WHY DO WE COLLECT SHELLS?
by Deborah Wills
There I was, thousands of miles from home
standing in a crowded reception room one hundred feet above
the ground in Seattle's Space Needle waiting for a napkin. The
waiter's eyes had revealed his thoughts when I had asked for
that napkin and if the "lids" were in the kitchen,
but he said nothing and soon returned with a plastic ziplock
bag for my treasures. I only took three, but I wish I had gathered
them all. Were these "treasures" trinkets of gold,
or silver, or a plundered table decoration? No, they were freshdead
oyster shells. Do you wonder why I would want messy, just-emptied
oyster shells? Well, depending on my mood, my well-honed response
might be "Why not?" or "Because."
As a land-locked lover of shells, I've
learned to appreciate shells wherever I can find them, be it
in computers, rivers, fabric stores, magazines, the bottom of
aquarium tanks, the frozen section of a grocery store, and,
yes, even at fancy receptions. The thrill of my latest find
was multiplied later that evening when I realized just how recently
harvested those oysters had been. Attached to those shells I
found a living growth series of mussels (the largest was 1"
long), a variety of small, yet fascinating, limpets, and four
gastropods only a couple millimeters in length each. Regardless
of what else happened on that trip, nothing could compare with
how euphoric I felt that night.
When it comes to this compulsion
and joy of collecting, I find that I am not alone. There is
something in the human spirit that drives us to know more about
"what's out there" whether it be exploring inner space,
outer space or cyberspace. And, history has shown us that there
is also an inner need to bring something back to remind us of
our journey. In a sense, this need to explore and collect may
be a subconscious effort to learn more about ourselves. Well,
while many of us were satisfying that need to "bring something
back" from the COA convention, Andy Rindsberg posed the
age old question to COA's electronic discussion group (Conch-L)
"Why do we collect shells?"
I collect shells because:
Floating face down in tropical
waters while snorkeling is one of the most enjoyable of physical
and mental exercises. It is never boring, always exciting, and
totally relaxing, but with the excitement of a treasure hunt
I have a tremendous sense of self-satisfaction in seeing just
how much of [the shell's] natural (clean) appearance I can restore.
They are nature's jewels -- the colors, the shapes, they are
superb examples of art to be admired and appreciated; therefore,
I display them for all to see.
Each self-collected shell brings a memory of a good day in my
life. Any day you find a shell worth keeping is a good day.
I want to pass them down to my grandchildren as works of art.
I use them to inspire myself, family and friends to be creative.
. . . My entire home is decorated around the soft pastel shades
found in shells.
--Sylvia S Edwards
The collection, cleaning, curation,
and study of shells is to me . . . a means of retaining some
sense of sanity in this increasingly hurried and sometimes insane
society . . . . Shell collecting is a means of personal growth
and satisfaction. I do not want to sound too ethereal here,
but it is not just what I do, it is who I am. And I am glad.
I enjoy getting outdoors; finding
new collecting sites or rediscovering old ones; listening to
the quiet; thinking to myself; singing unheard in the woods.
I enjoy seeing the fossils emerge from the sediment, each shell
with more detail than could ever be described, each one different,
each one once alive and with its own life story.
I enjoy sorting shells into species,
and learning which type of juvenile corresponds to which type
of adult. I love to examine the drill holes and breakages and
encrustations, the myriad accidents that can happen to a shell.
I enjoy gathering the references together and that flash of
insight when I recognize a shell in an old book. I savor seeing
things that have not been recorded, adding a new brick to the
edifice of science, knowing that it is new. I enjoy the feeling
of continuity with dead and living practitioners of the same
art -- the sense of community.
And I enjoy the drawers of cleaned
shells, neatly labeled, useful for science, meaningful in a
way that uncollected shells never are.
I enjoy mostly their beauty.
There's no price tag on my enjoyment I've had acquiring them.
. . . You see, shell collecting
is an instinctive persuasion. Collecting, like eating and sleeping,
is part of being human. We collect . . . because we are human.
Each of us must give in to this drive. I have directed my drive
to shells and, specifically, the Epitoniidae. It has nothing
to do with any will on my part. It is a MUST thing we all experience.
Our only free will part in it is what we choose to collect.
Shunning any collecting guarantees our DNA to be quite close
I wouldn't be surprised if some
day the scientists working on the human genome will find a collecting
gene. If you inherit one from your parents, you become a collector;
if you get two, you are really in trouble -- like some of my
friends who collect everything in sight . . . .
Since I miss the sea so much,
I started to collect shells as a means to be in touch with it
between my dives. While diving I collect shells and back to
Brasilia I clean, classify and store them . . . . Today, 6 years
after starting this hobby, I love shell collecting even more
than diving and thanks to Internet and to Conch-L I have many
new friends in several countries.
[Tucker] Abbott emphasized that
conchology is relaxing. "Hobbies are . . . very necessary
things for many people, and many depressed, bored or cynical
individuals might be satisfied, fulfilled, deeply interested
and productive if they had a hobby to use as a medium for self-expression.
'Shells don't talk back to me!' is a statement that I have heard
from several professional malacological scientists" [Kingdom
of the Seashell]. Abbott thought that a collector needs to be
a little crazy to spend time with shells, but that shells are
great therapy, not the root cause of eccentricity. Sounds true
enough to me.
When I am out collecting shells,
I feel close to my hunter-gatherer ancestors, and wordless.
In my humble opinion there is
no greater reverence we can exhibit to the Creator than to collect
and cherish and pass on His greatest natural wonders . . . .
One of my greatest drives is
the sense of discovery, finding new taxa, or extending the range
or rediscovering lost populations or the first living specimen
of a particular species or being able to observe some aspect
of the life history/biology of any one species. There is also
the sense of being able to look into the past, and sometimes
to touch history . . . .
I have always been fascinated
by the diversity shown by the whole class, not just snails.
It never ceases to amaze me just how many habitats that molluscs
are found in and goes to show just how successful, as a group,
they really are.
Another major drive is that with
the skills and knowledge I have I am capable of making real
contributions to the total sum of what's known about molluscs
and other groups that are directly or indirectly associated
with them. . . . They are for me a tremendous way of sparking
a sense of wonder in nature, and showing people from the very
young to the elderly just how amazing and special the planet
and the creatures we share it with really is.
As for why I started collecting
I have to blame my father, and a little later my uncle (his
elder brother) for they both had a great appreciation of nature.
Some shell collectors can't really
define what first got them interested. They "just sort
of grew into it." I trace my interest directly to enjoyable
boyhood memories, looking through the drawers of my grandfather's
cabinets, trying to find the species in a tattered copy of Webb's
Catalog, and especially picking through his many boxes of shell
"rejects" and other odds and ends in the room next
to the coal bin [in] his dusty old cellar!
The thing is, I've never thought
about why I collect. Or what I collect. And if I take this seriously
(which I do), it requires a bit, or a lot, of self-analysis
. . . examining my own feelings, I wonder if the answer . .
. isn't tied up in some way in being able to control our world,
rather than having the world control us. We limit or expand
our collection as we see fit, we make our own rules of what
we collect, we change our mind and so shift our focus to other
areas. Those of us who do this merely as a hobby (as I do),
identify things as best we can, and no one dares tell us we're
wrong. It's close to the best of all possible worlds. We approach
perfection as our collection approaches perfection.
So . . . why do I still love
doing it? Don't know.
It is the beauty of the world
around us, the connection we as humans make with other living
things, the search for knowledge, in my case at least, for the
sake of knowledge itself, the desire for immortality by finding
new species; and the desire to have the young use us as role
models, because, after all, aren't we just the greatest people
I really enjoy the recent lively
discussions on CONCH-L about why we collect shells. At least
I don't feel that alone on this island.
Now why do I collect shells?
Because . . . .