Most summers I have been able to spend a week or two at the beach — on Hatteras Island, NC, one of the most unspoiled stretches of Atlantic beach that still remains (thanks to the long stretches preserved as National Seashore). When I am there, I become a beachcomber.
When I was a young child my keenest hope was that I’d come across an unbroken whelk. (I never did.) I looked for and wanted a thing that was rare, and therefore precious I settled for common scallop shells and quahogs.
As I’ve grown older I’ve found that it isn’t only the possibility of finding a rare and precious shell that draws me up and down the waterline. I am increasingly fascinated by the small, the insignificant, the common: sanderlings and peeps by the dozens, bits of driftwood. For the cover of my blog I chose a photo from one of my beachcombing mornings — a tongue of seafoam licks at the sand but hasn’t quite erased the tiny, tiny tracks left by a shorebird.
One rainy summer I chanced upon a book called How to Read a North Carolina Beach. In it I found the astonishing information that even the most perfect, unworn shell was, in fact, probably hundreds of years old. Some are thousands.
Suddenly every shell, every shard of a shell, became precious and rare — as impressive to me as an ancient California redwood. I no longer think about finding a perfect whelk, but scoop up pocketfuls of broken shells. “Shell hash,” it’s called. And I have tons of it. Some pieces are worn just right to fit in the palm of my hand, and are good for praying. Others look dried out and drab, but burst into color when wettened.
One of my next jewelry making projects is to learn how to drill a shell without breaking it. Precious, rare, beautiful. Often overlooked. Like every other miraculous thing on this earth we inhabit.
Poet John Moffitt has written:
To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long:
To look at this green and say,
‘I have seen spring in these
Woods,’ will not do—you must
Be the thing you see:
You must be the dark snakes of
Stems and ferny plumes of leaves,
You must enter in
To the small silences between
You must take your time
And touch the very peace
They issue from.
To know shells you must look at them long, must enter the silences between them, must take your time. Must touch the very peace they issue from.
Deep peace of the running wave to you. Deep peace of the Holy One, Mystery We Name God.
“To Look at Anything” by John Moffitt, from Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach, edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner. © Jossey-Bass, 2003.