Cynthia Barnett is listening to seashells — and what they're prophesying doesn't bode well

The author of "The Sound of the Sea" on climate change, sea life, and humans' obsessive love of shells

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 8, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)

The Sound Of The Sea by Cynthia Barnett (Photo illustration by Salon/Jennifer Adler/W. W. Norton & Company)
The Sound Of The Sea by Cynthia Barnett (Photo illustration by Salon/Jennifer Adler/W. W. Norton & Company)

We eat out of them. We use them as currency. We pick them out of the sand on a sunny summer day, and carry them home like treasures. We hold them up to our ears. But Cynthia Barnett is actually listening to them.

In "The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans," Florida author Cynthia Barnett takes us on a global tour of archeology, anthropology and environmental science, by way of what she describes as "perhaps the most loved objects in nature." It's clear from Barnett's exhaustive research how our deep fondness for shells can and should be our way in to protecting them — and ourselves, by extension — from climate change, from overfishing, from our reckless relationship with our planet. Yet this not a scolding book; it's an awestruck travelogue and appreciation of something beautiful.

I read this wise, often funny book over my own recent vacation. I was on Cape Cod, staying at a spot where the beaches and the souvenir shops and the restaurants were awash in shells and shell imagery. With each page, Barnett's meticulous insights soon had me marveling with new appreciation — if not full blown conchylomania (shell collecting madness). I spoke to Barnett recently about her work, conservation, and why shells make great fact-checkers. As always, our interview has been condensed and edited for print.

Your book has so much humor, and such a sense of marvel and delight. It was infused with a light touch about complicated things.

That is a really tough balance to strike. You're trying to write about climate change and bring people into the stories of what's happening to the sea and its life and to the earth. But I think it's important to draw people with laughter, and just remember the joy of life that animals themselves exude.

You remind me of the line where you talk about having empathy for these "soft, vulnerable animals." You spent six years in this world. What was it that drew you to taking on such a huge topic?

In some ways it's such a tiny topic. I also teach science journalism and environmental journalism, and one thing we always talk about to young people is how to take a really small thing to tell a big story.

The way this started was not something I had been thinking about for a long time, by any means. I had been invited to a small seashell museum on Sanibel Island to give a talk about a previous book. I was having dinner with the director after the talk and I learned that they had surveyed visitors to find out how much visitors already knew about seashells.

These are mostly tourists visiting Florida with their children. The survey had revealed that 90% of visitors to this museum didn't know that a seashell was made by a living animal. This includes children, but most of the visitors thought that they were some kind of a rock or a stone. I was just so moved by that. I was disturbed by that. I kind of couldn't stop thinking about it. I had wanted to write next about the oceans, because my previous books were about fresh water. Then I wrote a natural and cultural history of rain. Tor me, this is a really nice conclusion of the hydrologic cycle. But when I heard that statistic, that night, I couldn't stop thinking about it as I was falling asleep. I think by the time I fell asleep, I knew that I was going to write this book.

I did love seashells as a child, although I've never been in an obsessive collector. I think you either have the collecting gene or you don't. That's something that really hit me because I interviewed people over these years who are really obsessed collectors. But I find, like everybody, seashells extraordinarily beautiful.

I think they're perhaps the most loved object in nature, and a really collectible object. I came to think of them as really good ambassadors for what's happening to the ocean, and also the perfect metaphor, because we've loved seashells for their gorgeous exterior rather than the life inside. In just that way, we've loved the oceans as the beautiful backdrop of life. As a postcard, without really understanding what's happening beneath the waves or without understanding the oceans as the very source of life. I really was thinking of that broader audience of people and how to bring them into these stories of what's happening with climate change and what's happening with the seas.

I didn't know that shells are a profound window into our historical climate and environmental change. Can you explain what shells can tell us?

Mollusks use biomineralization, that is, chemicals and minerals in the surrounding environment, to build their shells. The carbon dioxide we send into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels has turned the sea water about 30% more acidic than it was at the start of the industrial era. Climate change in the ocean has begun to limit the carbonate that mollusks use to make their shells. Acidic waters are also boring into some shells, pitting or eroding them. Two big things are happening to shelled animals. One is that stress from ocean acidification is making it harder to build shells.

But secondly, there's the warming oceans, and this is something I'm not sure how well people understand. The oceans have protected us from so much warming already. They've absorbed some 90% of Earth's warming in the past century. That heat is transferred to the oceans and the animals to live in the ocean. Some parts of the oceans have already become too warm for marine mollusks. More recently, in the Pacific Northwest during that late June heat wave that we had, that heat dome killed some billion marine tidal animals, including mussels, clams and oysters. It's really all around us and all over the Earth.

How did you approach this book in terms of looking at it from the archeological side, the anthropological side? There are so many different aspects of the story of shells and our own relationship to them.

I thought the human side was really important. I approached it from the standpoint of humanity and archeology and our lives with shells. There's something fundamentally aesthetic for us about seashells, something that really pleases the brain. It turns out that that has been true since pre-humanity. You might remember the fossilized mussel shells at the Solo River in Indonesia at the site of Java Man. They had those geometric zigzags that are considered some of the oldest known art. But it also represents something more. It represents that early human cognition. I open the book with imagining a Neanderthal girl collecting seashells 100,000 years ago.

That was based on science, the science that archeologists know from the seashells that have been found in Neanderthal caves in Spain. What was important about those shells is that they helped scientists overturn these assumptions and poorly conceived science that Neanderthals were dimwitted brutes. Everywhere I went in the history and in the archeology, I found that shells were great fact-checkers, because they tell a story more accurately than the vanquishers who tend to write history.

That was true in every chapter of this book. That was really true in some of the colonial history that comes with the Taíno people of the Caribbean. The only written records we have are what the Spanish wrote about the Taíno, but their shells tell their story more accurately than those written records. That was true of the Calusa and the Cahokia. That's a beautiful thing in both the science and the humanities, that the seashells told the best stories, or I should say the most accurate stories.

As you point out, it's the people who had the closest relationships with the shells, who had the deeper understanding of the environment.

I loved the story of the Zuni. When we think about the history of science, we so often talk about the Greeks and the Romans and what they knew and how bright and prescient they were. But from the fossilized marine animals in what is now the American Southwest, the Zuni knew and believed that the sea had once covered the land and that these were living creatures that lived a very long time ago. It was all part of their cosmology.

I found all of that fascinating. That was the case in many different cultures. We're learning that's true in so many other ways now, such as with the wildfires that have been burning in the west and are becoming worse because of the warming world. Indigenous people had ways of managing fire that we have ignored that we're finally paying attention to. I think the same is true with marine conservation and how we live with the seas and our coastlines. Shells say a lot about all of those things.

There is a store in Provincetown that sells seashells. You go in watch people clustering around shells. You take that shell back home with you and it serves as this talisman, this object of beauty. But a shell is also food.

I had to make a conscious decision pretty early on that this book wasn't going to be about shellfish. At some point I decided to organize it around seashells that have been the most iconic to humanity. The first chapter is about those marine micro mollusks that came long ago before marine mollusks. I built the chapters around seashells that were iconic to us, but some of those are eating seashells, and those include the bay scallop, the giant clam and the queen conch.

So another thing I try to do in this book is I really try to be honest and humble and not preachy about my own life with shells and with the ocean. I grew up spear fishing with my father who also collected all different kinds of conchs to eat. When my kids were younger, I always took them scalloping. Through telling those stories, I am learning about the pressure on wild shellfish, including bay scallops. I hope that I am showing the reader that there are more sustainable ways to enjoy shellfish.

By the end of the book, I'm not eating wild scallops, but I'm still enjoying the Gulf of Mexico, and going to look at scallops with my mask and snorkel and taking lots of pictures. But I don't think I would ever eat another wild scallop having written this book. I do eat aqua-cultured shellfish.

I think the important thing is to help people understand that we're in this transition, and we can do this. We can do this like we've done other big things, like stopped killing plume birds in the early 20th century. Our ethics change over time and our ethical relationships with animals change over time. This is an example of that. It's an evolution that we're experiencing. There are some really great aquaculture projects going on with shellfish that are very promising all over the world, that also represent part of the solution for conserving the oceans and for helping us adapt to climate change. My hope is that seashells help draw a broader audience to some of those really deep and important stories — and those solutions.

This book makes a case of contextualizing that shells are also animals. Our relationship with them is as objects and objects desire, but they are also, as you put it, these very vulnerable living creatures.

It's so interesting, the money we spend to conserve say, sea turtles and pandas. I do think it has a lot to do with their relatability and the fact that they look at us with those big eyes that look almost human. There are these extraordinary animals in the oceans and also on the land that are equally important to ecosystems and to the earth. Marine mollusks are among those. And they do have fabulous eyes, but just sometimes they're on tentacles. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Cynthia Barnett Interview The Sound Of The Sea