To See Things As They Are: Curiosity, Privilege, & Connection

What do the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, Carl Linnaeus, and “cabinets of curiosities” have to do with rape culture, Brock Turner and his father, and diversity in children’s literature? Let’s find out.

My wife grew up in an old farmhouse on an acre of land in a sleepy town outside Boston. She spent the summers and afternoons exploring the woods behind her house, collecting feathers, bones, seeds, and rocks for her “collection.” Recently she gave our boys a wonderful book called Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World by Gordon Grice.

Emmett and Gus have pored over this book, each page containing a different fascination for them. They’ve enjoyed scouring our backyard for little treasures. A snail shell, a Robin’s egg, a dried Magnolia cone found out back. Acorns from the front yard. The remains of a cholla cactus found on a hike while on vacation in New Mexico. A granite rock from a hike in the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. Here’s a snapshot of Emmett’s collection. Each new artifact is a physical representation of his expanding understanding of the world.

Emmett's collection

Emmett's collection

But as beautiful and interesting as a cabinet of curiosity can be, there’s an element of conquest and competition that goes along with keeping one. Grice touches upon this in his introduction, writing that whether it was with the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans, or the Europeans who traveled the globe during the Age of Exploration, or the Americans who marched westward in the 18th and 19th centuries, curiosity cabinets displayed the wondrous and exotic findings of colonizers and conquerors. What one displayed in a cabinet supposedly revealed one’s power and wealth and intellectual depth. And in an effort to one-up the next guy, some cabinet-keepers passed off outlandish fabrications as dragons or basilisks or unicorns or jackalopes.   

Frederick III of Habsburg

Frederick III of Habsburg

Other cabinet-keepers misinterpreted what they had. Grice tells the story of how Frederick III of Habsburg, Holy Roman Emperor from 1452 to 1493, shown here in a portrait by Hans Burgkmair, boasted of having in his cabinet the bones of a race of giants that had once inhabited earth but had been wiped out by a flood.  People came far and wide to see them. The bones of a race of giant men and women! How could they have known that they were dinosaur bones?

Just over 300 years after Frederick’s coronation, smack in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment, a Swedish biologist named Carl Linnaeus created a system for classifying life on earth, separating all living things into animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms. The idea was to develop a standard system that humans everywhere could use to better understand the natural world and what it had to teach. Linnaeus’s system has been refined by scientists over the centuries and now there are eight main taxonomic ranks: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. But it established the idea that to see things as they really are, we need to develop a way of seeing that’s free from bias or preconceived notions (or fancy or whimsy or desire). To see what’s there, we have to see what isn’t there. We have to be okay with seeing things that we don’t want to see. Things that might go against our deeply held beliefs.

Which brings us back to our present moment. How do we interpret the proverbial bones we dig up in our backyard? Bones don’t lie; they are what they are. But too often we project onto them the flesh we wish and hope to see. Like Frederick III, we make dinosaur bones into the bones of giants. These kinds of mistakes may be born not of intent to deceive but of ignorance: maybe we just don’t have the right frame of reference to make proper sense of what we find. Maybe we don’t have a system to classify the bones we encounter.

But we can’t claim such ignorance in this day and age. We know too much. It’s not okay to say to a Black Lives Matter protester that “all lives matter” because admitting that a black life matters does not imply that other lives don’t matter. It does acknowledge that for far too long, black lives haven’t mattered as much as other lives have.

And now Brock Turner has this nation finally confronting rape culture. What has become apparent (though marginalized people have known this forever) is that rape culture is more than rape. Rape, the act of sexual violence and violation, is but one manifestation of the idea that you can take what is rightfully yours. Rape derives from the Latin verb, rapio, rapire, to seize. What could have possessed Brock Turner to commit that heinous act against an unconscious woman but the notion that the world (and its women) were his to conquer and control? What could have possessed his father to characterize his son’s rape of a woman as “20 minutes of action” but a refusal to see his son’s actions for what they were? The Turners thought the world was theirs to seize but then refused to honor what they found there. They weren’t interested in a natural world, but an unnatural world of fantasies, ignorance, and lies.

I have no idea what Brock’s childhood was like. But I’m glad my boys are showing an interest in learning about the natural world and its many forms and wonders. My wish is that they will learn to tread lightly as they explore, to see exploration as a privilege not a right, to learn to listen and observe rather than lecture and project. To think taxonomically is to recognize that in differences are similarities, to see that all life is interconnected, but that each part of the whole has its own precious value.  

Gordon Grice’s book, as all good books do, has propelled my kids to look outside themselves, to see themselves not as the center of the world, but a small part of a larger whole. This is diversity in action. We at Penny Candy want to publish books that help kids see bigger pictures, see that there’s both an entire world in their own backyards and an entire world beyond their backyards.