I’ve spent a great deal of time during the last week walking up and down the beach, observing and photographing marine life at the shore line. Some of the shells have been alive — it is against the law, as it should be, to remove live shells from the beach — and others, tossed into the wrack by the waves or exposed for too long by low tides, are dead, picked over by the birds and the beachcombing shell-seekers.
I’m conflicted about shell collecting. One one hand, I understand why people would want to pick them up. They are fascinatingly beautiful, an infinite variety of shapes, sizes and colors. They are a reminder of how abundant life under the water is. Some are as smooth as a blown glass paperweight, some as shiny and iridescent as jewels, and all are as unique and intricate as individual ice crystals or snowflakes. Even those left by the shell collectors are beautiful in their brokenness.
And yet, these are the remnants of dead animals. A cockle shell may make a perfect scoop for digging sand for a sand castle, but it once had another half and a living organism inside. Together, both halves would clamp shut to protect the mollusk from predators. I picked up a cockle yesterday, tossed high unto the beach beyond the mangroves. I realized once it was in my hand that it was still alive. How quickly it closed when it sensed danger. I put it back down on the sand and sat nearby and watched. I thought it might open up again, but it remained tightly sealed. I wondered if it knew that danger might still be nearby. I would not have been able to pull it open with my hands; I would have needed some sort of tool to pry the shell apart had I wanted to. What an incredible design! Too have pried open the shell would have been like pulling the wings off of a fly.
I took a 6.5 mile walk on the beach yesterday, walking to the south end of the island. While some of the houses and hotels are near the shoreline, because there are some inner lagoons and mangroves between the resorts and the shore, there is about a mile of beach that does not get heavy foot traffic. I suspect that shellers come here early in the morning at times, but there was only one low tide yesterday, about midday. One of the things that has amazed me as I’ve walked nearly the entire 7 mile gulfside beach of this barrier island is how different the shells are that wash ashore. I’m sure that part of it has to do with the currents and the depth of the ocean. The season is likely a factor as well. There were red tide warnings in Charlotte Harbor area last week, and I wonder if that is not a reason why there are so many Rough Pen and Saw-tooth Pen shells on the beach this week. I’ve never seen so many at one time. There was a mile I walked the other day where they were everywhere, but the next mile had none. Yesterday, as I walked the nearly deserted area of the beach, I found many unbroken scallops shells. I rarely see any near on the section of beach where we stay.
I did pick up the scallops, so that I could photograph them later. I’ve picked up many shells this week but it is likely that I will return them to the beach. While beautiful in their complexities, not only am I not much of a collector of anything, I can’t imagine shells displayed in my home. They would not remind me of the shore. It seems as if they belong where there is salt water and sand.
And yet the scallop shells, have taken on a new meaning for me. A few months ago, I heard of someone walking the Camino de Santiago, a 1000 year old pilgrimage path across northern Spain. Immediately I thought: I want to do that! I’m in the early stages of planning a trip now. How does this relate to a scallop shell? The Camino de Santiago is known as the Way of St. James and the scallop is the historical symbol of St. James. It may be hard to not take a scallop with me as a reminder of my future trek across northern Spain. I counted how many I had once I returned from my walk yesterday. There were 33 of them; one of the books I’m reading recommends 33 days to walk the camino.