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The Secret Life of Shellers
By Andrea Cooper, CZM
It always starts so innocently—a walk on the beach during a lovely sunny day, stooping to pick up a shell, taking it home and later discovering its visual and textural beauty. Then slowly, over time, that one act leads to a joyful passion—a passion bordering on obsession that, in my case, has lasted more than 30 years.
It’s shelling, and it’s more than a recreational activity when I am at the beach—it’s my meditation, my “de-stressing,” my connection with a bounty of gifts from the natural world. Collecting seashells, each one more beautiful and unusual than the next, ever changing as they go from salt water wet to dry to aged. Colors, shapes, designs, smooth or rough to the touch, large and small—shells are treasures and always worth the hunt.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that while you are shelling, you are walking on one of the Earth’s most beautiful environments, the beach of an ocean, gulf, or a bay, surrounded by an array of shore birds, sea-salted breezes, warm sun, blue sky, and an occasional seal, dolphin, or whale! But the true sheller, while enjoying the atmosphere, is on a mission. And it’s never a fruitless hunt because even the broken pieces can glow with incredible colors and seemingly painted designs. Shells allow you to take the sea home with you in your pocket or pail.
Shells are like people. They are diverse and each has its own beauty and uniqueness. The new shells, abandoned by the snails and sea creatures, lay on the beach looking vibrant and sensuous. The older more seasoned shells sit there with character and history and you just know they have some great stories to tell.
One such story reveals itself, and sheds light on an entire culture, in Southern Florida. More than 2,000 years ago, a prehistoric Native American tribe known as the Calusa inhabited this area. Unlike other Native American tribes, they did not make any pottery items. Instead, they used shells for tools, utensils, jewelry, and ornaments for their shrines. They even made spears out of shells, and used them successfully for fishing and hunting.
The Calusa discarded shells in heaps, and eventually the shells, mixing with clay in the substrate, became islands, such as Mound Key in Estero Bay, Florida. This 125-acre island was created more than 2,000 years ago and believed to be the center town of their kingdom where their leader, Chief Carlos, lived. The kingdom was comprised of an extensive network of shell islands that totaled into the hundreds, some rising 30 feet above the water of the bay. The Spanish explorers discovered the tribe in 1513, which lead to their demise in the late 1700s. Environmentalists and conservation groups protect many of these remaining shell mounds and shell collectors like me view them with awe and fascination.
In the Northeast, the sand dollar, scallop, soft-shell clam, blue mussel, ocean quahog, periwinkle, razor clam, channeled whelk, limpet, and jingle shell are just some of our regional treasures. When placed in a glass vase, a bowl, or alone on a mantel, these bits of natural bling can make dramatic household objects d’art and provide you with wonderful memories every time they catch your eye.
Of course it’s important to remember that beyond being pretty souvenirs of the seashore, shells are home to many edible sea creatures and this outer shell protects them from the elements. Long valued for their tasty protein, the soft-shell clam is an economically important shellfishery that supports many communities in Massachusetts. For harvesters, distributors, processors, and restaurant owners and diners, clams are a vital part of life. If you haven’t eaten fried fresh clams, then stop reading and go directly to a coastal clam shack! (My favorite is the Clam Box in Ipswich, 30 miles north of Boston.)
At my son and daughter-in-law’s beach-themed wedding reception, each table centerpiece was a glass bowl filled with the shells that my husband and I collected over many years. As I watched the newlyweds dance, I gazed at the bowls and remembered the warmth of the sun and the feel of the sand on my feet as we collected those gems. I also remembered the first time our son “introduced” his wife to his family’s shelling obsession, which she quickly embraced!
A friend, who owns a condo in Southwest Florida, told me that my shells actually improved the health of one of her renters. Since it is one of my favorite gifts, my shell treasures in large baskets adorn her condo, and remind her of why she lives near the Gulf of Mexico. When her tenant from England was staying for three months, he became ill and was confined to bed. The gentleman and his wife spent many hours taking each shell out of the basket and carefully examining their character and grace. He later remarked that those shells made him feel like he was walking on a sunny beach and reminded him of the simple pleasures that bring joy to life.
So next time you are walking on the beach and pick up a captivating shell, think of its fascinating role in our history, economy, health, cuisine, and decorative arts. But remember I warned you. Shelling is a habit that will become an absorbing obsession.
Photograph by Andrea Cooper