One of my family’s favorite vacation destinations is Sanibel Island, a beautiful spot on the gulf coast of Florida that is well-known for its beaches teeming with sea shells. I still remember our first visit to the island, when my husband and I could barely believe the number of shells we saw on the beach and were literally scooping them up by the handful. In later years, we became more particular about our “shelling,” ignoring the piles of plain white clam shells and scallops as we searched for the more colorful and harder to find alphabet cones, nutmegs, tulips, fighting conchs, etc. Even so, we have brought home countless bags of shells as souvenirs of our beach vacations. And we have reached the point where we absolutely do not need any more shells, no matter how pretty they are.
We have shells displayed all over our house, in jars, vases and even in a lamp. We have given shells, and crafts made from shells, to almost everyone we know, and yet we still have several bagfuls of them sitting in a storage bin in our basement. This means that for the last several vacations to Florida, we made the promise to ourselves that we absolutely will NOT collect shells this time. We will “just look” at the shells as we walk the beach, but not actually pick them up. That vow usually lasts for no more than the first twenty minutes after our feet hit the sand. And although we have gotten better at returning many of the shells we find to the beach at the end of our vacation, we always, always, have a bag of shells that we wind up bringing home with us.
Why do we keep collecting shells that we don’t even want anymore? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m beginning to suspect that it has something to do with the thrill of finding a “treasure,” not unlike finding a valuable antique at a garage sale. Once my husband and I became more experienced shellers and learned how to find the rarer types of shells, each one we found became, I think, a small victory. We would congratulate each other on finding a king’s crown or an oversized angel wing, and then eagerly go back to the search for an even nicer shell. And of course the “good” shells we were finding had to be kept and admired, or so we believed as we were combing the beach in search of the next “shelling score.” It wasn’t until later, after we were back home, that we would look at all our shells and wonder what in the world had come over us.
I believe that the desire to acquire things runs deeper in most of us than we want to believe, and possibly dates back from the days when humans were primarily hunters and gatherers. I may not have the stomach for hunting, but I’m realizing that I do have a rather strong gathering instinct, particularly when I’m naively convinced that what I’m searching for is both rare and valuable. I may hate clutter, and I may not be comfortable owning lots of stuff, but I can get swept up in the “gotta have that” craze just the same as everybody else. And if I’m ever silly enough to doubt that, all I have to do is go down in my basement and check out the bin holding all those bags of shells. Which is stored right next to the bins holding the couple of hundred Beanie Babies we’ve had since the kids were little…..