For mollusks, that is. 😉
Shortly after returning from the beach last week, I read Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector (published in 2002), a somber collection of eight short stories. The first one, for which the book was named, features a blind shell collector on the coast of Kenya who, much like the sea creatures that hide inside their shells, seeks solitude. His quiet life changes dramatically after a malaria-stricken woman is apparently healed by the venom of a snail in a cone shell. The incident catches the interest of the international media and ignites medical tourism to his patch of sand.
Two reporters from a New York tabloid, both named Jim, eventually show up, and the shell collector shows them what they came to see:
“This is the geography cone,” he said. “It eats fish.”
“That eats fish?” one of the Jims asked. “But my pinkie’s bigger.”
“This animal,” said the shell collector, dropping it into his bucket, “has twelve kinds of venom in its teeth. It could paralyze you and drown you right here.”
Don’t underestimate that mollusk, as small as it is. The Shell Collector is a reminder of nature’s indifference and power.
It is also a thoughtful consideration of the ways we harness that power to develop cures, or at a minimum, satisfy our quest for miracles, whether scientifically sound or not. When the shell collector begs journalists to write about the dangers of cones, which have the capacity to kill more often than heal, he concludes the journalists are “more interested in miracles than snails.” It’s the same obsession with miracles that fuels a $30 billion supplement industry that touts “cure all” claims that are often based more on fiction than fact.*
The story also captures our fascination with the ocean and the glimpse it gives us of its depths when the tide pushes a small fraction of it to the shore. The shell collector developed his obsession with shells when, as a child, he traveled from Canada to Florida to visit an ophthalmologist, who introduced him to the ocean for the first time.
For most of us, a visit to the beach isn’t likely to turn our entire “world [into one of] shells, conchology, the phylum Mollusca,” as it did for Doerr’s shell collector, but there is something about sea shells that turns many of us into amateur collectors on a temporary basis (even if it isn’t good for the health of our beaches!).
Last week, my three-year-old daughter could hardly tear her eyes off the sand for fear she would miss the shells she wanted:
“Pretty ones with stars and circles on it.”
This is what she came up with:
I admire her imagination. 🙂