Where do you start when you set out to write the epic story of a marine species that survived a test of half a billion years, was considered sacred by the ancient people who lived in the high Andes, helped finance the African slave trade and is an increasingly threatened source of vital nutrition for millions of people around the world?
Cynthia Barnett wanted to start at the very beginning. And by happy coincidence, that meant spending time at the Florida Museum of Natural History, just a mile from his Gainesville home.
The UF Museum came into possession of what is said to be the largest collection of seashells in the world, thanks to its donor, Florida physician Harry Lee. And Barnett joined Lee at the museum for microscopic examinations of 3 million year old fossil micro-molluscs.
This is to show that we are all “walking on a world of seashells”, writes Barnett at the beginning of his latest book “Sound Of The Sea: Seashells And The Fate Of The Ocean”.
The limestone under our feet, the concrete of our sidewalks, the chalk that our children use on these sidewalks to play hopscotchâ¦ all this and more thanks to the mollusks that lived, prospered and perished long before we arrived.
âCalcifying life forms gave us mountains and they gave us marble,â writes Barnett.
Not to mention that in their hardened exteriors, they kept “the carbon buried safely for 500 million years.”
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But it would be a mistake to assume that “Sound Of The Sea” is about seashells. It’s not. It’s about people.
âI left to see what seashells have to say about the environment and the oceans,â Barnett said. But in the six years she spent traveling the world and collecting data, she found that seashells “actually had a lot more to say about people. These are stories about slavery, about environmental justice, on the indigenous Taino people in the Bahamas and the Calusa people who built a pre-Columbian empire in southwest Florida.
âAll of these human stories have come to the fore,â said former Gainesville Sun reporter. âWhat I learned was the importance of ‘putting people at the center of environmental stories’.
That’s how Barnett traveled to the 300-island Republic of Palau, where she learned of the heroic efforts of her people to protect their giant clams from predatory fishing fleets.
She traveled to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, where a queen once declared marble-like cowries to be legal tender. Then Barnett traveled to West Africa where, thanks to the Portuguese, Maldivian cowries were used to buy thousands of slaves for export to the Americas.
No longer a currency, cowries these days risk losing their coral reef habitats around the burgeoning resort islands where “Russian oligarchs and American pop stars” stay “in rooms as expensive as $ 25,000 a day. night â.
Which doesn’t mean Barnett overlooks Florida in his quest for seashells. She describes how tourists would descend to Sanibel Island and fill their car trunks with seashellsâ¦ only to dump their treasure at the Georgian border when the seashells started to stink.
Or how the people of the Conch Republic, Key West, loved queen conch so much that they loved it almost to extinction. Or how vast colonies of scallops disappeared from Tampa Bay under the pressure of uncontrollable development and runoff pollutionâ¦ and did not return even after their beds were restored.
The plight of scallops has hit particularly close to home for Barnett. For years, she and her family have taken trips to nearby Steinhatchee to catch “buckets” of scallops and bring them home for dinner.
These days, Barnett is content to take pictures of scallops.
âWe used to collect so many buckets because that was our definition of abundance,â she recalls. âI want to help people understand that we need to have a different definition of abundance – a definition based on the abundance of seagrass, clean water and wild scallops.
âIt’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 that is close to my heart after writing this book is that the humanities are as important as science, if not more.”
When it comes to solving the problems that threaten both human and shellfish habitats – climate change, warming oceans, pollution and more – âwe know what to do. We know poisonous algae love nutrients and warm water, and these are things that need to be contained. It’s pretty simple, âshe said.
âBut 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.
This is exactly what happened in the early 1970s, Barnett points out, when a strong grassroots environmental movement pushed for the enactment of the Clean Water Act and other landmark environmental laws.
“People love seashells, and once they start to understand what’s going on with them, they start to care.”