The Poetry of Seashells
10 Reasons to Take up Beachcombing (Especially You Birdwatchers)
“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
upon receiving the National Book Award in 1952 for The Sea Around Us
Before all that she gave us in Silent Spring, before the hardship she endured after its publication, including cancer and attacks by the chemical industry, and before she proved that one person can indeed change the world, Rachel Carson gave us the sea.
Covering 70 percent of the planet, the seas offer incomprehensible diversity that most of us will never know. I confess to such ignorance. When terrestrial types like me find ourselves on a beach, it is often to comb the place for sandpipers migrating, Northern Gannets plunge-diving, ducks courting or other birds working the surf.
And yet there at our feet (or beneath our boots) are envoys of the deep: the calcium carbonate palaces from some of the most ornate creatures on earth. Most of us will never visit with these animals to learn of their habits and idiosyncrasies far beneath. But fear not: The tides and the waves cast ashore their lovely remains. All we need is to stop and look — and imagine.
At long last I’ve become a beachcomber. From my temporary outpost here in North Carolina, beside a preserve that bears her name, I have discovered joy and wonder in these poets from Rachel Carson’s prose. So here are some images and 10 lessons I have already learned so that perhaps you (especially you birders) might find poetry at the shoreline.
- Seashells don’t fly away. It’s great: You just walk over and pick ’em up.
- When you find seashells you are probably … you know … walking around on a beach by the sea.
- Walking around is good for the soul. On beaches you and your mind tend to wander and relax — even as you’re looking for shells. It’s like meditating in a nice place, focusing on what’s there in front of you — and not what’s next. (This is particularly useful for birders.)
- You need no expensive binoculars. You don’t need binoculars at all. Just your eyes, your hands and your senses, including a sense of adventure and possibility.
- Because they don’t fly away, and because you can pick them up, you can hold a seashell next to the picture in your field guide. (I’m using actual books — not apps.) You cannot do that with birds — at least not legally or without a permit or without possibly harming birds.
When you look for seashells, you sometimes find nice birds, like this Red Knot here, feeding at the Rachel Carson Reserve here in Beaufort, North Carolina.
- Seashells are easy to photograph. I took 245 photos of that Red Knot (I kid you knot) and kept only nine of them. I easily photographed the shells on display in this blog post while they rested on my black laptop computer case, and then worked them over a bit in PhotoShop. (I did it all with a point-and-shoot. You can too.)
- Even novices (like me) can find exciting things. Scotch Bonnet (Semicassis granulata), the North Carolina state seashell, is a prize down here. I found one! It’s a bit like finding a Spruce Grouse or a King Rail. Yeah, they’re around, hard to see, and a thrill every time.
- Humility. I’m reluctant to mention humility because it is a worn-out theme in nature writing. Yet one of the most common shells out here — Atlantic Giant Cockle — was a complete mystery to me when I arrived. As I combed the pages of my field guides, with a few of these shells in hand, I was like a new birder with not a clue as to the identity of a Song Sparrow. And then, when I landed on this bivalve in the guide, with all its proper field marks, I called out in joy its scientific name: Dinocardium robustum. I said it many times. Dinocardium robustum translates roughly into big, big heart. I’m good with that.
- Finally, these things are friggin’ beautiful! So here below are my images of a few more. Click any one for a bigger view and the option to start a slide show. (By the way, please send me any corrections to my IDs. Thanks!)