I’ve grown older the world has become to me, more and more enchanted. Perhaps like Merlin, I’m now living backwards in time, growing younger with each year, every door opening becoming more and more exciting. As a little child I loved the fire flies in the field in Missouri out front of the house, the glass-smooth water of the Osage river that we water skied on in the evenings, the  arrowhead that I found on the ground, the fallen tree fort I played in with my brothers, the beauty of the silver icicles hanging from the roof cabin that we lived in Missouri. But now I don’t need an icicle or an arrowhead.

Today, driving down H Street, I absolutely exulted in the light blazing on each and every Magnolia leaf in the center divide. The trees on the steet to my house open the door on the astonishing world of light. Light, light, light — I wish I had been instructed by the Impressionists earlier so that I could have been noticing it longer. If only Renoir had been my childhood friend and taught me color, the way my friend who was always drunk taught me the chords on the guitar, I might have seen into the cabinet of wonders deeper and earlier.  

W. H. Auden is one of my favorite poets. He knew that the world was a cabinet of wonders and said so in so many brilliant ways. He wrote in one of his poems,  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”

I see it, the grandeur, the flame already burning, the already shook foil. This is not because I am up to Auden; it is because I live in San Diego. To live in San Diego is to live in the fire and to  live among jewels.

In Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, Angelo says,  “The jewel that we find, we stoop and take it,/Because we see it; but what we do not see/We tread upon and never think of it.”The precious treasure that we San Diegans walk on daily is the sun, the fiery jewel that fills the cabinet here.

Sun, sun, sun – in this town we walk all over the cabinet of wonders.  Here we must always be checking the bottoms of our shoes to see that they aren’t melting.  We bask in sunshine about 70% of the daylight hours. City hall scandals, half-a-million dollar house prices, Qualcomm stadium, Balboa Park, the San Diego zoo, Sea World – all and more make up the local identity, but it is the average daytime temperature, the 70.5 degrees, that best defines this city. The essence of San Diego, in the long run, is what piles up on the red tile roofs, covers the sidewalks and fills the potholes in the streets most everyday – sunshine!

One of the primary lessons the impressionist painters taught is that we can catch light on flat surfaces, lakes and fields and buildings. In 1892, Monet rented a room opposite the Cathedral of Rouen and painted the church’s facade over and over again. Each painting is a unique study in light, because with the changes in light, the colors and angles of the walls were ever-changing. 

San Diego may not house a great cathedral or a massive museum, but its downtown architecture is a great sun catcher. In the afternoon the huge windowed walls of San Diego’s buildings turn into great sheets of fire as the sun sets over the Pacific. Solar fire falls onto all unblocked offices and homes facing west. Every window becomes the sun’s picture frame. Some places in the world are defined by ice. San Diego is defined by fire.

It’s all over the place, like arrowhead stored in the ground. On a sunny afternoon, the edges of the city, an overhead street sign, the top of a building, a fender speeding down the Interstate 5 – all turned to California gold. A custom wheel spins the local yellow star into a perfectly straight thread of gold. Here, the ordinary commute home is a solar fantasia worthy of the great museums of the world.

It is not different anywhere. If it is not the sun, it is the ice. I flew over Montana last night. From the plane window I could see hundreds of miles of snow and ice sculpted mountains and lakes. No sculpture in the Louvre is better done than the ice-covered mountains of  Montana.

Last year I stood in a field of sand verbena in Anza Borrego desert. The brilliant pink and purple flowers were master work, the envy of any great collector anywhere. John Bartram would have been stoked.

Today I drove over to the college to pick my daughter up from class. At a stop light, I glanced over at the face of the girl driving the car next to me. She was talking to a young boy in the passenger seat beside her. Her face glowed with animated enthusiasm and the joy of life. She was an artifact, an icon, a perfect specimen, a bit of grandeur, a jewel,  the glory the cabinet.

It is always like that, wherever we go, the doors open and out flow sunshine, ice, flowers, faces — these and so much more,  fill the cabinet of the world with wonder.

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