There are very few people (mostly men) who are immune to the seduction of shell seeking. Yesterday, as I walked the beach near my house in Florida I began to ponder why we yield to the urge to continuously scan the half-moon circles of shells carelessly left behind by the receding tide.
Why do I ignore the vast swath of turquoise sea to my right and the ghost crabs, royal terns, skimmers, and ibises to my left, concentrating instead on a heap of the empty houses of long-dead sea life? Over the years the craving has diminished, but it unfortunately it only lies dormant. The second my eye is caught by corrugated ribs, a distinctive color, an oblong shine, sticking out the sand, I’m hooked again. I pause, I nudge the potential find with a tentative toe, I bend at the waist, I snatch. “Ooh woo, an olive!” I cry aloud, then look around guiltily. (I don’t know about you but I always talk aloud (and sing) while walking the beach). Holding the treasure between thumb and middle finger I admire it, waiting, hoping that another walker will stop and say, “Hey, whatcha got there?” If no one’s around I continue on, still holding the shell out, ready to brandish my trophy at the next hapless stroller.
Note: seasoned beach walkers know to keep walking, eyes averted, when they see a creature lugging shells. So it’s important to frequent an area that attracts foreigners—a Canadian, or even an Ohioan, can be counted on to admire your loot.
My beach is ever changing and little frequented by man. On one visit I picked up thirty-two intact sand dollars. I had so many I tried to give them away to other collectors—who would silently hold out their bag of dollars and mournfully shake their heads. On another trek gorgeous orange conchs could be had simply by stooping.
No matter how many of the little treasures you find, the rule is, you MUST pick them up. Dozens of perfect sand dollars littering the beach and I could not leave a single one in situ. When I met up with other addicts we would try to barter them, or give them to other humans, anything rather than return them to the sand. Why is that? What is so special about the shells you’ve found? Why is it so hard to discard them? Why, when you’re packing for home, do you carefully wrap every whelk and coquina in bubble wrap and place them in your suitcase, if necessary leaving behind your laptop or a child, whichever frees up enough room? It’s not as though you’re going to display them back in Albany, or Alexandria or Akron. You know they’ll sit, cozened in paper towels, locked in a Tupperware container. Forever.
I pondered these questions as I walked the beach, holding in my outstretched, rapidly tiring hand a large clam shell filled with my treasures. This is what I surmise.
It’s not the shells per se; it’s the finding of them. To find a perfect olive on the sand means you’re the first to discover it—no one else has touched it. A true first, like an invention or a new galaxy. You have discovered something with no help from parents, spouse, government, or map. You have recognized something special and unique, all by yourself. You have found treasure and it belongs to you. How could you possibly give it up? It’s the proof that you’re good at something, worth something, have something worthwhile, and are lucky. The world is now your oyster shell.
Plus, it is both free, and very precious. Like love.