Seashells and the Spiral of Wonder at the Intersection of Art and Science
“Seashells were money before coin, jewelry before gems, art before canvas… To stare into the spiral top of a whelk or cone shell is to see the swirl of the Milky Way.”
By Maria Popova
“To lay the logarithmic spiral on / sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,” Howard Nemerov wrote in an exqusite poem, “the same necessity / ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise / without kinship — that is the beautiful / in Nature as in art.”
Sea-shells encode not only the fundaments of beauty but the logarithmic spiral of life itself, housing some of this planet’s most vulnerable species with an evolutionary history stretching further back than that of any organism alive today — each a miniature cathedral of non-Euclidean geometry, each a portable cosmos of wonder, swirling nature’s art and nature’s science into a single miracle.
That miracle — evolutionary, cultural, aesthetic — is what Cynthia Barnett explores in The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans (public library).
The second-largest group of animals behind the arthropods that include insects, mollusks are everywhere — from the hundreds of snail species high in the Himalayas to the bone-white clams clustered at Earth’s greatest depths, filtering hydrothermal vents at Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.
Seashells are the work of marine mollusks, the most diverse group of animals in the oceans. They inhabit worlds tiny — spiraled Ammonicera washing up on beaches around the globe with exquisite stripes too small to admire; and worlds vast — Tridacna gigas, or giant clams, weighing hundreds of pounds and glowing with millions of microalgae.
Seashells were money before coin, jewelry before gems, art before canvas… Seashells are the earliest-known keepsakes tucked into graves… Seashells have often been messages — to scientists, to diviners, to worshippers called together by the voice of a shell.
But seashells have played an even greater role in humanity’s eavesdropping on the dialogue between life and death, in our evolving understanding of the nature of life and the necessity of death as our fragile adolescent species began maturing from the age of superstition into the age of science. Barnett considers how the calcified homes of marine mollusks revolutionized our conception of the house of life:
Shells of unfamiliar species like ammonites provided evidence of evolution and extinction in an era of loyal belief that God made all creatures at once in everlasting perfection. Seashells on mountaintops told a story of shifting continents and rising and falling seas, articulating an Earth history much older than the six thousand years in the Bible. Layered in canyon walls and cliffsides and strata belowground, marine shells recorded a fossil diary for half a billion years, leaving one of Earth’s most complete archives of past life and global change.
The role of marine mollusks as emissaries of deep time and deep truth may be why three scallop shells grace the coat of arms of the Darwin family. But as they revolutionized our science, seashells also revolutionized our art — their logarithmic splendor inspired the first minaret and the majestic staircase Leonrdo da Vinci designed for the Royal Château of Blois and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House.
In a passage evocative of Nemerov, Barnett syncopates the evolutionary and cultural undertones of the story of seashells, the mathematics and the magic:
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.
In the remainder of her boundlessly fascinating The Sound of the Sea, Barnett goes on to bridge cultural history and conservation, science and the human soul, as she chronicles the long and storied history of seashells, full of fantastical creatures, odd human customs and manias, ecological heartache, remarkable adaptations, and visionary scientists who pushed past their own creaturely limits to peer into the otherworldly reality of these strange and wondrous kin. (More than half of the scientists and scholars Barnett profiles and interviews are women — that subtler and far more effective way of countering the dominant narrative not with polemic but with the quiet, irrefutable power of example.)
Complement with poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on the sea and the soul and some stunning Victorian illustrations of shells, then find a terrestrial counterpart in The Snail with the Right Heart — the illustrated true love story and science story of a mollusk with a one-in-a-million shell.
Published July 21, 2022