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From the book: “Sound of the Sea” by Cynthia Barnett

Cynthia Barnett studies seashells and how people around the world have viewed them in her fascinating scientific and cultural history, “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans” (WW Norton).

Read an excerpt below.

WW Norton

Despite their color, brilliance, and architectural flair, the appeal of seashells may be primarily related to the geometric order of their shapes. The intricate patterns follow the evolutionary plans developed in those earlier seas. Viewed from the side with their two halves pressed together, the radial ribs of a hull shell close like a pair of wings around a large bird. To look in the spiral of a whelk or of a cone is to see the vortex of the Milky Way; a reminder that Native Americans as widely separated as the Aztecs of Mexico and the Winnebago of Nebraska equated seashells with stars.

The spiraling seashells are reminiscent of galaxies because of their logarithmic growth pattern, best seen in a cross section of the chambered Nautilus. Each graceful coil is wider than the next by a constant factor, making a nautilus shell one of nature’s most recognizable spirals. Life loves logarithmic spirals. They shaped the shells of tiny foraminifera, some of the first marine microfossils studied under a microscope in the 17th century. They modeled ammonites, fossil mollusks long gone but close enough to the living nautilus to embolden scientists of the same era to think about evolution and geological change.

The precise aesthetic of nature has become our own. Evidence that a seashell-inspired Leonardo da Vinci designed the spiral staircase to the left of the Chateau de Blois in France still divides architecture believers and skeptics today. Browse the pages of Leonardo’s notebooks, full of coiled fossil shells and his own sketched spiers, and count me with the believers.

The seashells were models for the original minaret, the protective portico, the scalloped edge and countless other iconic shapes now displaced from the sea to the horizon: the vaulted roofs of Antoni Gaudí in Catalonia; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Spiral Guggenheim Museum in New York City; and Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House in Australia, the waterfront beauty for which Utzon credits the fierce-looking crested oyster, Lopha Cristagalli.

Yet appreciating seashells outside of the life that evolved to build them is like appreciating Leonardo for his notebook sketches while overlooking his living, breathing paintings.

Indeed, some mollusks have two retractable eyes, mounted at the end of curious tentacles, which seem to follow you like the Mona Lisa. Others have a hundred electric blue eyes, arranged in dazzling rows. They are animals with rapacious tongues and rows of teeth to feed large wolf-hungry stomachs. They are animals that dive and jump. Animals scurrying to the bottom of the ocean, dig into the sand, climb rocks, turn corners and do somersaults. Animals that leave traces like paws in the mud. Swimming animals, propelled by graceful wings like butterflies or striking seashells, clumsy like cartoon clams. Animals that rise and fall in the water column; the chambered Nautilus filling its sections with liquid and gas like a master diver who has spent half a billion years perfecting buoyancy.

They are animals that breathe, bleed and have a beating heart. Yet our infatuation with them usually doesn’t strike until after the heart has stopped.

From “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans” by Cynthia Barnett, published by WW Norton & Company. Copyright 2021 by Cynthia Barnett. All rights reserved.

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