You are currently browsing the daily archive for March 26, 2010.

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who love seashells and people who could not possibly care less about them.  I am (as you might imagine) the former, and I simply cannot comprehend how anyone could be the latter.  Countless times, as I have wandered beaches looking at and through piles of shells, I have seen people walk over those same piles with an absolute unconsciousness.  Don’t they know that they are trodding on treasures, crushing gems from nature beneath their calloused soles?

Many a day, I returned from a morning beach walk with a sunburned and aching back and a bag full of shells – if I’d had the foresight to take a bag with me.  Otherwise, it was handfuls, with more  stuck in the entryways of whatever swimsuit I had on.  When I was little, my mother and grandmother were the ones with the sore backs – guess I was closer to the ground and more flexible in those days.

When I was little, we took the train to Florida to see my grandparents.  As I think about it, I know that we saw the sea there, but it doesn’t strike me as my first memory of seeing the sea.  I think it’s because we were on a gulf beach and there were no waves.  I do remember that we spent the day on a beach that sort of jutted out in a little peninsula, and my mother told me that on one side of the peninsula, where we were, the water was gentle and calm, but on the other side, the water was colder and had a current that could pull me away from the shore.  I didn’t go in the water much at all, but E-Bro did, with my mother.

We gathered up so many shells – my brother found a hammerhead shark washed up on the beach, and we found several huge horseshoe crab shells.  We packed up a lot of shells in our suitcases and carted them back to North Carolina.  But once we got them home, the stench was overwhelming.  Clearly, we had brought home a few that still had some animals living inside – and they hadn’t enjoyed the train ride.

I must have been very small on that trip, because we hadn’t been to Topsail yet, and we went to Topsail when I was 7 (I think).  But after that trip, I was hooked on shells.  Mother would take me to the library at Duke, to one particular set of stacks that housed more biological science books.  I can remember the room, but I can’t remember what building it was in.  These stacks held shelves and shelves of books about seashells.  On very rare occasions, I was allowed to check one out to look at the pictures. (The good thing about being a librarian’s daughter is that your parents never had to worry about you not being careful with books.)  My favorite was a large book written by a man who had travelled the world, spending months on remote deserted islands, gathering shells.  One page would have a large picture of a rare and beautiful shell against a black background, and the facing page would be his account of where he found the shell and what he knew about it.  That was what I decided I wanted to do – be him.  Or rather, travel the world to remote desert islands collecting shells.  I was  slightly disillusioned when my mother told me that he had to collect the shells with the animals still inside and remove (a.k.a. kill) the animals – I felt bad for the animals.  But that was probably my first career goal – to be a beachcomber.

When we started going to Topsail and to Hatteras, I collected so many shells it was unbelievable.  I was completely indiscriminate, and my Mother literally did not get rid of the boxes and boxes of shells in the basement until she sold the house almost 35 years later.  Neither of us could bear to part with them.  Though she tried.  And eventually, we did.

Shell collecting at Hatteras was different from shell collecting at Topsail. 

Surprisingly, even though the distance between the two points on the North Carolina coast is only about 150 miles, the beaches offer a diversity of shells.  Hatteras, likely due to its rough waters and extended location into the Atlantic, is (or used to be) a repository for conch and scotch bonnet shells, amazingly intact and rarely found farther south. 

Topsail, on the other hand, held shark’s teeth, scallops, drills and other tiny shells that my Mother so loved.

While the north end of Topsail Island is now fully (over) developed, in the early 70s, it was barren and windswept, with only the remnants of some naval activity visible in old bunkers and metal hulls.  I remember the first time we walked out on the beach, so different from the beach just a few miles up the road, I looked down and found one of the rarest shells I have ever found.  The next trip, my grandmother found a Lion’s Paw – I was so jealous.

When I moved North for college, one of my first “important” boyfriends gave me a shell that he had found on a beach in Israel, and strung it on a gold chain for me.  I wore that even after we broke up, until I went back home for the summer, and found myself next to the ocean.  It was as if I needed to have a little piece of the sea with me at all times. 

And one of the most special gifts Pat ever gave me was a gold cast of a seashell from Topsail that I wore on a chain – it was his own idea, which made it even more special.

On a trip to South Padre Island, in theory to visit my father-in-law before he died, I recall making one of my first and favorite “executive decisions” to buy a small shell-framed heart-shaped mirror for our house.  I think I’ll bring it with me to my house.  Ex-Pat will never miss it.

When Kelsea was born, she went to Topsail when she was 9 months old.  She’s gone every year since.  Up until her time in Wales and Ireland, it was her “happy place”.  Much to ex-Pat’s chagrin, she is as enamored of seashells as I am, though I have helped her temper for collecting tendencies so that they are much more manageable.  And I have also reached a point where I am quite discriminating in the shells that I gather at Topsail.

But once I started travelling to the Caribbean, the urge to beachcomb returned with a vengeance, as there were new and unusual shells on the beaches of the BVIs and Anguilla.  With the exception of the conch that I found and smuggled home, most of them were mercifully small, and colors I’d never seen before – orange, purple, green.  They now live in small, special bowls in various niches in my cottage.

But even on my last trip to Anegada, I wandered the shores with my hands full, not having the foresight to bring something to carry my treasures in (other than an empty beverage cup).  Though I outsmarted myself by finding flotsam that could be used as a container.  I was so proud of my little self!

I still have dreams (actual nighttime dreams) of wandering shell-rich beaches, collecting treasures beyond belief.  And I’d be lying if I said that shelling is not a factor in considering which beaches around the world to visit.  Eventually, I’ll make it to Sanibel Island, my childhood fantasy.

Enough for today, but tomorrow, I will treat you to a treatise on the many roles the shell has played in many cultures.

And I will leave you with the mental image of the return of the catamaran on which I took my first snorkel trip; they had a tradition of allowing each of us to blow a conch shell to announce our arrival into the harbor.  My honk was kind of feeble, but with the sun setting on the hills of Tortola, the essence of the experience was primitive and magical.

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