Seashells reveal rich gifts from the sea – Orlando Sentinel


To me, there’s no more resonant image of a Florida childhood than this: you’re on a bright beach, blazing sun, clouds so big they must surely be home. gods. The roar of the waves surrounds you as you scour the sand for seashells. If you’re on a Gulf beach like Sanibel or Captiva and you’re lucky enough to find a large conch, your parents show you how to press your ear on it. Listen, they say, it’s the sound of the ocean. Pure magic.

Florida author Cynthia Barnett has such memories, of picking seashells with two grandmothers who applauded each of her discoveries as if she had brought them Blackbeard’s treasure, she writes in her 2021 book, ” The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans.”

It is a vast study that goes far beyond memories. Barnett isn’t afraid of intimidating subjects: his latest book, shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2015, was titled “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.”

“The Sound of the Sea,” too, combines science and history as Barnett takes us on “a world tour of archaeology, anthropology, and environmental science, through what she describes as “Perhaps nature’s most beloved objects,” Mary Elizabeth Williams writes on, praising the book for its lighthearted treatment of complicated subjects.

Williams and other “Sound of the Sea” reviewers point to a startling statistic, highlighted in the book, that Barnett learned during a visit to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in Sanibel.

A survey of museum visitors, including children, revealed that 90% of them did not know that a seashell was made by a living animal. They thought seashells were a kind of rock.

“I was so moved by it. It bothered me,” Barnett said in a 2021 interview. “I kept thinking about it while I was falling asleep. I think the moment I fell asleep, I knew I was going to write this book.

The seashells that became the subject of his 417-page study are indeed the creations of living creatures and have often been seen as messengers for scientists and others. For Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who wrote her classic 1955 book “Gift from the Sea” on the peaceful island of Captiva, seashells became metaphors “for meditating on marriage, motherhood and middle age”, like the wrote Barnett. Through them, Lindbergh inspired a generation of women and also warned against the growing excesses of our society.

While Lindbergh’s 1950s feminism may seem a bit dated today, Barnett notes, “her ideas about the natural world endangered by the growing culture that took hold in the 1950s have stood the test. time”.

At first, during Lindbergh’s walks on Captiva and Sanibel beaches, she succumbed to the impulse to collect, but soon realized that “her window sills and bookcases stuffed with seashells obscured her enjoyment. of any seashell,” writes Barnett.

“You can’t collect all the beautiful seashells on the beach,” Lindbergh wrote. “Only framed in space does beauty flourish.” As Barnett notes, “It’s a line that could apply to a crowded beach of condos as easily as to a display stuffed with seashells.”

Lifelong Central Floridians may remember the Beal-Maltbie Shell Museum at Rollins College, which drew visitors for decades until it closed as a museum in 1988, when Rollins donated the collection to the Florida Museum. of Natural History from the University of Florida at Gainesville. (The Spanish Mediterranean-style building that housed the museum now houses Rollins’ environmental studies department.)

The museum opened in February 1941, with a collection of approximately 60,000 to 70,000 seashells donated by Dr. James Hartley Beal, a retired professor and former president of the American Pharmaceutical Association who wintered on the island Merritt.

Born in 1861, Beal had become hooked on collecting seashells during a visit to Key West in 1888 and over half a century had built up a collection of seashells from around the world. His friend Birdsey L. Maltbie, founder of the Maltbie Chemical Company of Newark, New Jersey, and longtime winter resident of Altamonte Springs, donated money for the building to house the collection.

Beal’s treasures ranged from giant seashells that weighed around 700 pounds to animal shells smaller than a pinhead. The large seashells featured on postcards from the museum in which a toddler was perched on one of the seashells.

Beal’s collection is in good company at the Florida Museum of Natural History. In February 2020, it was reported that retired Jacksonville physician Dr. Harry Lee was donating his collection of nearly a million seashells to the Gainesville Museum, making it one of the largest shell deposits in the country.

Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at [email protected], FindJoyinFlorida.comor by old-fashioned letter to Florida Flashback, c/o Dickinson, PO Box 1942, Orlando, FL 32802.


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