All the shells in the sea

Here’s my review of Cynthia Barnett’s new book, “The Sound Of The Sea: Seashells And The Fate Of The Ocean,” as published in The Sun on Sunday.

Go ahead, make me care about seashells.

I don’t take long walks on the beach with my eyes glued to the sand. Shell shops bore me. And lips that touch oysters will never touch mine.

So when I set out to review Cynthia Barnett’s newest book, “Sound Of The Sea: Seashells And The Fate Of The Ocean,” I mouthed a silent challenge to Gainesville’s most accomplished environmental journalist and author.

Make me care. I dare you.

Well played Cynthia.

Maybe it was her tidbit about how Edgar Allen Poe made some fast cash.

Or the CIA’s loony scheme to kill Fidel Castro with a Queen Conch IED.

Do you know why somebody called Sanibel Island a gigantic mortuary?

Or how the ancient Calusas helped build Tamiami Trail long after they vanished from Florida?

Listen, Barnett even blew up one of my most treasured Hollywood myths. Turns out that giant clams really don’t swallow divers whole.

But it’s not just that “Sound Of The Sea” is a treasure trove of conchology trivia that makes it a compelling book. Even a must read.

Just as in her previous volumes, “Mirage,” “Blue Revolution,” and “Rain,” Barnett’s ultimate goal here is to deliver some profound, urgent – and eminently readable – truths about the increasingly fragile co-dependency between shell-hardened but ultimately soft sea creatures, human beings and the very oceans that sustain us all.

Shells were around long before we got here. Barnett points out that their remains – found on the highest mountains and the lowest deserts – amount to a “half billion year fossil diary.”

Mass extinctions that wiped out almost all other marine life didn’t slow them down. They outlasted the dinosaurs, but may not survive human excesses that are warming the oceans and destroying their habitats.

And the irony is that we are learning more every day about how mollusks – if left to their own devices – can improve the human condition in a thousand and one ways.

Those toxics that the cone snails use to paralyze their prey? Turns out they can also help treat cancer.

The strange glow that not-man-eating giant clams give off? It’s an ingenious heat-releasing mechanism that some scientists think will help us figure out how to make a superior biofuel.

Oysters, clams and scallops are fast disappearing, along with the sea grass beds that sustain them. They not only feed us but naturally filter dirty water even while absorbing carbon into their very shell structures.

We humans can’t even figure out how to do that.

“A spiral shell, in its infinite repetition, represents nature’s economy,” Barnett writes. “A circular economy driven by regeneration rather than waste.”

Not to walk on sea shells here – although it turns out that we all do that every day – but in its comprehension, elegant prose and urgency of message, this may be Barnett’s most important book to date.

Oh, and then there’s this.

If nothing else you ought to read “Sound Of The Sea” to find out who, or what, Barnett is talking about when she writes of “blue-eyed, hopping, skipping, spitting, finger-pinching, jet-propelled, zigzagging, shell-clapping, free-spirits of the laughing grass.”

Now that’s what I call a fun read.

(“The Sound Of The Sea: Seashells And The Fate Of The Ocean,” is published by W.W. Norton and sells for $27.95._

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s