Each shell tells a unique story, and from these small objects one can experience places and times never before seen - a world held within the palm of your hand.
Mollusk shells go through cycles of growth and dormancy, developing at intervals that manifest as rings. These rings imbibe the elements in their environment, acting as a biological record of their immediate surroundings. By learning the language embedded in these shells one can extract the history of a site, track seasonal water temperatures, and possibly even predict future environmental trends.
In the quiet of the sea, in a place between places, stood a relic with no name. Perhaps it was something to someone in times past, but the rasping winds, and the putrid air, and the grim black waves have washed all memories of it away.
The first was a slow but relentless forgetting. A chipping away of sorts, shown through the cracking of concrete, the rusting of metal, and the missing traces of what once was. This loss was a tangible texture that tore at the fingertips and grated at the skin.
The second was a willful forgetting, fueled by neglect and disuse. It was a forgetting of the kind where one sees but turns away, where one can do but chooses not to, and where one knows but feigns ignorance instead. It was a forgetting that was all too familiar in this exhausted world.
The third was a hollow empty forgetting. It came from the hidden corners of the soul. If there were stories to fill this place then maybe this forgetting would not be so complete, but sadly those voices died away long ago.
So it was in this way that the relic stood, mute and deaf to the world, until an unexpected encounter from centuries past began whispering into the emptiness again.
These whispers came from miniscule creatures.
They came from the mussels – Mytilus Edulis and Perna Canaliculus.
From the oysters - Ostrea Edulis, Saccostrea Cuccullata, and Crassostrea Gigas.
And from the clams - Mya Arenaria and Siliqua Patula.
None thought that these creatures had a voice, for they spoke not through mouth and tongue, but through the rings carved on their backs. It was a language that formed sentence from breath drawn over decades and centuries. One had to be patient to hear the sounds these creatures made, and the stories that they told.
Generation after generation they sung their song, delicate and slow into the hollow emptiness, waiting for someone to hear – and one day someone did.
That someone was a clever girl.
She lived in a dying world where the people have had to learn many things. They had to learn, so to survive the wreckage left to them by their forefathers.
These people first listened to the obvious things; things that spoke like them, with words like them, but this proved not enough. They then spread out to listen to those with different tongues, professing different creeds; this helped for a time, but again proved not enough. They expanded further still, listening to the mountains, the winds, the sky, and all the creatures in between; and their hard work paid off as this proved a great leap forward in mending their broken world.
But these people were wise you see. They wanted to know their past so to not make the same mistakes as their ancestors. It was for this reason they began listening to things that made not a sound, and spoke with the slowness of the changing seasons.
It was thanks to these teachings that the girl came to hear the silent whispers from the tiny creatures in the sea. Creatures many thought had disappeared long ago. They led her to a place between places, to a relic with no name. These whispers were hard to hear, but she could feel they were trying to tell her something, she could feel there were stories there waiting to be heard.
The girl began seeking to unravel the complex language that these shells spoke. She believed the study of these creatures held the key to unlocking certain mysteries buried deep in her world.
Before long others began to see the importance in her work.
They erected towers to aide in her endeavor, monuments to her undertaking. They allowed her to see deeper into the tapestry of time, and hear clearer through the chasm of ages. They helped her collect the knowledge that she sought, and stored those secrets safely under the sea.
And so it was that this place between places, housing a relic of no name, carved out its own corner in this vast and desolate world.
Through her studies the girl witnessed how these insignificant creatures became a living record of the past.
Every ring was a season whose length was measured by their breadth.
Every shade a mineral whose passing was captured on the backs of their shells.
And every shimmer was a crystal whose components once made up the structures that supported life.
These, and hundreds of other things, became the language that the creatures spoke. To some they were meaningless noise, but to her they painted a vivid picture of an unfamiliar landscape. In the remote reaches of the sea these shells offered her a glimpse of the world from an immense scope, seen like a gallery of images through her mind’s eye. Each shell told a unique story, and from these small creatures she could absorb the perspectives of places and times never before seen.
Over time her work earned her great respect and renown. The towers became her home and the mollusks her companions. She collected each and every one fallen to the ocean floor. Their shells were hers, just as their stories were hers.
In one of her towers, many leagues under the sea, there was a vault that few were permitted to enter. This was where they were kept; a multitude of shells, containing an innumerable collection of stories.
Past the threshold of this dark and solemn place, the air was still with anticipation, and the world was forgotten. It was here that the girl spent most of her time, eyes closed, patiently waiting.
She called this place The Archives.
In her time she had seen more of the world than she had ever imagined possible. Her miniature companions had done their work well, not only for herself, but for her people as well. Their silent whispers opened hidden doorways to pockets of the universe with much left still to be explored. But she was an old woman now, and that journey was best left to those more able.
There was only one mystery remaining she felt eager to solve – the nameless relics that gave birth to this forgotten place.
Piece by piece her friends revealed to her the history of this place and the purpose of the artifacts within.
On each shell, hidden in each ring, she could see the changing storms and seasons; observe the rising water currents, and track the creatures that intersected along the way.
She saw beams of iron and of brass ripped apart and put back together again.
She saw floating platforms dispersed amongst a sea of flowers, waves, and leaves.
She saw sea creatures from ages past struggling through an expansive net with seemingly no end.
And at times if she looked hard enough, through the gunfire and the smoke and the young men at war, she could catch glimpses of seven forts standing vigil in the water, and hear the echoes of bofors guns going off in the night.
In the Thames Estuary twelve miles off the nearest coast, a collection of peculiar structures can be found. They are the Maunsell Sea Forts; a series of abandoned military installations created during World War II. Primarily constructed out of steel and concrete the towers seemingly appear out of the water. These outposts had a successful career defending the United Kingdom against German air-raids throughout the war until they were later decommissioned, stripped of their armaments, and left to the elements. Since then, the towers have been sporadically appropriated for a variety of different purposes while steadily falling into ruination. With an aesthetic almost as fantastic as their history, the Maunsell Sea Forts have a unique ability to capture the imagination.
Seas swell and tides rise, engulfing everything familiar around us. We build out of what remains, shaping our environment as it has shaped us.
Looking out I see an array of barges that make up the floating markets. Branching out from them are the wooden walkways and docks, all of which are framed by the imposing architecture of the sea forts. Like the tides and currents this place is ever changing. What was once new becomes old, and what was once old disappears back into the sea…
Seeds carried in baskets are sown throughout the fields. Leaves sprout and stalks emerge. Days pass as ears of corn form and grow. Green is the time for harvesting sweet and milky maize, eaten raw around an open fire. Gold is the time for harvesting maize full of starch for syrups, puddings, and breads. Brown is the time for drying maize to keep over the long winter months. As the plant's life ends the stalks are hollowed out as containers, the husks weaved into baskets, and the cobs used as fuel to burn. In the next season the cycle begins anew as seeds carried in baskets are sown again.
All things in their due course move towards inevitable entropy. Things begin, change, and end, but in that end all broken and discarded things can find ways to begin anew again.
Oftentimes reality can be much stranger than fiction. This is a collection of the wonderfully weird creatures that live within our seas.
More to come…