One day in the fall of 2016, a cat appeared next door. The cat was black and wretched; she could hardly walk. Her teeth were missing, she was half-blind, and every once in a while she lay down on the concrete and howled horribly through her swollen, pus-filled mouth. I sat with this cat for a long while, sticking my fingers through the neighbor’s fence in order to comfort her until she left me, finally making it to her destination, my neighbor’s back patio, presumably to die. Later in the day, while on a walk, I picked up a dirty Luc Belaire Rare Rosé bottle lying in a trash-filled field. Something about the bottle reminded me of the cat. Maybe it was the dirt, the color, the fact that it had been tossed aside. Also, an empty wine bottle is the remnant of rejoicing. It is the shape of the feeling of oblivion. It is a vessel that waits to be filled, it is the genie freed at last. An empty bottle is a home for tiny ships and it is potentially a ship itself, ready to be filled with secrets before being thrown out to sea.
I brought the bottle home, put a tag on it, and wrote “Hamtramck, Michigan” on the front and “October 11, 2016” on the back.
The Luc Belaire Rare Rosé bottle is now one of many hundreds of lost things that make up the Huckleberry Explorer’s Club Museum I am building, day-by-day in my Detroit home.
Press-on fingernail: Baymont Inn & Suites, Waycross, Georgia, February 14, 2015
Landfill (teacup shards): Lake House, Battaramulla, Sri Lanka, April 2012
Chestnuts (1st day of autumn): Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, September 23, 2014
Wedding ring (Inscription: Stephen & Julie, Feb 12, 1988): Williamsburg, New York, Spring 2005 (exact date unknown)
Herb from the garden of Mala and Chelaps (gift): Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 2012
In the Huckleberry collection are many natural as well as unnatural things: leaves, flowers, branches, bones. I’m less interested in the categories of natural and unnatural than I am with the idea of detachment - the departure, the falling away of a thing from its source of life. I would never pull a living branch from a tree for induction into The Huckleberry Club, just as I would not collect the bones of a living animal. There are two robins’ eggs from a Pennsylvania field in The Huckleberry Club that I found well after nesting season in 2014. As I write this, I wonder if the things of The Huckleberry Explorer’s Club are not lost but, rather, dead. And by assigning each item a time and place, I’m giving it some of me, a chapter within my life, a home inside myself. When a person dies, they put a tag on her toe, and she becomes part of everything.
I began collecting things for The Huckleberry Explorer’s Club around the beginning of 2010, before I knew they would one day be part of a museum, before I understood why. I want to say it started with an especially wonderful display of broken glass I found near my apartment one day in Brooklyn. I remember, as I bent down to pick up a small piece of that glass, a man coming by to tell me how a local woman had just rammed her wheelchair into the Quechol Market on Grand Street. I went home with the piece of glass, and tied to it a little piece of paper and string. On the paper, I recounted its story along with the location and exact date I found it. At that very moment, I decided that I would make The Huckleberry Explorer’s Club a lifelong project - or more accurately, a day-by-day project - ending only when I did. Notably, the Quechol Market no longer exists.
We created the word “museum” from the Ancient Greek word Μουσεῖον (Mouseion). The mouseion was a place dedicated to the Muses, the Greek gods of the arts - music, poetry, geography, tragedy, the study of numbers, the study of the stars. The mouseion was a place dedicated to the Muses and thus set apart from everyday life. The Hebrew Bible calls this sort of separation from everyday life kedushah, holiness. We don’t always know what will end up in a museum, or why one object rather than another is saved from time’s destruction (or, put another way, prevented from becoming one with time). We only know that, once collected, a thing in a museum becomes both sacred and lonely, ordinary and yet extraordinary, utterly itself in its “thingness” and utterly divested of its purpose as a thing. In other words, it becomes art.
In the life of a collector, wrote Walter Benjamin, there is a dialectical tension between order and disorder. The collector draws a magic circle around things and locks them in, and within this circle tries to bring order to chaos, in particular, the chaos of memories. Collecting is thus a battle for control and, moreover, a battle against madness and death. Benjamin’s words, I’ll admit, make me uncomfortable. I don’t actually like to think of myself as a collector - that is, as a person fighting chaos, a person trying to repair the suffering and death of a cat with the redemption of an empty bottle. In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman speaks of animals, of their simplicity and lack of complaint, and how animals are not demented with the mania for acquiring things. But I am a person, and am, thus, demented. I gather the things around me because I know they are slipping away. But what is really slipping away? Is it me or is it things?
Taking Whitman into consideration, the story of how the Luc Belaire Rare Rosé bottle came to be part of The Huckleberry Club illustrates, I think, a mystery at the heart of our relationship to objects. All around us are things, masses and piles and heaps and multitudes of endless amounts of things. Perhaps you have felt it too - that even if we do not create the things, do not own the things, we are nonetheless responsible for them. No, it’s something more than that. There is the sense that we are the life, the spiritus, of things.
Yet, at the same time, we might believe that a thing, once abandoned by us, no longer needs us at all, and so is easily let go. This simultaneous agency and exemption is a contradiction, and underlying the contradiction is fear, fear that the things, once separated from us, are no longer controlled by us, that by quitting a thing it becomes at last truly itself. It becomes free and answers to no one, because there is a fundamental aliveness in things. This is the demented mania of things themselves. Without us, things are free of our personalities, our desires, our cares, free from the chaos of memories. Yet what is more pitiful than a friendless thing? In the end, we need things and they need us. We and things are inseparable.