A priceless collection

The ones most prized often have no market value.

Most collectors I've talked with about their passion – whether stamps, books, coins, campaign ephemera, old metal toys, automobile emblems (the list could eat up this entire page) – agree on one thing: The hunt is a big part of what makes life interesting. Finding and acquiring something rare, sought after, and within budget is sweet, and the possibility helps thrift shops to thrive. But the anticipation of the search is the real driver.

I know this consciously today but felt it in my bones as a child as I scanned the backyard for four-leaf clovers, and combed any shoreline I encountered for soft, cloudy, sand-abraded blue glass. Brown and green were easy. Blue was prized and had to be presented to siblings for their jealous approval.

Most of what I've chosen to collect over the years has been free for the taking. Fortunately, my husband, Charlie, has shouldered responsibility for stocking our shelves with vintage children's literature, sparing my budget repeated hits for this mutual passion (except, of course, when Christmas or birthdays roll around). As a young teenager, my son briefly collected Civil War artifacts. But the price of a single bullet or camp utensil quenched his historical fires once he started dating. It gives me a surge of pleasure when he and his young wife, Ashley, spread their fossil finds before me after a walk. Now, that's a collection they can afford.

Most of my own treasure hunts center on rarities that our 80-acre farm quietly sequesters and only occasionally offers up in small hidden nooks. In the 20 years I've lived here it has yielded three arrowheads, several pounds of morel mushrooms, a handful of ancient brachiopods embedded in limestone tombs, and a good number of perfect geodes – hollow rocks that break with the tap of a hammer into two halves lined with brilliant quartz crystal. They have no real value, but I love finding them poking up through the soil in the cedar grove.

Then came the winter day I wasn't looking for anything and turned a corner of the high pasture to see a dozen delicate, ephemeral snow rollers – lacy balls pushed into shape by the wind under a rare alignment of temperature, air speed, moist snow, as well as something akin to nature's whimsy. I scooped one up in my gloved hands and gingerly carried it back to the house to show Charlie as eagerly as I'd once displayed my blue beach glass to family. The globe-sized orb would soon melt, but it was real just then, and rarer than rare.

Then there's my store of visual ephemera, an eclectic collection gleaned over years of walking and watching – sand hill cranes alighting on the pasture one fall day (only that one day), coyotes prancing up to play with our dogs (again only once), the single sightings of rare woodland birds in the backing forest we have never timbered, turtles mating, a tree losing purchase on the ground and falling before my eyes. This time of year as I wander the farm I dream of seeing just one morel actually breaking ground. That would be a brand new first worthy of a spring day's search.

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