Weaving history, science, and culture, Cynthia Barnett’s new book unlocks what we’ve missed about these ocean gems

By Ron Cunningham | Photos by Betsy Hanson

Featured image above: Environmental author Cynthia Barnett in the light-filled office where she wrote The Sound of the Sea, her arm resting on the four books she has authored. The first three dealt with fresh water issues; this one  “really completes the hydrologic cycle for me,” Barnett says.

Of all the shells in the sea, the lightning whelk occupies a special place in Cynthia Barnett’s heart.

To begin with, she and her husband, Aaron Hoover,  discovered one on Cedar Key nearly 25 years ago and it’s been topping their Christmas tree ever since.

Not to forget that the lightning whelk is a leftie in a world of spiraling righties.

Or that it’s turned up in the most unexpected places.

But mostly the lightning whelk is Barnett’s favorite because it helped her better understand an ancient civilization that occupied Southwest Florida centuries before she spent her own childhood there.

A youthful Barnett remembers searching for seashells on Sanibel, Marco Island and Boca Grande. And at the tiniest find, her two grandmothers would react “as though I’d found Blackbeard’s treasure.”

And the fact that she’s even willing to single out her favorite seashell definitely separates Barnett from serious conchologists.

“I’m not a shell collector,” she said. “If you ask a true shell collector to name their favorite shell it’s like asking them to name their favorite child. They won’t do it.”

This from the acclaimed Gainesville-based environmental author whose newest book isThe Sound of The Sea, Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans.

Barnett’s previous books, Mirage, Blue Revolution, and Rain, which was longlisted for the National Book Award, largely dealt with fresh water issues.

The Sound of the Sea, she says, “really completes the hydrologic cycle for me. I had been thinking for a long time about how to write about the ocean. People have always loved listening to seashells, and they really do lead to truths.”

In the course of her research, Barnett says, “I came to think of them as the world’s great fact checkers. In both human history and the environment, they tell a more factual story than any human being.”

Some of her research occurred at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, which houses what is reputed to be the world’s largest seashell collection. Barnett and the collection’s donor, Jacksonville physician Harry Lee, used a high-powered microscope to examine 3 million-year-old fossil micro mollusks.

Understanding their evolution from the very beginning “was a high learning curve,” she says. “It turns out there are more than 50,000” varieties of mollusks, “all of them extraordinarily different.”

Her new book is the work of six years and considerable globe trotting. But Barnett can pinpoint her decision to write about the history of shells and their relationship to both human societies and the oceans to a precise moment that occurred during a visit several years ago to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island.

“The director there told me this astonishing statistic,” she recalls. “They had surveyed visitors to see how much they already knew about seashells, and 90 percent had no idea that a seashell was made by a living animal.

“It really hit me that we love seashells for their beautiful exterior rather than for the life inside them. And that is a perfect metaphor for the way we feel about the ocean. We love it as a beautiful postcard scene instead of as the very source of life.”

But getting back to the lightning whelk.

“It was already my favorite shell, but then I learned about how important the animal was to the Calusa, and it’s especially wonderful to know that story.”

Barnett’s book is made up of 13 chapters, an introduction and 12  that each highlight an iconic shell – the queen conch, the giant clam, the scallop and more – and the impact those shells had on the course of human events.

We learn in the chapter on the lightning whelk that, remarkably, this mollusk is the only one whose chamber opens to the left; all others open to the right. “It’s very frustrating to evolutionary scientists,” she says. “One theory is that it had a predator with a left-handed claw.”

Then there is the fact that lightning whelks – which live in the southern Atlantic seaboard and Gulf of Mexico waters – have been dug up in the ruins of pre-Colombian civilizations as far away as the Cahokia people, in Manitoba, Canada, as well as in Indian mounds in East St. Louis and Oklahoma.

All of which supports the existence of an extensive trading system long before Columbus got here.

The lightning whelk was especially important to the Calusa people, who fashioned tools and implements from its shell to build an impressive empire upon shell mounds that stretched all the way from Charlotte Harbor to the Ten Thousand Islands. How extensive? We may never really know.

“By the time archeologists started to work down there many of the mounds were already flattened,” she says.

By the beginning of the last century Floridians were already beginning to dig up the Calusa mounds so they could use the crushed shells to harden sandy roads, provide foundations for housing developments and level out farmlands.

“To complete Tamiami Trail,” Barnett writes, “Florida’s road department carried off a massive hunk of Mound Key, the Calusa capital with its raised chief’s house where 2,000 people could gather comfortably.”

Which is not to suggest that the lightning whelk is the only shell to have a deep impact on Florida and Floridians.

Residents of Key West, aka the “Conch Republic,” became so enamored of the queen conch – its meat, its beauty, its mystique – that they very nearly loved the species to death.

As early as the 1920s, experts were warning that the queen conch was being overfished to the brink of extinction. One scientist compared conch harvesters to the plume hunters who nearly wiped out entire Florida bird species.

Souvenir sellers were not only over-harvesting conch, but breaking up and selling pieces of the very coral reefs that provided its habitat.

Even after queen conch fishing was banned in the Keys, in the 1980s, the species did not rebound. One conch biologist told Barnett “It was like after the Zombie Apocalypse.”

And although the Conch Republic mystique lives on still, the actual conch shells and meat being sold in Key West these days come from the Bahamas.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why conchs haven’t rebounded in the Keys. One suspected culprit, Barnett writes, is the “sauna-warm” water that is indicative of a gradually warming ocean.

“Such hot spots can lower egg and sperm counts and fecundity,” in species like the queen conch.

And then there are the vanishing scallops to consider.

For many years,  Barnett, her husband, and their children, Will and Ilana, made the trek to Steinhatchee to collect “buckets” of scallops. These days, however, Barnett has decided to photograph rather than harvest scallops, sensitive to the fact that scallops have been virtually disappearing from Tampa Bay and other coastal Florida locales.

“The situation in Tampa Bay is tough,” she says. Despite partial restoration of the seagrass beds that support them, scallops “have not returned to previous populations.” Why? Many factors, she suggests: algae pollution due to stormwater runoff, a bayside construction boom that has destroyed mangroves. “Everything you do on the land impacts the sea.”

All of which led to Barnett’s decision to stop harvesting scallops.

“We would gather so many buckets because that was our definition of abundance,” she said. “I want to help people see that we must have a different definition of abundance – one that is based on the abundance of seagrass, clean water and wild scallops. That’s going to mean not harvesting all the scallops we can. It’s hard for people to hear that.”

Which is the point of The Sound of the Sea.

Cynthia Barnett on a bridge in the woods near her home where she would often walk during the writing of The Sound of the Sea. 
Cynthia Barnett on a bridge in the woods near her home where she would often walk during the writing of The Sound of the Sea. 

It is a beautifully written, fact-filled warning about the excesses of human behavior that threaten mollusk populations that have been around, in one form or another, for half a billion years, and which by extension threaten the oceans themselves.

And its title notwithstanding, this book goes far beyond seashells to the lives of people who, around the world and throughout the centuries, have alternately prospered or fallen on the strength of healthy mollusk populations.

“I’ve tried not to be dogmatic or judgmental in this book,” she says. “I’ve tried to reveal my own struggle and vulnerability as someone who loves to eat seafood as much as the next person.

“I set out to see what seashells have to say about the environment and the oceans, but they actually had a lot more to say about people,” she continues. “It made me realize, as I look back on my books, that I have wrongly put animals and the environment at the center of my work. The better way to tell the story is to put humans at the center. We won’t solve climate change without working on the human elements first and foremost.”

One of the stories she tells involves Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who wrote “Gift of the Sea,” while living on Captiva Island. The author and wife of the famed aviator “used seashells to meditate on marriage, motherhood and middle age,” Barnett writes.

In Lindbergh’s time, Barnett said, tourists would come to Florida beaches “and fill their car trunks with live animals…or they would boil the animals at the beach in big pots” to separate them from their shells.

Thanks to conservation efforts and local restrictions on harvesting live mollusks, those excesses are largely gone, she said.

“To see how that has changed is a beautiful thing,” she said. “People don’t kill the animals the way they used to. They pretty much collect empty shells.

“It reminds you of how we can change, how we can live differently. There is a constant evolution of figuring things out and living better.”

Ron Cunningham was a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, higher education reporter at The Gainesville Sun, and Tallahassee bureau chief for The New York Times Florida Newspapers, before serving as editorial page editor at The Gainesville Sun until 2013. He is a University of Florida graduate and former editor-in-chief of the Independent Florida Alligator.

Ron Cunningham was a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, higher education reporter at The Gainesville Sun, and Tallahassee bureau chief for The New York Times Florida Newspapers, before serving as editorial page editor at The Gainesville Sun until 2013. He is a University of Florida graduate and former editor-in-chief of the Independent Florida Alligator.

Fall 2021 FORUM Magazine Chronicling Florida

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.