Just a short walk down the road from our cottage in France there is a most beautiful beach. It stretches in a long curve as far as the eye can see and at low tide it takes 10 minutes simply to get to the sea for a paddle. The sand is a fine white-yellow and is peppered with shells and pebbles, with a smattering of driftwood delivered by Atlantic rollers. For many, photographs and images conjured up in memories are not enough and there is the temptation to take bits of the beach away as keepsakes. And in this there is something I find perturbing. Collecting pieces of wood feels legitimate but shells and pebbles are a critical part of the beach and better left alone with their colours embellished by the wet of the sea. And while objets trouvés do find their way to our home to sit on shelves or around the fireplace, in general I wish they hadn’t.
Although as a young man things were different, nowadays I feel ill-at-ease with displays of nature out of context – dead or alive. There is little to beat the beauty of butterflies when they land on a leaf and spread their wings but all that beauty evaporates and the appeal is lost when the selfsame butterflies are pinned to cork in a glass case. The same goes for birds, however colourful, when stuffed and displayed perching in cabinets. And there is something pretty unsavoury about displays of stuffed fishes, foxes, and deer (heads only) in pubs; and stuffed bears and tigers in museums are not much better. And, of course, living animals pounding around their cages are now a thing of the past
No surprise then that when Rohan proposed that she would bring home a collection of exotic shells, I groaned and pressed her to do otherwise. “Why not give them to a charity?” My wife, who had found them carefully wrapped up in a box when clearing out her late mother’s flat, took no notice and home they came. She promised to make them as inconspicuous as possible by dotting them around the house in corners, even putting them on display gradually. She suggested that the display would be so low-profile that I would not notice them. A day or two later I saw my first, tucked away on a shelf by the shower. Just behind it was another. Later more appeared by the bath and yesterday I spotted two, close to some taps in an upstairs loo. This evening a further two appeared, this time on a bookshelf in my study. And I have just been told there are, or will be, at least three more!
In all, this makes at least eleven, although one of them turns out to be a piece of coral. All are hand-sized or larger, all are different and all are wonderful. Their colours and shapes have seduced me completely. If I have a favourite it is the shiny pale gold nautilus with a cream interior. But running it a close second is the shell of a giant carnivorous rock snail with its craggy-spiky white exterior and a soft pink rim leading to its inner parts.
How very wrong I had been. It is worrying how very quickly I was able to drop my concern for nature out-of-context but why these seashells should work for me I don’t know. In this instance I have been won over and had I not been forced to break with my old prejudices I would have been denied a great pleasure.
Oddly, when I was a professor, being wrong, or at least owning up to such, was unusual. Now retired, I find that being wrong is not uncommon and learning from my mistakes allows me to advance. What a relief.
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