Book excerpt: “Sound of the Sea” by Cynthia Barnett


Cynthia Barnett investigates shells and the way people around the world have regarded 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

For all their color, gloss, and architectural flair, the allure of seashells may have most to do with the geometric order in their forms. The intricate patterns follow evolutionary blueprints drafted in those earlier seas. Seen sideways with their two halves pressed together, the radial ribs of a cockle shell close like a pair of wings around a great bird. To stare into the spiral top of a whelk or cone shell is to see the swirl of the Milky Way; a reminder that Native American people as widely separated as the Aztecs of Mexico and the Winnebago of Nebraska equated shells with stars.

Spiral seashells evoke galaxies because of their logarithmic pattern of growth, 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 the most recognizable spirals in nature. Life loves logarithmic spirals. They shaped the shells of tiny foraminifera, some of the first marine microfossils studied in microscopes in the seventeenth century. They patterned the ammonites, fossil mollusks long vanished, but close enough to the living nautilus that they emboldened scientists in the same era to think about evolution and geologic change.

Nature’s precise aesthetic became ours. The evidence that a shell-inspired Leonardo da Vinci designed the left-handed spiral staircase at France’s Château de Blois divides architectural believers and skeptics to this day. Browse the pages of Leonardo’s notebooks, full of coiling fossil shells and his own sketched whorls, and count me with the believers.

Seashells were models for the original minaret, the protective portico, the scalloped edge, and countless other iconic forms now moved from sea to skyline: Antoni Gaudí’s vaulted rooftops in Catalonia; Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling Guggenheim Museum in New York; and Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House in Australia, the waterfront beauty for which Utzon credits the fierce- looking cockscomb oyster, Lopha cristagalli.

Yet appreciating seashells apart from 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 tip of curious tentacles, that seem to follow you like the Mona Lisa. Others have a hundred electric blue eyes, set in dazzling rows. They are animals with rapacious tongues and rows of teeth to feed big, wolf-hungry stomachs. They are animals that dive and leap. Animals that scurry across the ocean floor, burrow down into sand, climb up rocks, turn corners, and flip somersaults. Animals that leave tracks like paws in mud. Animals that swim—propelled by wings graceful as butterflies or clapping shells, clunky like cartoon clams. Animals that ascend and descend in the water column; the Chambered Nautilus filling its sections with liquid and gas like a master diver who spent half a billion years perfecting buoyancy.

They are animals that breathe and bleed and have a beating heart. Yet our infatuation with them generally strikes only after the heart has stopped.

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

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