When environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett was growing up in Florida, one of her favorite seashells was the lightning whelk, an impressively large spiral with chocolatey stripes that is a common find on Gulf beaches. For years, a specimen she and her husband found at Cedar Key has topped her family’s Christmas tree. But it was not until she began researching her newest book, “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021), that she understood the full significance of the whelk, which was used by Native Americans of the Gulf Coast for centuries for making food, tools and ceremonial objects, as well as for trading to other indigenous groups throughout the Southeast.
In one astounding instance, a burial featuring 20,000 beads fashioned from lightning whelk shells was found at the great mound city of Cahokia, outside present day St. Louis.
“I never knew the importance of the lightning whelk’s life and afterlife for Native American people,” she recalls. “I was moved by those stories of true native Floridians – and humbled by all that I didn’t know about a natural object with which I thought I was familiar.”
Readers will find many more extraordinary stories in the book, which spins a natural and cultural history of thirteen different seashells. Like an oceanic current, the book drifts far and wide between remarkable places – such as the eleventh-century Maldives, where the tiny money cowrie became one of the first global currencies; and nineteenth century London, where Abigail and Marcus Samuel began the enterprise that became Royal Dutch Shell by selling shells in their East End curio shop. Buoyed by Barnett’s deft prose, and fascinating portraits of scholars, adventurers, writers, and hobbyists whose lives have been caught up in a search for shells, the book is as adventurous as it is illuminating.
Florida plays a prominent role in the book, with chapters that examine not only the lightning whelk, but also queen conchs and the Conch Republic (better known as Key West), Sanibel Island’s shell tourism, and the decline of bay scallops in Tampa Bay. Beachcombers, divers and local history fans alike will appreciate the way Barnett places familiar Florida moments in a broader context.
A consistent theme throughout the book is the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans, and its inextricable links to our extractive economy. While Barnett provides some hopeful stories – such as Palauan scientists hoping to adapt body temperature regulation techniques from giant clams into new cooling technologies for power plants – the overall picture of the ocean’s health is alarming.
But maybe that is a good thing?
“My hope,” Barnett explains, “is that seashells may be ambassadors for helping a broader audience understand what’s happening to the sea and its life – and also the extent to which we will not solve environmental problems without also addressing human injustices – and that my work can help inspire that larger ethical shift.”
In a time where fish kills, storm surge and sunny day flooding are becoming topics of everyday conversation, “The Sound of the Sea,” with its deep dive into our enduring relationship with the ocean, may be just the book we need.