The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans

By Cynthia Barnett

W.W. Norton & Company, 2021; 432 pages; $27.95

Beyond the gloomy intimation of this book’s subtitle lies a lustrous meditation on humanity’s long fascination with marine mollusks, and, by extension, the relation between the human condition and the sea. That association runs deep, for the limestone underlying much of terra firma is made from the remains of shelled creatures. To this layer of white stratigraphy humans have added their mark—monumental middens of discarded shells, the dinner scraps of flourishing populations in Florida, California, and numerous other coastal sites.
    The human consumption of mollusks is only the beginning of Barnett’s story. Archaeological troves of shells far inland indicate that the symbolic attraction of shells is as great, if not greater, than their value as a food source. Trumpets fashioned of conch shells (Charonia tritonis) have been discovered in prehistoric sites throughout the world, at pre-Incan temples high in the Andes, in pueblos in America’s Southwest, and in Neolithic hearths in Hungary. Vast numbers of whelk shells (Sinistrofulgur sinistrum), fashioned into body ornaments and beads, lie buried in the great Cahokia mounds along the Mississippi near St. Louis, Missouri.  
     Shell fascination continues into historic times. The coin-sized money cowrie (Monetaria moneta), found in profusion in the Maldive Islands south of India, was a popular form of currency for a thousand years in East Asia and the coast of Africa, even into the twentieth century. Exotic shells spawned an epidemic of conchylomania, shell madness, that took hold of European collectors from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In the Netherlands in the 1790s, a single matchless cone (Conus cedonulli) sold for nearly eight times the amount paid, at the same auction, for Jan Vermeer’s painting, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. And since most people, even today, cannot resist picking up shells at the shore, conchylomania appears to be a mild yet persistent affliction.
    Just as fascinating as the shells, are the creatures that build and inhabit them. Readers will learn that bay scallops (Argopecten irradians) have twenty-two blue eyes, that the largest giant clams (Tridanca gigas) weigh 550 pounds and measure over four feet across, and that a single queen conch (Aliger or Lobatus gigas) can produce 5 million larval offspring each year, fewer than 1 percent of which survive. The inhabitants of murex shells (Hexaplex trunculus) are a source of the purple dye once prized by royalty, while the venom of the geographer cone (Conus geographus)—one of the most lethal natural toxins—has been used to develop a powerful non-addictive pain drug.  
    All these creatures, as the subtitle suggests, are threatened by numerous stressors, from over-collecting to climate change. Yet, though oceans, shells, mollusks, and ultimately humans share an increasingly uncertain fate, Barnett’s richly detailed narrative is a celebration of how much we have valued mollusks in the past, how fascinating they are in the present, and how vital it is to insure their survival into the future.

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