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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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From Seashells to Heaven?

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2009

spiny-oyster-shell-2 Collecting new species was a form of religion for some people in the colonial era.  This is from my piece in the August Smithsonian:

For many collectors of that era, shells were not just rare, but literally a gift from God. Such natural wonders “declare the skilful hand from which they come” and reveal “the excellent artisan of the Universe,” wrote one 18th-century French connoisseur. The precious wentletrap, a pale white spiral enclosed by slender vertical ribs, proved to another collector that only God could have created such a “work of art.”

Such declarations of faith enabled the wealthy to present their lavish collections as a way of glorifying God rather than themselves, writes British historian Emma Spary. The idea of gathering shells on the beach also conferred spiritual status (although few wealthy collectors actually did so themselves). It symbolized escape from the workaday world to recover a sense of spiritual repose, a tradition invoked by luminaries from Cicero to Newton.

In addition, many shells suggested the metaphor of climbing a spiral staircase and, with each step, coming closer to inner knowledge and to God. The departure of the animal from its shell also came to represent the passage of the human soul into eternal life. The nautilus, for instance, grows in a spiral, chamber upon chamber, each larger than the one before. Oliver Wendell Holmes made it the basis for one of the most popular poems of the 19th century, “The Chambered Nautilus”: Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, / As the swift seasons roll! /… Till thou at length art free, / Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

Oddly, collectors didn’t much care about the animals that actually built the shells. Holmes, for instance, unwittingly blended the characteristics of two separate nautilus species in his poem, according to shell historian Tucker Abbott: “It was as if he had written a poem about a graceful antelope who had the back half of a leopard and the habit of flying over the arctic ice.” Collectors often cared passionately about new species, but mainly for the status of possessing something strange and unusual from a distant land, preferably before anybody else.

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