The Shape of Shells

By Daniel de la Calle

Every shell protects the life of the creature that builds it and many of them continue to have a brief second existence as homes for hermit crabs or the base surface onto which algae and intrepid barnacles attach, but with time they inexorably break into sand.  The ones I want to write about, though, are a small exception, a handful that miraculously sublimate into beachcombing treasures and those that were once the horns calling armies into battle or the ones that were worn around the neck, or used as currency in Kongo, those decorating our bathrooms and finally the most important of all: the ones that act as repositories of our memories.  During this recent trip screening the documentary in Chile amongst the highlights were the visits to Pablo Neruda’s homes in Santiago and Valparaíso.  I enjoyed looking at the shells he picked up around the globe in those years as a diplomat and an insatiable collector. The beautiful shapes and colors appeared a bit faded, but were visible; anyone given the chance to press them against the ear could have heard the faint whisper we choose to be the sound of the sea; it would be easy to look in books to name them and trace their origin.  But the stories?  Gone, forever.  The stories the poet placed inside after every purchase, discovery and adventure vanished for good the day he died.  And so, poetically, I wondered if that faded look was nothing but the absence of a memory.

I have hundreds of shells.  Four of them hold a special value.
One comes in the shape of a drowsy dream; it was found on a seasick morning dive in Hawaii the day my grandfather died. They say you are not supposed to take shells on dives, but I felt entitled.
Two are big, beautiful scallops given with love.  And I am partial to orange.
A third one has wound up inside it a shocking dispute with a mexican octopus.  The adventure delivered first a fright, then a gorgeous shell (see below)and a fantastic story to tell, although the final aftertaste was a bit of guilt.
The fourth is not even a shell, I am afraid, only the smooth portion of a clam: when my daughter was three we would go on treasure hunting walks along the beach.  While I targeted whole, beautiful, colorful, shiny, perfect looking shells her criteria was limited to the first thing she set eyes upon. Every step returned an object I politely pretended to store in a bottomless swimsuit pocket.  That one I am talking about I kept, and when I look at it now I wonder if I shouldn’t have saved a few more, payed better attention at what I was handed.
Is this some sort of fable, a little tale with moral?  No, there is not much of a point.  I did want to show off my beautiful shells.  And with the RIO+20 events beginning here today, when world leaders gather for discussing what calls for no discussion but action, with all the dire arguments running once more the risk of getting twisted, contended and diluted into a bunch of smiles and taps on the shoulder I guess it would be ludicrous to bring up some of these other reasons, the emotional, intangible and unquantifiable ones, that take the shape of shells into account and the memories that come with them to finally deliver some change.  But I will keep some hope, miracles do happen.

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