Texas beaches have their charm, but it can take time for Floridians, or Californians, or even nice people from Illinois or Montana to appreciate them. Some never do. Muddy waves and coarse brown sand aren’t as innately appealing as palm trees and turquoise lagoons. Pickup trucks huddled at the water’s edge blaring an unearthly combination of Master P and Travis Tritt aren’t to everyone’s taste, and hundreds of people casting lines into the surf - or each other – can be a little unnerving.
But even on Memorial Day weekend, with the beaches packed, the coolers and propane cookers stacked three deep and children, dogs and drunkards running free, it’s still possible to find some enjoyment at the beach, a sense of a world that moves to its own rhythms beneath the cacophany of human life. I don’t often travel to the beach on holiday weekends, but this year I took the opportunity to spend time with friends in Port Alto and Matagorda, two little towns close by one another on the Texas coast.
Matagorda was my second stop. My friend and I spent most of our afternoon walking the water’s edge. Passing through party-goers on our way to the pedestrian beach, we strolled down to the cut where the Colorado River flows into the Gulf. Sometimes we stayed on the flat, hard sand. Other times, we ventured like kids into swirling, spumy water that washed away our footing as waves pulled sand from beneath our toes before receding out to sea.
Walking along, we let our eyes skim the dunes, the tideline, the hard, reflective sand washed by the receding waves. Like all Texas mid-coastal beaches, it was littered with Portuguese men of war, sargasso weed, a sea bean or two and the occasional bit of styrofoam. There were shells everywhere: angel wings, bay scallops, lightening whelk, coquina, disk and duck clams. Most were damaged from their tumbles along the shallow bars reaching out into the water. But despite nipped edges, faded colors and the occasional hole, there were plenty of children ready to fill yellow, red and blue plastic buckets with their treasures from the sea.
Away from the water, little dunes had formed, with lovely sea-grasses anchoring them. Pockets of fine white sand reflected the bright sunlight more brilliantly than the water, and strong south winds drifted the loose sand as it threw incoming waves against the granite jetty. The tide was out, and the water so shallow sandbars were exposed nearly to the rocks. As we edged our way toward the jetty and away from shore, my eye was caught by a bit of purple – a tiny dot of brilliant, intense color no larger than a pencil eraser. I thought it must be plastic – perhaps a shard of child’s toy, or a broken fishing lure – but as I bent down to look, I saw it was a shell: a tiny, perfect snail shell.
Whorled at the top, lightly ribbed around its sides and absolutely symmetrical, it was beautiful. I’d never seen anything like it. Calling to my friend, I said, “Look. What is it?” She’d never seen one either, and remarked on the deep, pure color. Picking it up, we found an equally tiny creature inside. Neither of us is inclined to collect homes that still have residents, so after another moment of admiration, we put the shell back onto the beach, at the edge of the tide-washed sand. Immediately, a tiny foot emerged and began to burrow. Looking at the tiny purple speck trying to escape into the sand, there was nothing to do but laugh with delight at the huge determination of a creature so small it nearly wasn’t there.
Continuing down the beach, we speculated on what we’d just seen. We remembered a shell had been used to make purple dye, but thought it was the whelk rather than a snail. Besides, one tiny snail per lifetime didn’t seem enough to support the production of dye. The discussion waned, and we’d begun to talk sailing when we suddenly saw another shell, caught at the edge of some sargasso weed. This one was a bit lighter, and even smaller. It seemed to have bubbles coming from its shell, and when you touched them, they didn’t break.
It was only later, after I’d returned home and spent a bit of time with my friend Google, that I learned we had found Janthinas – common purple sea snails. Finding them is unusual, because they have become pelagic, and live out their lives floating in deep ocean waters. They can travel hundreds of miles, steered by the currents, but they make landfall only when they get washed onto beaches during storms or by especially strong, constant winds. They range around the globe in temperate zones, and have been found in areas as widely separated as Australia and the Caribbean. Near the US, they float on Gulf Stream currents, and have been found as far north as Massachusetts, but they are most common in southeast Florida and the Keys. As my friend and I now know, they sometimes appear in the Gulf of Mexico.
Janthinas feed on Portuguese Man of War and Velella, or “By the Wind Sailor”, which has a floating sail which allows it to tack with the wind. Some attach themselves to Velella, floating and feeding on the creature. If Velella isn’t available, they float by building a raft of bubbles with air captured from the surface of the water with their foot. The bubbles provide enough lift to keep the shell on the surface of the water, but if the raft is broken, the shell sinks and the animal dies. Some species lay their eggs under bubble rafts, but the most common, Janthina janthina, broods its eggs inside its body until the tiny shells emerge and make their own rafts. That’s what my friend and I found on the beach: a pair of baby Janthina janthina, “toddler” purple sea snails that had been forced to land by the winds and tides, separated forever from the sea which sustained their lives.
Colonies of Janthina as large as 200 nautical miles in length have been reported. It may have been one of these rafts that grazed the beach at Key West in 1883 when Charles Torrey Simpson, Florida’s answer to John Muir, came upon a sea of violet-colored shells floating in on the tide and quite literally turning the sand purple. Simpson, a wonderful naturalist and collector extraordinaire, filled his pockets, his hat, and his handkerchief with thousands of shells. When he got back to his ship, he found he had 2,000 perfect specimens.
If I could have conjured Charles Torrey Simpson on the beach last weekend, I suspect he would have made the perfect companion for my friend and me. His 1920 book, In Lower Florida Wilds, suggests that two thousand shells or two would have made no difference to him:
I do not want to investigate nature as though I were solving a problem in mathematics. I want none of the elements of business to enter into any of my relations with it. I am not and cannot be a scientific attorney. In my attempts to unravel its mysteries I have a sense of reverence and devotion. I feel as though I were on enchanted ground. And whenever any of its mysteries are revealed to me, I have a feeling of elation. I was about to say exaltation, just as though the birds or the trees had told me their secrets and I had understood their language - as though nature herself had made me a confidant.
But Simpson also understood one of the basic realities of life - mysteries are there for anyone to see, and nature reveals herself to those who take the time to look. The shells that my friend and I discovered weren’t hidden. They weren’t buried in sand, caught in driftwood, or tucked deep within piles of sargasso weed. They were lying on the sand, in plain sight. All we had to do was look.
Annie Dillard, a keen observer in her own right, talks about the gift of sight in her wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny? If you…crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?
It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.
Indeed. More than computer jargon, WYSIWYG – “what you see is what you get” – is a naturalist’s rule of thumb, and a reminder to beachcombers, sightseers, and life-travelers in general that open eyes and an attentive spirit are prerequisites to the encounter with mystery.
The fact is that this very minute, on uncharted waters in uncounted oceans, great bubbling, purple colonies of sea snails are streaming and drifting their way through life, sent hither and yon by currents and winds. Whether they’ll ever make land, as our little babes did last weekend, we have no way of knowing. But something is coming, and I’m keeping my eyes open.