We were staying at the beach shack. It had been my father’s retreat, the manifestation of his dream for peace and independence. He bought the land and built this simple house where he enjoyed many years of fishing from the bountiful sea.
As he walked the sands, he collected the flotsam and jetsam from the ceaseless tides which caressed the shore. Twice every day, waves would bring another bounty. Mostly it was seaweed, tangles of eel grass and strands of what we called Neptune’s Beads for the round floats along its ropey lengths. Shell debris and occasional fresh shells untarnished by the roll and tumble of the surf, marked the high point of the tide. Chitons and periwinkles, cockles and whelks, razor fish and cuttlefish skeletons, as a child I got to know them all well. The bounty depended on the season and the strength of wind and tide. The stronger the wind and the higher the tide, the greater was the diversity of the offerings.
The tide would bring man-made objects too. Bottles and string, wood, a box or a shoe- objects lost or cast away floated in bearing clues and stories, real or imagined. Most of all, my father loved the curious bits of sea life which found themselves on his shore. He treasured the small seahorse skeletons, the rarer shells, unusual crabs or their fragile moulted shells. After many decades of scavenging he had collected five paper nautilus, the rare egg cases of cryptic cuttlefish-like creatures, which inhabited these waters, but we only knew from books. The fine white shells were as delicate and elegant as Japanese fans.
All these treasures he collected. He would study them on the old table on the veranda and keep the ones he liked. A shinier or bigger shell might replace one in his collection; a tiny crab might warrant a bottle of spirit, a bigger one would be left for the ants to clean off the flesh so it wouldn’t smell among his treasures.
But, this morning as I woke, and my eyes fell on the collection, I saw it differently. I saw a catalogue of dead things, wrested from their place in the natural world. The collection stood as an intervention; an obsession for which interest was sufficient cause for death. I saw before me a cascade of the collectors of birds and animals who tore creatures from their lives because of their perceived beauty or their rarity. I saw sadness in these collecting deaths.
But then, I reflected on the transience of my own existence and that death, as the end of life, surrounds us every moment at the microscopic, cellular and macro levels. Death is pervasive, and passes unremarked every day. I hoped my thoughts, and my wonder at life’s diversity added poignancy if not meaning to the lives that surrounded me. And, here on the beach, I remembered my father who took such pleasure in it all. That was his legacy, the thought fossils and love that he left among the shells and skeletons of his collection.
Heather Webster, writer, Langhorne Creek grape grower, community advocate, red wine lover and commentator on things that matter in life.