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  • Writer's pictureAnne Hodges White

Hidden in an ancient gray whelk

This shell could be 10,000 to 20,000 years old. A gray whelk — its spire sea-beaten off, its mantle sea-crashed in, its once lustrous body whorl sea-abraded through.

ancient gray whelk

Perfect shells no longer interest me. I leave them for others to collect, display, and possess. I seek instead the ones bearing witness to long experience in sea, under salt wind, against beach.

This imperfect, ancient gray whelk, almost hidden in beach debris, reveals the forces that have shaped it. Open now and vulnerable, its surviving tornado-swirl columello is visible all the way down to its original center, suggesting the vastness of itself. It once housed a being.

On its surface, its once subtle colors — sepia, cream, and black laid down parallel to its growing edge — were the first to go. Sea worms bored in and built colonies on its shell; an available host. Then colonies of barnacles set up shop, inside and out: their raft. Storm wedged pieces of shell into its columella, immovable even with my pocketknife, telling the magnitude and velocity of wave energy that pounded it up onto sandbars, into troughs, over berms, onto beaches. The being's fire was squelched, its impermanence confirmed.

But never mind. It has purpose still.

I like its hiddenness,

its antiquity,

its silence,

its suggestion of vastness.

This ancient gray whelk evolved off these shores before the last Ice Age receded, before the Banks formed off the coast of North Carolina, when the mighty north-swooping Gulf Stream and the south-stealing Labrador Current met, mixing tropical with Arctic, stirring up the sea in storms, and making new demands on inhabitants: adapt or perish. This over-sized snail — dextrally coiled, which means coiled to the right like most gastropods — became a carnivore with a thick shell, at home anywhere.

And here are its devastated remains, millennia later, bigger than most shards on the beach this summer, hidden in sea wrack of water-logged sea oat and dismembered sea weed, crab legs and broken shells, tossed up by the storm surge of early September’s hurricane.

I like its hiddenness, its antiquity, its silence, its suggestion of vastness. Hiddenness, unlike clamor and drama, is not often celebrated. We need to seek subtly, silence, and space — so little of it remains. Antiquity is often an affront to the useful in modernity. We need to experience the value of the very old — or perhaps experience great age ourselves. Vastness is often unseen and unplumbed by the harried. Often near-sighted, we need to grow quieter to recognize it.

We can turn a small observation of the natural world — an ancient whelk, open and vulnerable, its center intact — into a sudden entry into meaning. Looking carefully can be a practice.


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