British marine biologist Scales (Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality, 2009) reinvigorates conchology and the lost art of seashell appreciation.
Appalled that their reputation for enigmatic splendor as “glorious objects” has become tarnished, replaced with modern, kitschy “inelegant clutter” on counters and shelves, the author diligently explores the purpose and allure of seashells and introduces a selection of scientists and artists who study and create art from them. Uninterested in creating just another comprehensive shell guide, Scales skillfully focuses her narrative primarily on mollusks and how, living or dead, they connect with the human world. Through stories and personal experiences, beginning with her fascination with them as a girl on the beaches of Cornwall, England, and later, sea diving as an adult, she demonstrates her encyclopedic knowledge of Conchifera through absorbing chapters reaching back to the mollusk’s primitive relatives: “all manner of shrimpy, crabby, wormy creatures that look very little like any living species” slithering across a Cambrian seabed. Scales spins spellbinding science throughout, introducing readers to carnivorous cone snails that spit out paralytic darts, the “vacancy chains” of hermit crabs, the lacquered luster of the prized cowry shell, and the fluttery sex lives of sea butterflies and bivalves. Astutely referencing the work of a variety of biologists, fishery scientists, and passionate beachcombers, Scales examines how these chalky exoskeletons and their spiraled patterns are strategically produced by their hosts, considers their symbolism, and ponders the mannerisms in which humans collect once-living objects: “They appeal to the hoarder in us all, the part of us that wants to have and keep things, especially those mementos that remind us of a different time and place.” From a cautionary perspective, however, the author would prefer that admirers “resist temptation and leave them all alone.”
An enchanting, accessible tour of the seashell and its place and purpose within the natural world.