Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Ancient Lure of Shells

What to blog about today, ten years after 9/11/01?  I remember feeling that life would never be the same, and feeling totally ungrounded and out of touch.  So since then, I have tried to use this day for reflection and connection.  Wondering how I might bring that sensibility here to the blog, I chose to focus on a material that has a strong connection with life, and that has been a part of human culture for millennia - shells.

Shells have been used as jewelry and body adornment since before recorded times.  Shells are numerous, have a vast array of colors and textures, and often can be made suitable for wearing with little effort.  Mother of pearl, the inner lining of certain shells, remains ubiquitous in fashion, both in jewelry and in items like buttons.

My appreciation for shells has expanded very recently after visiting the Lyman Museum in Hilo, Hawaii.  I went primarily to see the mineral collection (more on that in a later post) and found myself enthralled by the amazing collection of shells from pacific marine life.  For some reason, I have always found it easy to forget that shells are a product of living processes.  Living organisms create shells.  They are an incredibly clever answer to a diverse set of evolutionary constraints found by many forms of ocean life.  And the diversity of the constraints and environments has led to an amazing diversity in the shells themselves.

The colors included orange, black, brown, pink, green, ivory, yellow, teal, rose, purple, and burgundy.  Textures were anywhere from smooth, nubbed, and rippled, to rough, sharp and spiked.  Some lovely fluted and scalloped shells were cephalopods, a group that includes squid and octopus.  Another group of shells, gastropods, shared a similar amazing coiled and spiral shape.  Many kinds of shells sport patterns that look like that of leopards and tigers, both in the patterns themselves and in the colors.

One of the more interesting animals was the Xenophora Pallidula.  In Latin this apparently means "bearer of foreigners."  This creature has an initial shell, and then finds other shells and attaches them to itself.  I couldn't help thinking that this was a kind of flattery - a shell using shells for adornment.  Of course, this behavior serves many purposes, and jewelry probably isn't one of them.  But some of the shells-with-shells were very symmetrical, with the additional shells 'glued' on in spiky ridges like a comb.  The beauty of it seemed almost purposeful.

There were thousands and thousands of different shells. It helps to underscore the vastness of the ocean, and the mass of life on Earth.  To me it is an appealing idea, and touching these shells - wearing them - seems like a small but real way to connect with the history of all living creatures on the planet.

Image Credit: wildxplorer, Le Grande CC 2.0, on flikr via Creative Commons

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