The Message of the Seashell

Wondrous beauty can be found on the world's beaches, small and miraculous souvenirs of heaven's beauty.


Sanibel Island, on the Gulf coast of Florida, is famous for a number of things: beautiful shore birds, long white sand beaches and postcard sunsets. But most of all, it’s famous for its seashells. Because of the unusual angle of the island in relation to the Florida coast, Sanibel acts as a giant sieve, harvesting huge numbers of shells from the depths of the sea and leaving them on the sand.

I haven’t been to Sanibel for years, but I still remember something my father said to me on a shell-rich beach one morning when I was six or so. The beach was crowded with other vacationers. They stooped and picked among the gleaming shoals of shells at the edge of the water, tucking the good ones away in baskets to take back to their homes in other states, other countries. My father bent down and picked up a small pink-and-white shell.

“Isn’t it amazing that this,” my father said, holding the suddenly unique and consequential shell out to me, “can come from that.” He pointed out to the whole huge sweep of sea before us.

It was a simple enough statement, but behind it was a world of mystery. By offering up something so perfect, the sea makes a very un-sealike gesture. After all, the ocean is beautiful, but it is also huge, violent, and in its way, terrifying (the Bible endlessly uses it as a symbol of chaos for good reason). But the shell carries a message. It stands out, as the poet Paul Valéry put it, “from the common disorder of perceptible things.” When you think about it—and my father obviously had—the seashore is the last place you would expect to find such an elegant, perfect object.

The shell might be the world’s first souvenir. Seashells have been found at ancient archaeological sites hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, showing that even in the earliest periods, people felt the desire to collect and keep them, just the way we do today. The Camino de Santiago, the celebrated pilgrimage that ends in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, the legendary resting place of the Apostle James, has for centuries featured a scallop shell as its emblem. No pilgrim returns from the journey without such a shell as a memento of its successful completion. For hundreds of years, the Huichol Indians of Western Mexico have journeyed to the distant Pacific, where they collect shells and bring them back with them into Mexico’s interior to use in their sacred art.

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