Thursday, February 3, 2011

Notes from a Conchologist

Life as a conchologist can be pretty darn demanding.
It doesn't take much time walking the beach to realize what a busy place the ocean is, with most of its inhabitants requiring a big-time influx of food to keep up with a hyperactive day-to-day existence. Put simply, the sea creatures and birds that live out here spend most of their time swimming and flying...and eating those who don't swim or fly quite as fast or efficiently.
In a less idyllic setting, the resulting life and death lifestyle might mean beaches littered with an unattractive left-over abundance of fish parts and other fleshy flotsam.
But nothing edible goes unnoticed very long in and around the sea, so instead, in a pretty bit of serendipity, it's seashells--the hard exterior skeletons of the soft-bodied mollusks that are near the bottom of just about everybody's food chain--that line the surface of the sand.
And that's where my newest career path comes in.
Conchology, for the benefit of both the uninitiated and the uninterested, is the study of shells, including the thousands and thousands of seashells that wash up along my path every day.
Like most of the vocations and avocations I've chosen, like music and sportswriting, shelling is something I pursue avidly without really knowing much about what I'm doing.
I like big ones. I like little ones. I like pretty ones.
The best ones seem to roll in when the wind, water and waves are at their wildest and most powerful, making it even more amazing when a delicate shape reaches shore in one piece.
The scientifically acclaimed Sloan Shell Selection System is based on a complex set of criteria: I pick up the ones I feel like picking up, according to my mood and the condition of my lower back. The rest, I leave behind to be gathered by other shell fanciers or washed back at high tide. The equipment and skills required are extensive, consisting of a plastic grocery bag and a willingness to walk slowly in a beautiful setting.
The results have been mixed and fancy, with shelves, windowsills, jars, bottles and tabletops already jammed with the pretty and interesting things we've found. While most of them aren't necessarily unique or rare, there have been a few prizes, including a couple of nicely intact spiral-shaped whelks, an absolutely perfect sand dollar and, the best find of all, a dried-out sea horse spied by my sharp-eyed beach-walking companion.
But here's the thing...
We try to walk at least a couple of miles every day along the near-empty wintertime beaches of Topsail Island.
But it's over 25 miles long.
25 miles of beaches.
25 miles of shells.
I've still got a lot to do.

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