The most exquisit collection? An empty wall!

           I Moi The Old, Chinese traveler

I Moi lived half a century before I was born and sister China was far too distant. My journeys had different aims: seeking out every species of grass. The most exquisite collection? All the world’s grasses! As I traveled, I played the collector’s game. Nearly everyone plays this game, for they wish to return home with souvenirs of their distant journeys. For girls, small things usually suffice: a feather, a picture, a leaf from a tree where they spent a magical night, a smooth river stone. The well of feminine joy has a different spring. Men are more thorough in collecting their souvenirs, poor souls! They do not realize what senseless burdens they bear upon their shoulders. They collect plants, animals, and stones; write in journals about caves, rivers, and castles; systematically explore mountains, valleys, and cliffs; photograph landscapes, buildings, and waterfalls; beg for brass spoons, cups, and flutes; sketch each lake, tree, and sheepfold; buy postcards, stickers, and walking stick tags; steal holy pictures from wayside chapels, pub signs, and sheep bells. There are a thousand different things people collect, but they all share one attribute: once the tiger has been mounted, there is no jumping off. For me, it was Carpathian mountain grasses, a collection no worse than any other. It might have been far worse. Friends of mine collected trickier items: bats, traditional folk costumes, moldavite, firebugs, Gothic Madonnas – all heavier, larger, more expensive, more punishable things. But not even a fox barks for grass. Without knowing why, I fell in love with the different species. From one day to the next, from one night to another. Perhaps it was for their verdant simplicity, or because people can’t distinguish between them and merely trample them underfoot, or because not even a fox barks for them. Or perhaps because everyone has to fall in love with something. As with all games of love, the beginning was the most beautiful. My haversack may have been 894 grams heavier – my botanical key wasn’t light –  it simply could not be helped. The magnifying glass, on the other hand, weighed only 18 grams. I needed to find, recognize, pick, dry and bring home several hundred species and subspecies of grass – enough for a beautiful collection, enough to provide me years of traveling. All it took was a bit of grass, an assortment of hay, and a foolish aim to open Czechoslovakia, and later Romania, to my wandering feet. I felt compelled to hike, crawl, wade and squelch through those lands, end to end. Festuca rhaetica: three-thirty in the morning on the steepest, rugged, grass-covered slopes of the Belianské Tatras. Predawn mists in restricted territory. Hidden from Mountain Rescue by fog and early hour, protected from precipitous plunge by untold yearnings for alpine grasses that grow there alone. Having an aim leaves no time for fear, you will not fall. And if you do, the plunge is sweet. But how long and difficult the search! Slimstem Reedgrass: June, soft mud squelches between the toes of sedge-sliced feet in Hrabanovksá Černava Nature Reserve. The smell of flatlands. There, by the Elbe River, the narrow grass’s only habitat. Koeleria tristis: Branisko, amid eastern Slovak mountains of fir, field maple, and pasturelands. A single limestone cliff is its home; the journey there is long and arduous. Danthonia alpina:  sunbaked slopes of the South Slovak Karst, white rocks, fragrant nights. There and nowhere else. Melica altissima: a day’s march through the Inovce Mountains – beech forests, eagles, disused, overgrown paths, forest gullies. At the ridge’s outmost edge, there is a place called Bezovce where grows the remarkable, enormous species of grass. Poa riphaea grows only in the Jeseniky Mountains, high above the valleys. With heavy heart, I pick one – in all the world, in all the universe, it grows only in Petrovy Kameny. Pholiurus pannonicus: strange habitat. I spent hours searching for the inconspicuous grass. First step, seek out a salt marsh, a few square meters of hard white soil amid the endless flatlands of Potisí. Hamsters dart about here and there. And it is boiling hot. I searched for hours before I came upon some white earth – no more hunting for Potisí salt marshes! I crawled about on hands and knees, no sign of the salt-loving grass anywhere. Three times I gave it up for lost, three times returned to the hunt. Then as dusk fell, I found a tuft of the strange grass in a horse’s damp hoof-print, perhaps the last in Potisí, the only one in all of Czechoslovakia. Salt marshes grow fewer, cornfields more numerous. There are many other grasses, but I’ll spare you, little brother. Countless journeys, countless joys. Chrysopogon gryllus: king of southern grasses.

What noble joy to stumble upon an unknown plant in wastelands on the opposite side of the world! If it’s never happened to you, you can’t understand. Such delight in winter to gaze at the world’s beauty, pinned to white pages. A sweet-scented collection, proof those distant journeys were indeed meaningful. It is but foolish consolation, but collectors are fools who play foolish games. Play them too, little brother, each one so wonderful and silly, meaningful only unto itself. When the traveler opens his herbarium he sees not only Trisetum fuscum, but Seven Spring Valley and steep Holuby mine mottled white and green. He feels anew the closeness of past summer storms, the wonder of nights under Skalné Vrata – Cliff Gates. He turns the page. Stipa borysthenica brings back the softly flowering beauty of Danubian Lowlands, sandy prairies on the banks of a mighty river, the laughter of a black-haired girl. In broken Hungarian, he had asked her the way as she stood outside her homestead. Pointing somewhere into the darkening flatlands, she spoke slowly, yet for him incomprehensibly. He looked at her lips but heard not what she said: barefoot she stood, a shirt and skirt over her bare body. Her sudden sensuality nearly brought him to his knees. The deserted, dusky yard smelled of warm rain, sandy dust, and straw. The stable doors were open wide. He stood silently, overwhelmed with desire. He knew how to ask the way, but asking to stay the night in Hungarian was beyond his skills. He asked in Slovak if she would let him stay the night, but she pretended not to understand. She laughed, it must have been written on his face. Captivated, she looked him over, said something, and gave another curious laugh. He walked away awkwardly, blinded with desire.

Today the traveler is much older. He knows there was no need to timidly take his leave of the solitary homestead. A realization now worth precious little. Gazing at the dry Stipa borysthenica, he would like to know, do the Hungarian girls still laugh so curiously in those parts?

Stop when you’re ahead. There are two sides to the collector’s coin, my insatiable little brother. Hear me out. Collections are a wonderful thing, they exact hard work and sacrifice, bring us joy, help us overcome misery on long journeys, and awaken sleeping memories. They are the first step to realizing there are better things than material momentos. But there is little worth in hoarding the world’s treasures. If for too long one plays the collector’s game with insectile exanimation and tedium, it goes rancid. It begins to stink and rot. It loses its original sense and becomes a burden, a tormenting ball and chain. Unable to survive, joy vanishes instantly. There can be too much of a good thing – a truth of the ages. This can happen imperceptibly. As the collection grows, it devours. The collector becomes its slave. No longer does he see the happy children that skipped among the grasses, but mere items for his herbarium. Distant are the winter evenings, distant the Hungarian girls! The collector has changed. He travels the countryside not because he is happy there, but merely to be there. Constantly cramming and stuffing. He writes journal entries he will never read, takes pictures he holds dearer than the journey itself. If he runs out of film, he can no longer enjoy himself, the journey has lost its sense.  No longer does he seek rare plants among cliffs, he has them in his garden. A collection of purchased or bartered alpine rock plants is more precious to him than mountain wildflowers. Perverse desire indeed to wish for the greatest number of plants in the smallest area. An Imperial flower state, pruned squadrons at attention. He fears burglars and poisons moles. How different it was those years ago when he returned from the Carpathians with his first saffron plant! Then, the spring rains still tidied up last year’s grass and leaves, helped by little soil-dwelling creatures – bacteria. What is worse, he begins to believe in the uniqueness of his collection. No longer does he nurture it for pleasure or reminiscence. It must serve higher aims. To cease collecting and hoarding means to rob humanity of science. He must press on, make his sacrifices. Ring ye heavenly bells, sound the alarm! When he utters these words, throw his entire collection into the blaze. Burn it. As the old fairytale says – Fire, fire, burn and rage, dark hearts to salvage. His saving grace. Strong characters will prevail. Nothing will ever enslave them again. Weak characters will not. Better they give their collection to a museum, for they satiate mankind’s desire to hoard. To feel fulfilled. To endure, to abolish time’s reign. Ancient balm, this human desire to amass the greatest number of things in the smallest space. To possess a book that contains the universe, a house that holds everything, where wafting wind remains without. True, the universe is the grandest of museums, it contains all. But it is too vast for people, they cannot see its entirety, their souls cannot comprehend it.  

You will be neither the first nor the last to liberate yourself of bloated collections. There is nothing else to do anyhow. All travelers bring home souvenirs, it behooves them, it is what’s expected. To be deserving of their journey, olden day explorers, with their pith helmets and manly features, sent home entire ships laden with stuffed and mounted beasts, bison, insects, spears and shields. If they returned empty-handed, they would be considered poor explorers, idlers. Even today’s travelers with their climate-controlled trucks, national funding, and sensitive mouths return with boxes of ethnographic volumes, aphids, and stones as they pour cosmic earth-matter from one pile to another.

I should not say this, but most collections sooner or later come to naught. People might care for them, sometimes conscientiously, other times not, but they have lost their sense. Resting in chests and boxes for decades on end, only a small portion is ever used. And the oblivious crowd streams by, ignorant of the collector’s joy and suffering. Item after item without end, chests of worries fill museum basements, the mouse’s jewel box. A single picture on the wall – how beautiful. You could look for hours. A corridor of a thousand pictures – a graveyard. Painters should scream in terror at such fate, and give away all their pictures to children. The final secret, my avaricious little brother. Museums are beautiful, oh so beautiful. I have spent so much time in them. And that is why I can say that sometimes it is even more beautiful to blow them up with dynamite. To let the sunlight into the grave. To illuminate chambers of mice. That is what you should do with your collection in old age. Liberate yourself. Don’t turn to stone. Leap lightly on high! 

My situation – I foolishly console myself – is not so bad. I still have years of hiking and collecting in front of me. Somewhere in the clayey fallows near the Krupinská plateau, Aira elegantissima awaits me. Where this grass stood one year, it stands not the next. For years I have sought it vainly along the banks of the Ipeľ River, trudging through arid wastelands. Does it even exist? Yes, but it is hiding. It evades me as if knowing that something must remain for next year too. Crypsis, rare grass of southeastern salt marshes, awaits me somewhere, as does Leersia oryzoides in the marshes of South Bohemia, a grass which only flowers once in many years. Joy to journeys’ end.

I, too, knowingly delay my gratification. Long have I put off my journey to the southern Carpathians, to the mountains of Banat.  There is still time for that. One day, somewhere amid steep ivory bluffs above the Nera River, Sesleria filifolia will blossom for me. Once in my collection, I will gaze at my grasses one last time, recall all those beautiful Hungarian girls, and ask the plants’ forgiveness for taking them from their home, for taking their life. Then I will light a fire in the stove. Collections should live and die with those who lovingly created them. Knowing when to stop, when to dispose of material possessions, leaving nothing behind that could cause others pain – that is an art. And being honest with oneself, for whatever we do as people, whether the evilest act or the noblest deed, we do for our own satisfaction. Best at the end to have nothing at all. Naked from the womb, naked to the tomb.

I see in my mind’s eye a picture from an old book. A wizened old Chinese man at the end of his days sits within an empty, whitewashed room somewhere among the mountains of Szechuan. Gazing at an empty white wall, his only worldly possession, he plays the quietest game of all. There is nothing more he needs. The caravans he once led march across it, the rivers from which he drank flow over it, the flowers he once collected blossom upon it, the stones he gathered for emperors on the banks of wild lakes glitter upon it, the books he wrote about his travels open on it. The old man stares and smiles, all is complete. The cooling warmth of inland summer permeates the room. A wind wafts through an open window and a brilliant square of sunlight moves across the wall hour by hour. Memories are the best intangible collection of all, succumbing not to time, encompassing the entire world. Superfluities pass, forgotten. Only the essential remains. Once that passes, the old man will pass too. None of his voyages were futile, never did he cause anyone any harm. I Moi The Old.

An empty white wall in the mountains of Szechuan – the most exquisite collection of all, little brother, but the road there is long and winding!