These are the names I’ve given the shells I found last week on the Oregon coast, treasures now kept in an old creamware vase, ribbed like a shell itself.
I don’t know the scientific names of shells and am still learning the common names like cockle or conch, so I make up names for my shells to distinguish them and the travels on which they they’ve been found.
A shell on the beach is always a surprise for me, a child of the mountains and midlands. I was practically an adult before I glimpsed the sea for the first time, and that occasion only a ferry crossing from one wharf to another. I didn’t really see the ocean until I moved for a summer to the Maine coast, which was rocky, windblown, and cold—not at all the swim-worthy beaches I’d imagined.
My first shells came from that coast, along with a purple sea urchin and several slender starfish that I pulled off the rocks without understanding they were still alive. I wanted to take some home to Colorado where we didn’t have starfish so I could remember that summer and that coast. Only when they took a long time to die, lifting their arms for days to find water, did I realize the starfish should have stayed by the sea.
Now I beachcomb a cove on the Oregon coast each summer but am still delighted to find a shell or other artifact of ocean life. I like to walk out first thing in the morning alone or with John to find what the tide has left before others are searching too. We walk the high tide line where left-behind shards of driftwood lay tangled in seaweed and shells are caught between sea-thrown debris. Sometimes we find small bits of sea glass hidden between stones and broken mussels. Once we came upon a whole pool of perfect sand dollars as the tide rolled back the sand at just the right moment. Because the ocean never rests, each trip yields new discoveries amidst familiar sand and waves.
When the tide is out, we head for the end of the cove where we know we’ll find thick orange or purple starfish hugging the boulders now exposed along the shore. Sea anemones too live in crevices between those rocks or overhang tidal pools like stalks of rubbery plants. As much as I’d like to take a starfish home, I leave them to their watery world. Now I see how alive they are, almost human in their postures as they cling contentedly to the rocks. Are they waving to us from the sea’s spray? Or beckoning us closer than we should venture in the returning tide?
I leave behind the purple and orange starfish, but I do bring home shells and sea glass, driftwood and stones, wrapped carefully in my suitcase. Each collection finds its own vase or bowl in our house, artifacts of our brief time by the sea. From this distance, we forget the pull and roar of waves from before our time began. The ocean’s ceaselessness fades and our lives are measured by a different rhythm than the tide’s highs and lows. With shells in a vase on a shelf far from the coastal edge, we look for life in comings and goings less dramatic but easier lived than at the sea’s horizon.
With inspiration from “Architecture of the Soul” by Terry Tempest Williams