The shells are so tiny, most mistake them for grains of sand. They are complete structures within themselves, with every detail of their sacred geometry still intact. Most of their shapes spiral from tight to wide, following the measurements of the Fibonacci sequence; the same ratio of numbers that map out my entire body and all the nature I can see. I sit in one place and sometimes lift up the dried seaweed to be surprised by what has been caught in the tangle moving up the shore. Though Dad gave me a magnifying glass and had me classify species and label drawers on my shell collecting box until third grade, I don’t remember the specifics now. The labels were important though. They gave words to the memories of adventure and times spent with Dad, which are now difficult to recall without the names of those shells.
I find the same shells today, but the diversity of shells has decreased. There are turban shells, cone shells, clam shells, and occasionally a microscopic Hawaiian pipipi that has the shape of a clenched fist, like a black barreling wave during one of Hawai‘i’s winters. All of these are a fraction of the size of my pinky fingernail, needing a magnifying glass to appreciate their complexity.
The sand is made of shells, crushed reef, and the bones and decay of ocean creatures, at least on the beach where I grew up. My backyard was once an ancient Hawaiian fishing ground because the water is shallow, coming up just past my knees at high tide and trapping fish that come over the reef by low tide. During low tide there are sandbars and tide pools for almost half a mile out, reaching the tips of deep blue swim holes that surround the reef and buffer its breaking waves. I used to imagine the crashing waves and ocean currents working together to smash up the free-floating parts of dead reef, shells, and marine skeletons, rolling them against each other, grinding extinguished life into sand. I thought only these smallest of shells were spared because they were too tiny to break.
Dad walked with me down the beach most afternoons when he wasn’t working in the ER or OR, sipping from his wide glass of coke and rum and talking with neighbors as we passed their homes. Anything I found on Paiko Beach he’d take between his thumb and forefinger, look closely through his clear glasses and widen his eyes. Amazing, he’d nod and say, then look at me in wonderment. He’d keep my findings in his one free hand and spout out the shells’ scientific names. It was the same hand he’d use while my siblings and I swam in the ocean, when he pretended to be an octopus and grabbed us into his tentacle to devour us with fake bikes. It would be the same hand a decade later to wave off anything being wrong with him when I asked, while his other hand secretly held a drug addiction. He could make himself seem superior to any situation or person, and build confidence in anyone by using the depths of his knowledge. This was how he fooled my family for years. He was too smart to ever see himself making dumb decisions, or to let anyone think he would. This knack for studying details and retaining scientific information was inherent in him after being born and raised on O‘ahu and growing up in a home on the water with parents who were widely curious doctors.
Dad’s shell collection consisted mostly of his findings from scuba diving and spearfishing trips. It was in the deep water where those enormous treasures lay. Some of these trips were off the west coast of mainland America, so he had a trove of abalone shells (my favorite shell because sea otters ate out of them) stacked by size inside one another. I picked up those shells every time I visited my grandparents at their Wailupe Peninsula house. Their home made me think of what it was like to live in a reef. I constantly saw things I never noticed during previous visits, which made me pull more science books off their shelves, draw pictures of sea creatures to give them before leaving, and had me believe for decades after their deaths that there were mysteries still hidden in that house, as if its skeletal structure were alive and had grown hidden coral caverns along with my grandparents’ expanding wild and eccentric minds. Between the dark mid-century beams, including their densely packed bookshelves stretching up to the roof, and the lauhala mats my grandmother had woven to cover the entire house, the colors and salted textures–layered on by the ocean breeze–made the red, black, and blue block prints of Hawaiian fish pop off the walls and swim between other rooms that’d been wallpapered with paintings of plants, akin to seaweed forests. They had a few conch shells too, which I always tried very hard to blow like the Hawaiian signalers. When both my grandparents passed, Dad moved back into the Wailupe House–our Paiko home went to mom in their divorce–and kept out the shells they’d collected, believing all our memories of Wailupe were entwined in their Fibonacci sequences.
Dad brought home plenty of food from the ocean after his diving and spearfishing trips beyond the shallows of Paiko Beach and from the deep reefs between islands; lobster, fish, crab, and seaweed. Those trips were how he found the most beautiful shells, which always stank of dead, bloating animals. Shells from the ocean’s depths had the bright, exotic colors and markings I’d never seen on Paiko Beach because they still had living creatures inside. Thankfully the conch shells he brought home–those big turbans that ancient Hawaiians used to blow into as a horn–were often empty. It was the Cowries, the ones you hold to your ear to hear ocean waves tumbling toward shore, no matter where you are, that Dad ended up putting into ziplock bags and in our freezer near the ice cream. Once the creatures inside were frozen, he’d take his air gun and blast them out of their shells. Their dismantled bodies would be collected from the backyard then go back into the freezer to become bait on his next inter-island fishing, surfing, or diving trip. Then he’d soak or boil the cowry shells in vinegar to remove the rotting sea life stench, and set them out in the house, urging my older brother, younger sister and me to put our ear up to the vertical crevice, so we could listen to the movement of air mimicking the rolling of waves.
Every time I’m on any beach I have a hard time looking up. My eyes look for any detail I might want to investigate, quickly working to answer my own questions about what I’m seeing, so I can move on to the next discovery. I’ve been convinced there’s always something to find in the sand that others have missed. Spending my formative years as a shell hunter has led me to unexpected discoveries throughout the past couple decades.
It started with the bubble shell, a name I can’t forget. When I spotted this tiny, fat vessel, I held it up for Dad to see. His breath sucked back into his throat, not telling me the name at first, but watching my eyes and mouth open in anticipation. He kept repeating how rare of a find it was, turning it over in his fingers, torturing me with my lack of knowledge, then looked back at me to confirm he couldn’t believe I found one. Dad hadn’t seen any since he was a kid, since the peninsulas were dredged and built up with houses, and channels dug out. Maybe he also hadn’t found any because it wasn’t until I was born that he had a partner to shell hunt with. Mom didn’t like swimming anymore and rarely wanted to walk on the beach. My brother only surfed and fished with Dad. My younger sister walked out with us to the swim holes to snorkel along the reef or kayak in the surf. And my half-siblings wouldn’t be born for almost another decade. The sands and ocean temperature had shifted since his Hawaiian childhood, and so had the habitats that once catered to more diverse specimens. But it was in fact a bubble shell I found, which was only special because Dad said so. I was the one who’d see the course of his life through shells, and the mixed alcoholic drinks he held in his other hand as we found them.
Once I was old enough to leave O‘ahu in 2003–the first year I went to the mainland for college–I volunteered to help archeologists dig up a prehistoric bison kill from 10,000 years ago in the backcountry of Wyoming. Those weeks were spent on wild and restricted lands camping in a nylon tent near abandoned pioneer log homes along a wagon wheel trail, where I bent over for eight hours a day wearing a surfing rashguard to protect my skin from the summer sun while digging and measuring the depth of the soil and what it contained. The only notable thing I found was a prehistoric badger tooth. It was a bone half as long and half as thick as my pinky finger, angling to a point with soil particles embedded in its decaying crevices. I only knew it was something to note because it was almost a foot underground in the plot I was assigned to. Then there was also a piece of piping that partially stuck out of the wagon wheel trail from a pioneer’s water pump. Very different from finding shells, and objects that didn’t stir delight and wonder. The nature and history of mainland America wasn’t in my upbringing. It was too late for that. I grew up on an island in the middle of the pacific with a dad who had me and my siblings on the beach, in the ocean, or fishing most days.
Some seashells, however, were still around in the American West, from ancient times, when the plains, hills and ranges had been underwater. I found these broken, sun bleached shells in tiny piles near the surface of the soil, knitted between the roots of the dry grass on hill tops. This was also the case the following summer, when I worked as a waitress on a fly fishing guest ranch in southern Colorado. There were broken, weathered shells all over the hills outside Creede, though I mostly collected the crystals and busted open geodes I found near abandoned silver mines and shallow riverbeds. The complexity of the crystals’ geometric structures felt alive, similar to a reef’s infinitely growing crevices that host unseen lifeforms and mysteries, like my grandparents’ home.
It wasn’t until I went to Iceland in 2008 and hitchhiked solo that I had months to scan beaches and the country’s rugged terrain, which revealed a blown about and ever-shifting landscape. I collected animal bones, obsidian, and other natural novelties in Iceland’s highlands. There were massive earthquakes from Eyjafjallajökull in the southland while I was there in April, further shifting the sand, hidden shipwrecks, and ocean currents. My first day spent on the southwest shore in Vík í Myrdal was on its black sand beach, trying to keep my eyes up to enjoy watching the surf and foggy horizon. But I couldn’t keep from looking at the black sand. No shells, a few stones, and giant boulders. I stood near a stream running into the ocean and suddenly saw something that looked like a metal milk bottle top. Just trash probably, but I picked it up anyway because there was nothing else to pick up and look at. It was flat, like those thin cardboard bottle tops that were popular many decades ago. Yet this one was metal and therefore peculiar. I put it in my pocket and walked back up to the hostel.
Throuan, the hostel owner, stood in the front entry with another Icelandic man. I gave him the top and asked what it was. He questioned me with his brow. You should take this to the old scholar in Skogar, he said, looks like a coin from a shipwreck. The other man took it and wove it through his fingers. Yes, definitely a coin, he said. I tucked it in the money pouch on my pelvis under my clothes, which I slept with every night.
That first night sleeping with the coin I had a dream that felt like a hidden memory had resurfaced. There I was, 150 to 200 years ago on a busy harbor dock as a woman with a younger sister, in either a European or Scandinavian town, and in a different body than this one, selling cordage and goods to seafaring men. A tall, barrel chested man with a short beard came walking up to us, and as I watched him approach, my heart leapt. I somehow knew it was my best friend from high school, in my current 2000s life, the friend I pushed away from me because our feelings for each other were too intense for two women to have. But this man was her. I felt it. And he approached to buy something with his coins as a way to connect with me.
I patiently waited for over a month until I hitched around the entire island country back to Skogar, to find the man who might be able to identify the piece of metal. The old scholar declared it a coin, maybe 200 years old and it would’ve been used to buy a loaf of bread. The coin wasn’t Icelandic, he said, it was from a foreign shipwreck. I handed the coin over to the National Museum of Iceland for their examination, and eventually the museum mailed it back to my home on Paiko Beach. Then, within a year of finding the coin, I also found myself letting go of my resistance to loving a woman–that same best friend from high school–the way I truly wanted. I gave her the coin.
It wasn’t only Iceland. The next place I hitchhiked was New Zealand in 2011, and on the south island most beaches kept me busy for hours with big colorful shells. Some were still putrid, smelling of death and decay, but most shells were emptied of their creatures. I had to take photos of these findings because they would burden the load I carried on my back, and I wanted to send pictures to Dad.
My first afternoon on a beach was on the north island, where I wove between sleeping seals, trash, tangled fishing lines, and rocks. But right where the waves were leaving their white tips on shore, something was shining. It was a coin. And it was a currency I could use while traveling. Oddly, one coin turned into a trail of coins that continued for my two hour walk down the beach. The coins added up to NZ$14. Having very little money, since I was on a month break from college with barely any funds left from school loans, I left the beach and went into town to buy dinner at the market with my treasure. Nobody cared to look at the sand, so nobody else saw that long line of coins glinting every so often when the waves ebbed.
As I hitchhiked down the south island I met three more hitchhikers who partnered up with me to get rides, or planned to meet up at the next hostel, where we knew the hiking trails led to rain forests or up to glaciers, and where we could walk down stony beaches at night together and crawl into caves to gaze at constellations of glow worms.
One hitchhiker, Miles, hitched with me to Hokitika, a town whose Maori name means to return home by a direct path. It was also the only beach town where we were legally allowed to collect any jade that happened to flow out of the river and wash ashore. After checking into the hostel, we headed to the beach and combed the sand and flotsam together for hours, stuffing our pockets and backpacks with green rocks, just gobsmacked by the abundance. We took them to one of the many jade factories in the small town, hoping to have them appraised. The workers only laughed. It’s a common mistake, they said. Most people living in Hokitika had gone their entire life without finding a speck of jade on the beach.
We dumped the green rocks back on the sand along with our hopes, crushed under the illusions of the shore, and instead chose to explore the streets of the town. I pulled Miles into an art studio that looked like a warehouse of welded metals shaped like sea creatures, which were shined and stained into colors reflecting their true underwater brilliance. There was nothing we had to do and nowhere to be, so we slowly walked around every piece and commented to each other. The artist came out with her long black hair tied back over a navy vest and sea green sweater. Her presence made me think of salty air, tide lines, and shades of green glass that’d been tossed in the sea for years. I wanted to talk to everyone I met as I hitchhiked, and hear everything they wanted to share, so we found ourselves talking about the destiny of discovering objects on beaches, or anywhere, and their symbolism. Jade is meant to be given, she said. If anyone finds or buys jade, it must be given to someone else. She told me to wait, and went to the back of her studio. She reminded me of former travelers I instantly connected with in hostels, and the strangers who picked me up in their cars out of sheer generosity and curiosity. She returned carrying a string with her fist wrapped around its end. It was the biggest one she’d found in Hokitika, she said. She’d just finished polishing and crafting it into a necklace. She placed it in my hand and said it was for me. When I saw the smooth, flat, and enormous teardrop shaped jade I pushed it back toward her, not knowing why she wanted to give a stranger a prized possession. She reminded me it was a bad omen to refuse this gift. She’d lived in Hokitika all her life and actually had a bag of small jade pieces she’d found there since she was a little girl. I put it over my head and wore it around my neck until I left New Zealand. She was my lucky find.
The very next morning, before Miles and I hitched out of town toward Punakaiki, I combed the beach for one more hour. I crouched and stayed very still in one spot after another. I have this way of searching sometimes, when it seems my expectations have been lowered or shattered. It’s like my soul takes over and does the looking, and my body merely follows its directions. My head empties of thoughts and ambition. Within that hour I found three small jade stones, nowhere as big as the one now around my neck, but they were all confirmed by the jade factory workers to be jade. I gave one to my mom, another to my aunt who originally inspired my interest in going to Iceland, and the third to Dad.
I don’t see the ocean every day anymore. To be in nature I have to go to forests, or where people go when living in mainland states. The terrain has started to make little difference. I still scan the ground, but now most of the time I don’t know what I’m looking for, so I often have my head up while hiking, looking through the trees and at the shapes their canopies make with the sky. After years of finding shells, stones, bones, crystals, and coins, both on land and near the ocean, their power and meaning have waned under the flickering reality of growing up in a technological society.
I always email Dad to report back on what I find, and send photos if I have them. Though I’m 35, he’s still excited to have my discoveries at his fingertips. Instead of sifting through the sand and telling me about it, these days he’s sending photos of the sunset over the ocean. MS has weakened his nerves and depleted his strength, so he stays out of the water and mostly sits on the beach to look at the view. I’ve also stopped looking at the sand constantly when I’m on a beach, not caring as much if I miss seeing something that was, at an earlier time, thrilling.
When I visited my grandmother’s dead body at the Wailupe Peninsula house a couple hours after she passed, I was just 11. I saw her body but couldn’t recognize her. The body was only a cold form. Her spirit had left. There was nothing of the person I’d known, even through those unconscious days leading up to her passing, when she still made sense in the room and with us. She became a seashell. But I wouldn’t find remnants of her rolling up on a shore. I touched her hardened arm and discovered that the magic in the world was merely hidden in what physical things represented in the heart. Dad let me eat some of her ashes because, he said, I was made of them and so was everything else, including the stars.
Dad and I found a sanctuary in each other through discussing shells, the biology of the ocean, the life cycles of the lights we saw above the palm trees in the Milky Way, the complexities of our relationships with others and within ourselves, and why we were put here to see and experience these things. Those conversations still happen, but many of the minute details we once separated and magnified are now left alone. Looking at the horizon line at the edge of the ocean has provoked another type of search. The intricacies of how his relationship with his second ex-wife and my half-siblings fell apart, and his searching for a way to mend these and other realities of his life, remain mere fibers in this tame woven fabric we’re both seeing from different ages and situations. It is the line in the distance that offers a new perspective, a glimpse of what can’t be seen but brings us closer to what’s begging to be realized. Probably the most important discoveries of all; those things that don’t require our eyes, or even our bodies. It seems, Dad and I agree, we’d been hunting for ourselves.
Lauren Childs lives under the forest canopy in Portland, OR with her partner and dog. She tutors college students in writing and literature, spending her free time exploring the landscapes and history of western America.