The Shell Game — What I Picked Up
When I was a young child, my mother would hold the shells, pictured above, up to my ear, so I could hear the ocean. She found them on her honeymoon in February 1941, somewhere in Florida. The picture below, made with shells and painted, was a wedding gift to my parents, and it hung on our living room wall all the years I was growing up.
When I was about nine, we started to spend my father’s vacation at a cottage on Lake Erie, where I would occasionally find shells in the shallow water or at the beach. I’d put them in my pocket and take them home.
I might have become a biologist of some sort, if my high school biology class had not been such a disappointment. John Marshall High had two or three biology teachers but only one biology classroom. I went to Jr. High at the high school, and the art room was just down the hall from the biology room, so I walked past it several times a day. All tenth graders took biology, and I had been waiting for three years to be in that class with all the wonderful natural displays. Unfortunately, my biology class took place in the physics lecture room, which only had roll-up charts of the solar system.
I was twenty-one the first time I saw the ocean, when my family stayed a night or two at a motel in Virginia Beach, Virginia, after a few days in Washington, D.C. where we visited the White House, the Smithsonian, and the Pentagon.
I was eager to see the ocean again when my husband and I spent two weeks touring through Florida on Ray’s vacation. Living in Cincinnati, we drove down the Atlantic side stopping here and there. Coming back north on the Gulf of Mexico side, I remember floating on the salt water at St. Pete beach. The beach was loaded with hundreds of shells. Most of them were small or broken but that didn’t matter – I wanted to take them all home.
I have been hauling home shells every chance I get for over fifty years. I learned how to catalogue what I found with an item number, the date found, and the location. Most of the shells I could identify from shell books. Now, my collection has over 4600 item numbers, but many of those items have more than one shell of that species with that location and date, so I know I have well over 5000 shells.
When I was working, I went on several trips with a small group of collectors where we spent every day collecting and cleaning shells. I collected in Baja, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Panama, and The Bahamas. Also, from Santa Cruz to Seattle on the west coast.
Last year, I finally got everything I had collected, or otherwise acquired, entered into my log. This started as a hand written list, but is now also in a digital data base. The shells are housed in metal or plastic cabinets in my office room.
And then, given the size of the collection and my increasing age, I began to ask myself, what will I do with them? While I haven’t found an answer to that question yet, I’m aware that some museums and universities will take donations of well documented collections, so that might be a possibility.
I can’t really answer that question until I know what I have, and what condition the shells are in. They are housed by families in the drawers. I have begun to print out sections of the digital record, one family at a time. I’m looking at each item. I’m finding a few shells that are not in the right family, as well as typos and formatting inconsistencies in the digital list, which I am correcting.
This is an exciting time to be identifying each shell with all the resources available on the internet. I can see wonderful images just by entering the scientific name of the shell.
When I attend the annual convention of the Conchologists of America, I’m often asked which shells I like best. I don’t have a favorite family, but I probably will discover one or two I like best while I’m doing this.
This is my hobby that I enjoy after dinner. I’ve only just begun – this will be a long project with about 160 families. I’m having so much fun seeing what I have, where they came from, and remembering the place, or the trip, where I found them.