Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Name Game

a lightning whelk

"Bring me back a shell," said my mother over the phone when she heard I was spending a long weekend on Sanibel/Captiva Island in Florida.  My mother loves small objects that she can display on her windowsill or on her wooden bookshelf crammed with cookbooks dating back to the seventies: everything from The Frugal Gourmet to Jacques Pepin.  I don't think she consults her cookbooks much, but she likes seeing all their spines.

The shoreline where I found the whelk (pictured above) was located not far from the toll booth leading onto Sanibel Island.  We were there for a friend's lavish, multi-day wedding, but they weren't expecting us until 6 when we'd share drinks at a popular Captiva bar and grill.  I was overdressed from our flight out of a snowy Logan Airport, and the wind was whipping my silver scarf and strands of my hair into my eyes as I walked slowly along the shore, looking down for gifts from the sea.  

Mike and I later learned that some of the shells we found (including the whelk) weren't without their original occupants.  At the Bailey-Matthews Seashell Museum we watched a short film about the life of mollusks (yes, we really did).  To say the film was an amateur production would be paying it a compliment--it was more like the home movie your high school biology teacher might have filmed over winter break.  But the shells we saw on our walks were so varied and pretty that finding out their names and where they came from seemed the respectful thing to do, especially if I was going to be carrying pocketfuls of them home to Boston.  

We learned the difference between a gastropod and a bivalve, that the lower portion of the mollusk's body typically forms a muscular foot, which is used for creeping or burrowing in the sand.  I recalled that my lightning whelk still had it's black foot peeking out (when I tried to pull what I thought was the dead creature out, it stuck like it was glued in). I realized that I might have plucked a live organism from its natural habitat.  Not only was that inconsiderate to the poor gastropod, but it was also illegal in Sanibel.  Oops.

My authorized finds included an atlantic kitten paw; a broad-ribbed carditid that resembled the sort of fan ladies in polite society used to carry; a purplish calico scallop with what looked like small parasitic mouths covering it; and, my favorites, a few small and white spiny jewelboxes.  I'm not the type who can rattle off the scientific names of flowers or trees or birds (I'm reading a novel right now that features a scrappy young heroine who seems to have committed every volume of Handbook of The Birds of the World by heart--she rattles off their names to anyone within earshot).  I'd like to be more informed, know the proper names of things, what each thing does, and where it comes from. 

I'd like to have names for all the objects of the world, as if by having their name I can come to know them.

spiny jewelbox

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