COLLECTING SEA SHELLS ON THE SEASHORE
“It is perhaps a more fortunate destiny
to have a taste for collecting shells,
than to be born a millionaire.”
--Robert Louis Stevenson
I am blessed to live on Eel Point Road mid-way between Dionis and 40th Pole, so almost every day—even on the cold and misty days—I walk on the beach. On some days, I walk to Dionis and on other days I walk to 40th pole. When I walk, I look for sea shells, wishing stones, and heart stones.
In the summer, I often take one of my grandchildren with me so that we have some one-on-one time to connect and to discuss the drama of his or her life. We listen to the waves and wind, and examine the sand for treasures. Each summer we have decided to collect a particular kind of shell. The first summer we collected jingle shells—the beautiful little shiny shells that populate Nantucket beaches in great numbers. The next summer we collected lady slippers, and the following summer we collected scallop shells. Last summer we concentrated on snail shells, and we found far more than I imagined we would. Needless to say, we were thrilled to find the occasional horseshoe crab shell or conch shell, but they were few and far between. Once my nine year old granddaughter found a sand dollar—a real treasure.
Occasionally, we find heart stones—stones shaped as hearts that can be found on every beach in Nantucket. My friend Joanna collects these, and her loving boys scour the beaches in the summer looking for heart stones for their mother. Of course, wishing stones—a dark stone with a white band that goes fully around it--are special treasures. The rule for a wishing stone is that when one is ready to make a wish, that stone must be returned to the water it came from so that someone else can have a wish someday.
Nantucket shells are largely like the island they land on. They are strong, ordinary, hardy shells—nothing exotic and rare—but incredibly beautiful in their own ways. In the fall, the beach is covered with scallop shells that are varied in both size and color. Many people on the island are dependent on the scallop for their income. During scallop season, the scallop provides a living for Island fishermen. Here, as in all of Nantucket, form and function intersect. What is beautiful is also useful.
Occasionally one finds a “mermaid’s purse.” It looks like a black leather case with extended corners. Most are empty and dry and hard, but if you find one that is brown, you may be able to see the shape of a small skate or ray inside. If you are lucky enough to find this treasure, take it to the Maria Mitchell Aquarium on Washington Street. If it survives and hatchs you can visit it throughout the summer.
The seashell has its own siren song—the song of the sea—and when you hold it to your ear, you hear the crashing of the waves—the song of Nantucket—the one that calls you back summer after summer until eventually you end up living here full time, just as I have.