Where to begin when you set out to write the epic story of a marine species that has survived a half billion year test of time, was held sacred by ancient people who dwelled in the high Andes, helped finance the African slave trade and is an increasingly threatened source of life-sustaining nutrition for millions of people scattered across the globe?
Cynthia Barnett wanted to begin at the very beginning. And by a happy coincidence that meant spending time at the Florida Museum of Natural History, just a mile from her Gainesville home.
UF’s museum has come into possession of what is said to be the world’s largest seashell collection, complements of its donor, Florida physician Harry Lee. And Barnett joined Lee at the museum for microscopic examinations of 3-million-year-old fossil micro-mollusks.
This to show that we all “walk on a world of shell,” Barnett writes early on in her newest book “Sound Of The Sea: Seashells And The Fate Of The Ocean.”
The limestone beneath our feet, the concrete in our sidewalks, the chalk our children use on those sidewalks to play hopscotch…all of that and more thanks to mollusks that lived, prospered and perished long before we came along.
“The calcifying life forms gave us mountains and they gave us marble,” Barnett writes.
Not to mention that in their hardened exteriors they have kept “carbon safely buried for 500 million years.”
But it would be a mistake to assume that “Sound Of The Sea” is about seashells. It’s not. It’s about people.
“I set out to see what seashells have to say about the environment and the oceans,” Barnett said. But during the six years she spent traveling the world and amassing data, she discovered that shells “actually had a lot more to say about people. These are stories about slavery, about environmental justice, about the native Taino people in the Bahamas and the Calusa” people who built a pre-Colombian empire in Southwest Florida.
“All of these human stories came front and center,” she said. “What I learned was” the importance “of putting people at the center of environmental stories.”
And so Barnett traveled to 300-island Republic of Palau, where she learned about heroic efforts its people are making to protect their giant claims against predatory fishing fleets.
She went to the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, where a queen once declared marble-like cowries a legal currency. Then Barnett traveled to west Africa where, thanks to the Portuguese, Maldivian cowries were used to purchase thousands of slaves to be exported to the Americas.
No longer a currency, cowries are these days in danger of losing their coral reef habitats around booming resort islands where “Russian oligarchs and American pop stars” stay “in rooms that can cost $25,000 a night.”
Which is not to say that Barnett neglects Florida in her shell quest. She describes how tourists would descend on Sanibel Island and fill their car trunks with shells…only to dump their treasure at the Georgia border when the animals still inside the shells began to stink.
Or how the residents of the “Conch Republic,” Key West, so loved the queen conch that they nearly loved it to the point of extinction. Or how vast colonies of scallops disappeared from Tampa Bay under the press of runaway development and runoff pollution…and did not return even after their sea grass beds had been restored.
The plight of the scallops hit especially close to home for Barnett. For years she and her family would make excursions to nearby Steinhatchee to catch “buckets” of scallops and haul them home for dinner.
These days, Barnett contents herself with taking photos of scallops.
“We would gather so many buckets because that was our definition of abundance,” she reflects. “I want to help people see that we must have a different definition of abundance – one that based on the abundance of sea grass, clean water and wild scallops.
“That’s going to mean not harvesting all the scallops we can. It’s hard for people to hear that.”
Which is, of course, the point of “Sound Of The Sea.”
“One of the things I feel increasingly strongly about after writing this book is that the humanities are as important as the science, if not more so.”
When it comes to addressing the problems that threaten both human and mollusk habitats – climate change, warming oceans, pollution and more – “we know what to do. We know that toxic algae love nutrients and warm waters, and that these are things that need to be stemmed. It’s pretty straightforward,” she said.
“But the science is not enough, we need these other stories. People get discouraged and don’t realize the power they have as citizens to inspire their officials to do the right thing.”
That’s exactly what happened in the early 1970s, Barnett points out, when a robust grassroots environmental movement spurred enactment of the Clean Water Act and other landmark environmental laws.
“People love seashells, and once they begin to understand what’s happening to them they begin to care.”
And that, in a clamshell, is why Cynthia Barnett wrote “Sound Of The Sea: Seashells And The Fate Of The Ocean.”