The Sentinel

Down at the cut, beyond the banks of the sullen, dark-flowing river and its silent, receptive bay, silt-heavy waters tumble and settle into the ocean’s spilling froth.

Anchored by chains of sea-grass, dunes drag and shift in the wind, while along a sepentine ribbon of hard, reflective sand, treasures abound.  Portuguese Men of War, sargassum weed and a sea bean or two lie covered in spume.  Shells and echoes of shells move in tandem with the waves –  angel wing, bay scallop, lightening whelk and coquina – often worn, more often broken after crossing the bars which parallel the coast.

When the tide recedes and sandbars lie exposed, less common treasures invite a second look – sand dollars, an embossed candle, sea-glass in shades of pistachio and almond.  One day I noticed a bit of amethyst flashing in the sunlight – a tiny dot of brilliant, intense color. Assuming a shard of plastic or a broken fishing lure, I bent, and saw the truth. It was a shell – a tiny, perfect snail.

Whorled at its top and lightly ribbed around its sides, it was beautiful. It also was inhabited. Startled by the creature’s movement, I admired the shell a minute longer, then eased it into the tide-line where it bobbed away toward safety. Watching the tiny purple speck clinging to its seaweed, I couldn’t help admiring the determination of a creature so small it nearly wasn’t there.

Soon I saw a second shell, caught in the mat of sargassum.  Lighter in color than the first and even smaller, it was surrounded by lavender bubbles. When I touched the bubbles they resisted, ever so slightly. Remarkably, they didn’t break.

The creatures I discovered that day are known as Janthina janthina – the common purple sea snail.  Finding them on land is unusual, and especially so in Texas. Pelagic by nature, Janthina  live out their days afloat on deep ocean waters.  Traveling hundreds of miles, steered  by currents and landfalling only when affected by storms or strong onshore winds, they range through the temperate zones in areas as widely separated as Australia and the Caribbean.  Near the United States, Gulf Stream currents can carry them as far north as Massachusetts, but most commonly they’re found in southeast Florida and the Keys.

Janthinas feed on Portuguese Man of War and often travel with Velella, a floating jelly with a sail which allows it to tack with the wind.  If Velella isn’t available, the Janthina uses its foot to build  a raft of bubbles with air captured from the surface of the water.  The bubbles provide enough lift to keep the shell buoyant, but if the raft is broken, the shell sinks and the animal dies. 

Some species of Janthina lay their eggs under the bubble rafts, but Janthina janthina broods its eggs inside its body until the tiny shells emerge and make their own rafts.  My Janthinas may have been a pair of “toddler” snails, forced to land by winds and tide, separated forever from the sea which sustained their lives.

Colonies of Janthina can exceed two hundred miles in length. One of these massive shell rafts may have grazed Key West in 1883, the year Charles Torrey Simpson came upon a sea of violet-colored shells bobbing toward the Florida Coast. As befitted a naturalist and collector extraordinaire, Simpson filled his pockets, his hat and his handkerchief with thousands of the snails.  When he got back to his ship, he was covered with purple dye, but  he had 2,000 perfect specimens.

Writing later in Lower Florida Wilds, Simpson suggests two Janthina or two thousand 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…  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.

Respected in his field and as well-known around Florida as John Muir ever was in California, Simpson had his day as nature’s confidant. But Muir’s name and reputation grew while Simpson’s faded like an early morning mist in his beloved Everglades. “Most people don’t have the foggiest idea who Simpson was,” says Rick Ferrer, of the Miami-Dade County Office of Historic Preservation. “He’s sort of an unsung hero.”

Born in Tiskilwa, Illinois in 1846, Simpson began collecting shells as a child. Encouraged by his mother, he continued collecting well into adulthood and by the 1880s was a well-known conchologist – an expert on various species of shelled animals. Neither well-educated nor an academician, he was an asute observer with a love of detail. By1889, he could identify nearly 10,000 shells by sight and knew their Latin names. It was qualification enough to be hired by the Smithsonian to help catalogue their collection.

In the course of his work Simpson grew to love Florida, moving there in 1905. After writing four important books about nature in South Florida – Ornamental Gardening in Florida, In Lower Florida Wilds, Out Doors in Florida, and Florida Wild Life – he received the Meyer Medal in botany in 1923. In 1927, the University of Miami gave him an honorary Doctorate of Science, the first awarded by the university. In his latter years he was known affectionately as “The Sage of Biscayne Bay”, acknowledged as a legitimate researcher and occasionally confused with a homeless eccentric.

Settling at last in Lemon City, a few miles north of Miami, Simpson built his home using the carpentry skills that had supported his shell collecting habit. Raised on stilts, surrounded with galleries and beautifully landscaped, the home was magnificent. Tall Caribbean pines at the front of the property gave the estate its name – The Sentinels. Simpson loved the property as much as he loved the state, and opened it as a meeting place for those equally committed to research and preservation of the natural world.

Early meetings held to discuss the fate of the Everglades were held at The Sentinels, as were discussions about the wisdom of incorporating exotic flora into Florida’s ecological systems. According to Antolin G. Carbonell, a resident of Dade County who studied Simpson extensively, “You could say the whole environmentalist movement in South Florida began with him.”

Michael Browning of the Palm Beach Post agrees. In his July 30, 2006 review of Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp, Browning warned against ignoring Simpson and compared him to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a former Miami Herald reporter who penned the classic Everglades: River of Grass (1947). Browing suggested that Simpson and Douglas present a challenge “much like that of Faulkner for Southern novelists: you can go around them or go through them, but one way or another you have to reckon with the crusty old warhorses.”

The praise seems merited. Prior to moving to Florida, Simpson produced the first effective Florida Keys checklist (1887-1889) by including a separate column in his tabulation of Florida mollusks. Of his ninety-eight bivalve species names, eighty-six still are recognized as valid.

Between 1910-1916, he joined John B. Henderson, Jr.’s dredging expeditions off the Florida Keys. The annual cruises aboard Henderson’s motor yacht Eolis sound like a Parrothead’s dream or a lost chapter from one of John MacDonald’s novels: Key Largo, Tavernier Key, Indian Key, Key Vaca, Hawk’s Channel, Sand Key Light, Key West, Loggerhead, Garden Key, Dry Tortugas – all rich shelling grounds. By dredging or hand collecting, Henderson and his crew deposited tens of thousands of specimens into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) collection, and contributed immeasurably to our understanding of that world.

Florida is more than mollusks, of course. Simpson loved it all, especially its hardwood and palm hammocks. Non-Floridians may think of hammocks as cozy woven swings hung between tropical palms, but this picture of Simpson in his hammock at the Sentinels shows something quite different.

For earlyFloridians, a ‘hammock” meant a cool and shady place. Later settlers used “hummock” to indicate areas higher in elevation than the rest of the land. Today, “hammock” combines both meanings and is used to describe forest habitats (1) higher in elevation than surrounding areas and (2) characterized by hardwood forests, broad-leaved evergreens and tropical plants. The hammocks Simpson loved still flourish in south Florida and along the Florida coastlines, where danger from frost is rare and tropical vegetation common to Caribbean islands is able to survive.

Between explorations and collecting forays, Simpson retreated into his hammock-graced home like a crab into its shell. Describing his retreat, he could become positively lyrical.

There were two magnificent Caribbean pines in front of the house, eighty feet high and in the full glory of robust life. I called them the Sentinels, and from them I named my house. I felt they would watch over and guard me and mine. But the glory of the place was a couple of acres of fine young hammock that lay within a few rods of my door containing a large variety of mostly tropical growth, a thing of joy and inspiration. Year in and year out its greenery, its peace and quiet have appealed to me and from it I have learned some of the most important lessons of my life.

I know of no greater pleasure than that of a naturalist or collector in the woods, the swamps, along the streams or upon the open seashore. I pity those whose entire life and energies are devoted to money-making, who have never revelled in the beauty and freedom of the great out-of-doors. Here is opened wide the great book of nature, the gleaming page filled with wonders. Here, too, is health, peace and contentment, and a new life for the soul cloyed with the artificialities of an overstimulated civilization.

Before a pair of purple shells led me to Simpson and his own experience with Janthina janthina, I knew nothing of conchologists, hammocks, Marjory Douglas or Florida’s “river of grass”.  But I’ve learned much over the years about the artificialities of an overstimulated civilization, not to mention the ability of the natural world to counteract its effects on the human soul.

Like John Muir, Roger Tory Peterson, John Burroughs, Loren Eiseley and a wealth of other collectors, observers, catalogers and explorers through the American centuries, Charles Torrey Simpson captures the imagination with his insistence on the value of the natural world. A pelagic wanderer, an empathic obsessive, a sentinel guarding against forgetfulness of the beauty and freedom we are called to preserve, he has proven Rick Ferrer right. Charles Torrey Simpson remains “sort of an unsung hero.”

Comments always are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

A Special Thanks to the South Florida Wildlands Association for highlighting this post on their Facebook page, and welcome to those of you who’ve come here because of it. Please feel free to leave a comment, or to share Simpson’s story with others. It’s a wonderful one!

101 thoughts on “The Sentinel

  1. Is this top photo of your area? I really am not familiar with where you are and what you see in your little corner of the world.

    The Janthina janthina is a magnificent thing. I am terrified of deep water, but I love to stand on land and look. When I think of where these things have been, how deep, and how far, I get a bit woozy with my fear.

    1. Martha,

      I wish that were the Texas coast. We’re flat, here – the phrase “coastal plain” is pretty descriptive, and people from Florida laugh at our beach sand. The photo at the top is west coast. I used it because I like the way it captures “essence of beachcomber”.

      If you click on the “Galveston”, “Texas” or “Hurricane Ike” tags in the sidebar, you’ll find some photos there that give a sense of things here – also, “sailing”.

      I understand your fear. I never had any trouble with open ocean sailing and eventually learned to snorkel, but the thought of scuba diving – well, it’s just beyond me. That may be more claustrophobia than the depths, but I don’t intend to explore the issue.

      The Janthina is beautiful.When I think about them floating around the world on a raft of bubbles, I’m astounded. They’re the Kon-Tikis of the mollusk world!


    1. montucky,

      And it’s so interesting to see what people fall in love with. Once we get past the big categories – mountains, ocean, rivers – we start moving straight into the territory where people like Simpson devote their lives to particular things – mollusks, orchids, sea birds, mustangs, igneous rocks.

      Like you, I wish every person would do it. Even more, I wish every person could do it. The inability to see the natural world as anything more than a commodity has led to some of the worst decisions possible.


  2. Wonderfully written praise of a naturalist that I did not know. And now I do. He would probably be emotionally wounded if he were to see what the Everglades and the south of Florida looks like today.

    He was a man of great curiosity of the natural world as well as one that displayed great empathy for the environment. I think he was totally in sync with all of nature, especially those things born of the sea. Too bad the great naturalists are not of this century or era. Maybe they could have had some impact on government that would have called for positive treatment of the environment. And, we would not be in such dire straits with global warming and all of the other depressing assaults man has made against nature.

    God rest their souls. They would have all been driven to drink if they were alive today.

    1. Yvonne,

      I’m sure Simpson would be wounded. His wonderful home is gone, after decades of neglect. In the link to Rick Ferrer, above, there’s a passage from Antolin Carbonell that’s heartbreaking:

      “From 1932 to 1944, talks took place about making the Simpson estate a public park, like what became of Fairchild Park in Coconut Grove, but the idea never passed.

      The property was ultimately left to his daughter Marion, who sold the land that made up the Sentinels, save for the one acre on which the house stood. She died in 1963, and there was a push to tear the house down, deemed an eyesore by many in the community.

      A lengthy court battle ensued regarding how the house was to be disposed of, during which time thieves broke in several times and stole important documents and photographs. The UM degree and Meyer Medal were also taken. They broke windows, and on more than one occasion the house caught fire.

      Today, along N.E. 69th Street, one can see what stands today on the Sentinels: The Palm Bay Club and Marina, a 26-story condominium and waterfront. On a green lawn immediately behind a white wall, nothing remains but an acre’s worth of empty space. That empty space is where Simpson’s house once stood.”

      When I read things like that, I’m never sure whether what I feel is more sorrow or anger. Both, I suppose. At least we have the ability to hold up people like Simpson, and their work. His house may be gone, but his knowlege and wisdom remain.


        1. It’s sad, isn’t it? I’ve read just enough to wonder what Simpson’s standing in the community was. And,without knowledge of his family relationships, it’s hard to say what might have led his daughter to sell off the land. On the other hand, even with our supposed increase in sensitivity to all things historical, it can be hard to save buildings now. In 1963, I imagine an “eyesore” would go even more easily.

      1. I thought as much about his house and property since you did not mention that his place could be viewed by the public. I wonder why his daughter did not give important possessions to a university? That truly is a lot to swallow concerning his home. It is a real pity and a sorry lot for the state or near by city that would do nothing to save the home.

        1. Yvonne, my hunch is that some of it was the old “prophet without honor in his own country” business. And as I mentioned above to Susan, there’s a lot of context missing here. Apart from everything else, there was some money sponsoring a lot of those activities he participated in. I wonder why the University or others didn’t consider helping out? Or perhaps they did. As the old saying goes, more research is required!

  3. I especially like your phrase “shells and echoes of shells.”

    The word pelagic was new to me, so I looked it up and found that it contrasts with another word I didn’t know, demersal. So much for immersing myself in the dictionary.

    1. Steve,

      I sat and looked at that phrase for quite some time before deciding it could stay. I like it, too.

      Here’s a truly funny word-story for you. I once was privy to a conversation that became more and more weird until everyone figured out that one person was confusing “demersal” with “demerol”. I suppose someone on demerol could feel as though they’d entered the depths, but…

      Immersing yourself in the dictionary’s great, as long as you remember to come up for air!


        1. I’ve seen it on and explored it a bit, but never got “caught” by it. That seems strange to me, since I always loved diagramming sentences and even enjoyed creating sociograms back in the day – but I do look at it!

    1. See there? Independent verification! And the Florida sort of hammock has a loose parallel here in Texas, where “motts”, or cool, shady groves of (usually live oak) trees provide relief for cattle and people. The word’s memorialized in the name of Long Mott, a Calhoun County town. It’s still in common use among ranchers and long-time residents of the area.

        1. I’ve been having fun! I found Sutton’s Mott, which has quite a history (and a ghost), Round Mott, Buffalo Mott and Pecan Mott. There’s just plain Mott, too, but it was named after a fellow rather than trees. I mought give this rabbit hole a try!

      1. In England after the Norman Conquest, the Normans built “mott and bailey” castles, with the mott being a hill (either natural or man-made) on which the keep was built. It was surrounded by the inner castle wall. The bailey was the land enclosed within the outer castle wall for sheltering livestock and for kitchen gardens.
        Interesting how words morph and travel.

        1. Ah, but not all that glitters is gold. It turns out that English has two unrelated words that have ended up looking the same. The mott(e) that means ‘a small stand of trees’ comes from Spanish mata. In contrast, the motte that means ‘a flat-topped earthen mound’, which is the motte of motte and bailey, comes from Old French mote, which has also become English moat. (When people dug a moat, they piled the removed earth into an adjacent mound.)

          1. Funny – I didn’t see you when I was roaming through the etymological alleyways! See my reply to WOL, just below. Thanks for the confirmation. This is interesting stuff.

          2. “Does the place live up to its name by having thick underbrush?”
            Well, in the days of Jean Lafitte and La Salle it did! The Aransas Wildlife Refuge across from Matagorda Island still does – where the Whoopers overwinter.

        2. WOL,

          Now I’ve learned something. I’ve heard the phrase “castle keep” for years, but never knew exactly what it meant. I’ve always had a fondness for Norman architecture and the Bayeux Tapestry. I think it’s time to learn a little more about their castles.

          One interesting note is that “mott” also can be spelled “motte”. Both were English surnames which originated from the pre-7th century Old English “mote”, meaning a moat, a wide channel constructed as a defensive fortification around a stronghold.

          The “motts” that dot the Texas countryside got their names from the Spanish “mata”, or “shrub”. So, in the case of Mr. Mott’s mott, we’ve got apparently similar words with completely different roots!


          1. That our “mott” meaning a stand of trees derives from the Spanish “mata” is not surprising. There was a significant Spanish presence in Florida and especially in Texas, as we know from our own (Texan) war of independence.

    1. oawritings,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and it makes me feel happy that you’d want to re-read it. I love discovering new things, and I really enjoy sharing them with other people.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words!


    1. Julie,

      Simpson’s the fascinating character here! For some reason, I think he’d do quite well in your part of the world. I can easily imagine him going walkabout in Woop Woop!

      Thanks for the kind words!


    1. janina,

      Your photography’s so interesting it makes me wonder what you could do with a janthina and its bubbles. They’re amazing creatures. Like you, the thought of them building little rafts of air bubbles to float themselves around the world is – well, let’s pull out “amazing” again!


  4. Linda,
    I was unfamiliar with Simpson. Thanks for the introduction and the links in this post.

    I’m trying to imagine seeing a shell raft of two hundred miles. Can you? Bubble rafts? It seems such a fragile existence but obviously enduring. That’s what often strikes me about nature.

    1. Bella Rum,

      Like you, I’d never heard about Simpson. I found him while I was trying to identify the purple shells, and was fascinated. Some of the most interesting articles I read were the ones that detailed the collecting forays he and his friends made – think Howard Carter crossed with Jimmy Buffet.

      Examples of nature’s extravagance are harder to find these days, thanks partly to us humans. The best example I can think of from my own life is a butterfly migration I saw in Liberia. The butterflies were yellow, and they came through in front of my house for three days, so compacted they looked like a yellow river.

      I’d love to see a raft of Janthina. I made a crossed-fingers run through youtube, but youtube failed me. I only could find one video with just a glimpse of a single snail, and a bunch of postings by Florida real estate brokers. Apparently “Janthina” is used a good bit to name streets, neighborhoods and condo developments. ;)


  5. Another serendipitous post. I am right now immersed in a months-long project involving a moon snail shell. I’ll likely run a series of blog posts about it in April.

    It’s such a coincidence that you are writing about another marine snail. Bill Holm said something to the effect that perhaps there really IS something to quantum theory — how the universe arranges itself in response to your attention. This is the third piece of related writing that has come before my eyes since starting my moon snail project. Isn’t that wonderful!

    1. Rosemary,

      And right here on my desk is one of the series of sundial shells I’ve collected over the years. I’ve always had one since reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift From the Sea” back in the early 70s. As a matter of fact, I’ve always had a copy of the book, too, though I’ve had to repurchase many times because I keep giving my copy away.

      It was copyrighted in 1955, and probably would seem unbearably old-fashioned to many women today, but it’s worn well for me. And while my sundial is only a substitute for the moon shell I’ve yet to find, I always can console myself with her chapter entitled “Moon Shell”. I have a feeling you’ve read the book. If not, find a copy as soon as you can, and enjoy. You’ll find it nourishing.


  6. Portugese men-of-war can be nasty critters. Odd that a snail would prey on them. A lavender raft of them miles long must indeed be a sight. I wonder if the lavender color serves a purpose? It’s a sad comment on our society that there are not nearly enough Simpsons in the world. He would be heartbroken to see what is happening not only to the coastlines with the oil spills and hurricanes, but to Florida’s everglades with the careless and irresponsible introduction of foreign species like Asian boa constrictors, tropical fish, and water hyacinth, to name just a few.

    1. WOL,

      It is interesting, isn’t it? Something that we avoid contact with looks like dinner to the Janthina – not to mention sea slugs, loggerhead turtles and a few other creatures. The best tidbit I learned is that young blanket octopus will carry around broken tentacles of the man-of-war, presumably as a weapon.

      Invasive plants and animals are such a problem. We have our own problems down here with water hyacinth and hydrilla, and it’s been amazing to watch the struggles with the “jumping carp” in the rivers and lakes of the midwest. If anyone needs an example to illustrate the law of unintended consequences, the world of invasives provides plenty.

      I think there are Simpsons, but specialists who function as he did, firmly grounded in the real world and outside the realms of academia and government, probably have an even harder time getting recognition for their work. He wasn’t a theorist, he was a collector, and collectors get their hands dirty. Of course, I’m especially taken (and cheered) by the throw-away line that he supported his real love, collecting, by working as a carpenter. There’s a certain freedom in that – and the recognition finally came.


    1. Susan,

      So often in the natural world, what “is” completely confounds our expectations and escapes our usual ways of categorizing. A closer look can lead to every sort of surprise – “a world in a grain of sand”, and all that.

      Beyond that, doesn’t it make you wonder how many more Simpsons are roaming around among us, completely unnoticed? The documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect” comes to mind. If Starr Saphir isn’t a modern day Simpson, I don’t know who would be.


  7. Another meandering journey through personal history and more. I enjoyed being along on the trip.

    I recall meeting Simpson somewhere in the not to distant past. And, as I always am when I come across someone with a passion for nature that becomes their life, I was blown away by his story. I don’t remember where I stumbled across his story, but your reminder will have me looking more closely for the connection.

    Thanks for sharing… Now I’ll have something else to look for when I hit the beach next month.

    1. Gary,

      I just read something about the men-of-war I didn’t know. They’re not true jellies, which usually have means of propulsion. Instead, the men-of-war float on the currents and respond to the winds just as Janthina do. That probably helps to account for their relationship, but it does something else – gives us a clue on how to find more Janthina!

      If I ever see a beach with plenty of men-of-war lying around, it’s going to be a signal to take a closer look and see if the Janthina are there, too.

      And by the way – the location of the sighting was Matagorda, just to the east of the channel, and it was May. Everything I’ve read suggests early spring through early summer’s the best time to find them, but if there’s heavy sargassum I surely would take an extra look.

      Hard to believe another year’s gone by! You’ve seen some wonderful things on your trips. I’ll look forward to your reports!


  8. Another wonderful find! I knew purple dye came from rare shells – but didn’t know much about them ( bubbles are life!)
    Love what he wrote about the pine guarding him. It is more than sad that his estate was not saved – it so easy to lose things that will never be regained.
    Can’t believe you had such luck to spot that shell!
    Enjoyed traveling along.

    1. phil,

      In the process of writing this, I wondered about getting purple dye from our state shell, the lightning whelk. No, it’s not possible – but I found a recipe for making purple dye from shells, and it was one of those “don’t try this at home” deals.

      The loss of Simpson’s home and estate was one of those Joni Mitchell moments. From paradise to parking lot or worse in a flash – although, to be fair, there are times when figuring out what should be saved and what can be let go can be truly difficult. Anyone who’s moved or decided to really clean house knows about that!


  9. I have always loved the word ‘sentinel,’ and it is a fitting description for this man, whom you’ve so kindly introduced me to. Again, a post that fills my mind with whirling thoughts–and good ones, at that.

    1. Emily,

      If you love the word “sentinel”, you clearly have two things in common with Mr. Simpson – the word itself, and a love of nature. When I saw the photo of him reading in his hammock, I thought of your musings about the power of place. Clearly, his “place” in the world informed everything he did, and in turn, his work helped to form and re-form his “place”. Reciprocity rocks!


  10. Linda, this is full of interesting people, places, and things! I grew up in Illinois, but had never heard of Tiskilwa (so of course, I checked it out!). And I’d never heard of a purple sea snail — how beautiful and delicate they are! And I wasn’t knowledgeable about Charles Simpson, either. Thank you for introducing us to him!

    1. Debbie,

      I was amazed to find Tiskilwa so close to the Quad Cities, where I spent a lot of time visiting relatives as a kid. I think I’m going to have to find either a really good biography of Simpson or do more research. I keep asking questions like, “If he started collecting shells as a child, was he still in Tiskilwa? or had they moved? Or did they vacation at the Great Lakes?” I don’t know about Tiskilwa, but there weren’t a lot of shells around my mid-Iowa town!

      In any event, he’s a fascinating guy, and quite a reminder that dedication and perseverance can lead to some remarkable results.


  11. Reading this reminded me of another “Simpson”. My borrowed copy of Edward F. Ricketts and Jack Calvin’s “Between Pacific Tides” sits close by so I looked up “Purples”.

    Between pages 206 and 207 was a scrap of note paper with a simple pencil outline of a mollusk shell. Taped to the back is a sketch, again in pencil, of a small fish on tracing paper with “Brown Rudderfish” printed on it. Unfolding the note paper there is another outline of a small fish.I just noticed that going to check the sketches I had flipped to another page which also had a folded note paper with another trace paper sketch of a fish taped to it. So now I’m confusing the bookmarks.

    Anyhow if I can make some sense of this: The book was owned for some time by a fellow I worked with for years. He left us with various items – I still use his planer and router and the book went to another couple’s library. Mike grew up in a house on a rocky cove near the Pacific Biological Research Station in Nanaimo. He took an interest in collecting and identifying tidal organisms. I think one of the researchers at the station noticed Mike’s interest and gave him that book and an old binocular microscope which I have now and dust occasionally…

    When Mike left some of us challenged ourselves to write what we knew of him and this is not my first attempt. The “Simpsons” of this world deserve commemoration. Thank you for this one.

    1. Ken,

      I always remember mimeograph machines, typewriters and carbon paper, but I’d forgotten tracing paper. It was fun to use, and “dressed up” many a school project.

      Until now, “Nanaimo” had meant only one thing to me – those delicious bars that are to be made only when there are enough people around to eat them up pronto, thereby saving me from myself. I did go over to the PBRS site and do a search for Janthina. The returns were very interesting – and I noticed a spelling difference between “velella” (U.S. sources) and “valella” (Canada). I’ll figure that out later.

      I still remember my amazement the first time I looked at Pacific tidal pools – so different from anything we have here! Your friend had a wonderful place to grow up, and I’m sure the PBRS libraries, programs and staff did much to encourage him.Good of you to remember him here.


    1. Andrew,

      You’ve given us so many beautiful photos of the harbors, shorelines, rivers and bays of your part of the world, it pleases me to give you a glimpse of ours.

      I can’t remember ever seeing any photos from Florida in your galleries. If you get there, you’d have a marvelous time in south Florida. There’s natural beauty, of course, but the opportunities for street photography in Key West and Miami would keep you very happy!

      And you’re exactly right – I do love the digging.


  12. How the heck did you ever get so smart? And oh! Your powers of observation and tenacity in discovering even more than just a pretty shell or funky bubbles! I am so impressed by the depth and complexity of this post (and so many of yours) and am happy to say that I have learned rather a lot in reading it! Thanks!

    1. jeanie,

      I’m not sure “smart” is as important as curious and tenacious. You’re not so very different. It’s just that while you’re working at your art table, spending those hours with the materials of your craft, I’ve got my nose poked into the archives of the Miami-Dade Planning Commission and descriptions of a mollusk’s life cycle.

      While you’re taking those cowgirls, for example, out of one context and placing them into another with some added details, I’m doing exactly the same thing. The phrase “imaginative reconstruction” comes to mind. It’s common in law, sociology and among writers of historical novels, but it works just as well for us!


  13. I always enjoy searching for seashells … this is an excellent post. Your knack for storytelling and “teaching” is a gift to behold. Thank you for sharing.

    I do not “do” many awards, but I could not pass this one up in
    order to pass it on to you. I have nominated you for Blogger of the Year Award for 2012 … well deserved. Thank you for wonderful moments of reading in 2012.

    1. becca,

      I’m so glad you were recognized with this award. Your haiku, especially, are so consistently well-written and charming you deserve it!

      And thank you for passing it on to me. I appreciate it, and intend to visit the other bloggers you nominated. I learned very early that people’s visits to my blog and their comments are reward enough for me, so I don’t participate formally in the blog award process. Still, it tickles me that you thought of me, and I’m grateful!


      1. Thank you … I don’t usually participate in them either — in fact, this is probably the last “formal” activity regarding awards. I just wanted you to know — your blog is a delight to read and I enjoy each visit. Have a blessed weekend.

  14. I like that — Kon-Tikis of the mollusks. The amethyst coloring of the shell is so very lovely. At your link I saw how big Janthinas can get. I’d never heard conchologists — I’d’ve thought it meant someone who specialized in conching chocolate ;-)

    1. nikkipolani,

      I’d never heard of conching chocolate. Now that I’ve learned about the process, I’m very glad it was invented. Drinking chocolate is fine, but it’s awfully handy to be able to tuck a bar of chocolate into a bag, and I prefer mine without the grittiness, thank you very much!

      Of course, there’s always that wonderful combination of shells and chocolate! Just like Mr. Mott’s mott in the comments above, we could have conched conchs! ;)


  15. “Most people don’t have the foggiest idea who Simpson was.” I was one of those people, Linda. But you’ve helped bring him into sharp focus, just as you did with your vivid description of that tiny purple snail — “a creature so small it nearly wasn’t there.” They feed on the Portuguese Man of War? Colonies two hundred miles long? And Simpson’s discussion about “the wisdom of incorporating exotic flora into Florida’s ecological systems” nearly a hundred years ago? One way or another, both of your subjects — the mollusk and the man — made their presence known. Thank you for writing about them.

    1. Charles,

      “The Mollusk and the Man” sounds like a pretty good title for a children’s book. Kids went big for a talking purple dinosaur – why not a purple creature so small it nearly wasn’t there and an old dude with a run-down house and plenty of time to roam the beaches and woods? It could work.

      What I love about Simpson is his obvious love for his collections. Someone whose knowledge is grounded in love is a much more appealing person than one whose knowledge is second-hand and purely intellectual. I don’t like being beaten to death with “shoulds” and “oughts” by some of the true believers in the environmental movement. But if the good Mr. Simpson wanted me to count critters or wash shells? I’m there!


  16. What a wonderful post!! I love how you honor Simpson and Douglas, in such a clever way — as always. Such amazing people — I’ve been meaning to read more of Simpson’s stuff. His impact is tremendous, and I adore him for his love of this unique land. A re-blog may be a-comin’! :)

    1. FeyGirl,

      I knew you’d enjoy the post – you’re right there in the middle of their territory! I’m anxious to read some of Simpson’s own writing, rather than just articles about him. I have a feeling his personality will shine through, especially since he’s reputed to have had a rather – idiosyncratic – personality!

      I would prefer that you not re-blog, although you’d be more than welcome to link to the piece. My hope is that you might have something about the fellow in your files that you’re going to share with us. I never even thought to do a search of your site for his name. I believe I’ll do that!


  17. Such an interesting post you write about “a creature so small it nearly wasn’t there.” You always bring our attention to creatures, plants, things, people, thoughts making them more than innocuous. You have a very precious spirit that fills me with the anticipation of what you will illuminate next — you leave a distinct footprint in your wake.

    You make me think of Antonio Machado’s poem “Caminante” “Caminante, se hace camino al andar…Caminante, no hay camino sino estelas en la mar.” “Walker/hiker, one makes a road walking…hiker, there is no road/path but rather wake in the sea.”

    Thank you for pointing us to the “path/wake” of Simpson, that could simply just disappear except someone like you points out his path.
    Although this poem is in Spanish you might enjoy listening to the power of its interpretation by Joan Manuel Serrat on YouTube.

    It’s interesting that the film “Kon-Tiki” has only now come on the Golden Globe and Oscar scene. I loved the book as a teenager and the thought that inhabitants from South America could travel over 4,000 miles to the Polynesian islands is a plausible theory. I believe, your description of the Janthina-like balsa raft floating from Florida is not just plausible but logically true since you found one around Matagorda. Thank you for another wonderful post.

    1. Georgette,

      The poem is wonderful. I found a page with both the Spanish and an English translation here . Another small delight in the poem is this line:

      “I never sought glory,
      nor to leave in man’s
      memory my song;
      I love the subtle worlds,
      weightless and delicate,
      like soap bubbles.”

      The Janthina’s bubbles obviously are a little stronger than soap bubbles, but “weightless and delicate” certainly applies.

      I’m passing the poem on to a friend who walked El Camino de Santiago last year. I have a feeling she’ll appreciate it greatly. So do I – although for other reasons. I’m particularly taken with the phrase, “one makes a road walking”. It reminds me both of the labor required to make some paths – like bush paths in Liberia (bring your own machete!) and the ephemeral nature of others, especially the passing of a vessel across the sea.

      There’s no question early peoples such as the Polynesians used ocean currents for navigation. I tried without success to find a wonderful online article about the way “cross-currents” could alert them to the presence of islands, too. They could read the waves as easily as the stars – amazing. On the other hand, even novices can find currents like the Gulf Stream easily, and our beloved Gulf has its own seasonal currents.

      It’s an interesting thought. If we recognize and understand the currents of life, we don’t have to paddle so hard!


      1. Yes! “como pompas de jabón” Ephemeral but your words make the Janthina balsa raft and Simpson last gracefully and delicately. Glad you found the song that puts Machado’s words to music.

  18. Forgive me if someone already mentioned this. The first of our chain of islands known as the Florida Keys is Key Largo and after that comes Islamorada. Morada is the Spanish word for purple and so Islamorada is the ‘purple isle.’ Some historians speculate that it was named for the purple hue of janthina janthina shells lining the coast at the time. Perhaps it was such a gigantic raft of shells as you describe from Key West in 1883. Others say for the bougainvillea flowers. I always prefered the shell theory.

    If I had heard of Simpson, it most assuredly fell back out of my radar, but Marjorie Stoneman Douglas is the icon who first referred to the glades as the River of Grass. As a once amateur conchologist I guess I have forgotten much. As you can see Janthina is my icon. My attachment dates back to the 1970’s when I was involved with collecting and identifying shells in the Pacific and came to identify with a small violet lifeform whose path seemed as at the mercy of life’s currents as I felt mine was!!

    Besides my inherent interest in the subject, it is simply a great, great article. I most especially love the language in the first couple of paragraphs as it made me hear the sounds of shells and seafoam swirling at the edge of the world.

    Excellent…one of my favourites of yours.

    1. Judy,

      I love the dissection of words that’s taking place here! First I realized our Matagorda Island is formed by the Spanish “mata” and “gorda”, and now we can add Islamorada to the list of descriptive names. I think I’d vote for the Janthina being the source of the name. Bougainvilleas do have a purple variety, but it’s not common – I even wonder if the flowers were as profuse back in the day when places were being named. I have a feeling human cultivation has increased their presence!

      I read Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ biography online last night, and was completely amazed by her life. The first thing I took note of is that she founded Friends of the Everglades when she was 79. So much for that “too old to start something new” business.

      Another line in the wiki that caught my attention is this one: “Early in the 1940s Douglas was approached by a publisher to contribute to the Rivers of America Series by writing about the Miami River. Unimpressed with it, she called the Miami River about “an inch long” but in researching it became more interested in the Everglades.” I thought immediately of Chester Cornett, a chair-maker in Kentucky who was asked, “”Can anyone learn how to use a drawing knife?” Cornett said, “I’d say so, excepting… you got to learn to get interested in anything to learn it.”

      At different times and places we both got interested in the Janthina and made use of them – my post, your avatar. I think Simpson would be pleased! And I’m so glad you mentioned those first paragraphs. I wanted to evoke a bit of the Janthina’s world, and the pleasure of the shore. It pleases me that I did so for you!


  19. Thank you for introducing me to Simpson – and with such beautiful words. Despite living in Florida for almost a quarter of a century, I knew nothing of him. In my California upbringing, I learned of Muir at an early age and he became one of my heroes. During my life in Florida, I discovered Douglas. I had to research and write a paper on the environmental movement for part of my senior project in college but don’t remember ever reading about Simpson. What a shame his name and work has faded into obscurity.

    1. Cherie,

      I’m rather amazed at the number of Floridians who don’t know Simpson. On the other hand, online articles I’ve found suggest that Rick Ferrer, still employed by the Miami-Dade Office of Historic Preservation, may be responsible for his recent “revival”.

      His research into Simpson and the publication of the Biscayne Bay newspaper interview with him helped. The presence of that article online alerted me to Simpson when I went looking for information on Janthina. It is a shame Simpson’s faded into obscurity, but perhaps we can help to bring him back.

      I lived in Berkeley back in the 70s, and Muir Woods was one of my favorite places to spend weekend time. In fact, of the few photos I have left from that era, one was taken on a Muir Woods path. The most remarkable thing about the photo is the absence of any gray hair. ;)

      Thanks for stopping by – I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I’m glad for the memories you evoked. I’ve got “River of Grass” reserved at the library, but I’ve got six people ahead of me. That’s good, I think.


  20. What a wonderful entry. I’d never heard mention of Simpson before. I’ve a feeling I would have liked knowing him.

    I was suprised to find that hammock is another term for hummock. I was looking for the woven version in that picture of Simpson!

    Just look at all the conversational topics this entry has spawned! From beaches and shelling, to snails, rafts, Kon Tiki, hammocks and hummocks, Ye Olde Castles and Keeps, Motts, Matagorda and purple dye! I might as well add another tidbit:

    The ancient Phoenicians were purported to have made purple dye as long ago as 1600 BC. It was made from predatory snails, usually of the Murex family and was called Tyrian Purple. Highly expensive, it was considered a status symbol and early laws restricted it’s use; hence the term, “To the purple born.”

    I did have to go look up the details but I knew that the dye was used in the ancient Med, was made from shells (or their occupants), it was very expensive and only royalty or the wealthy ‘high rankers’ were allowed – by law – to wear the color.

    1. Gué,

      There’s no question both of us would have enjoyed hanging out with Simpson. I can just see us, with some good pimento cheese sandwiches, tea and lemonade out there in the hammock, chatting away – or heading off on a collecting jaunt. I have a feeling that both of us had dads who resembled Simpson to a degree. I wonder about his daughter who sold the old home place. She may not have enjoyed her father as much as we did ours.

      Your comments made me wonder again about the state shell of Texas, the lightning whelk. As it turns out, it’s not useful for dye-making. But look at this, from the wiki: “There is some confusion about the correct scientific name for this species, which has been called “Busycon sinistrum” and “Busycon contrarium”, and has also been confused with “Busycon perversum”. Back in the day, I knew all three of those species. They sound just like some of the busybodies and gossips who lived in my grandmother’s town!

      Isn’t it amazing to see how the conversation ranges from one topic to another? I’ve never heard the phrase “to the purple born”. I wonder if that’s more commonly used in some of the British programs you follow. We always preferred that oldie-but-goodie about silver spoons. ;)


      1. I haven’t a clue where I picked up that bit about ‘to the purple born.’ Probably in a book somewhere. Or Nat’l Geo, maybe? It sounds like something that they would have mentioned in an article about ancient Greece, Italy or elsewhere in the Med. I’ve been reading Nat’l Geo since I was yea high., so there’s a good chance that was it.

        We’ve got some of those ‘silver spoon’ folks here. I even know a few. Alas, but I’m not one of ’em!

        It is a shame about his house. I hate to see old properties go, ’cause once they’re gone, that’s it.

  21. One more trunk full of treasures from you! I first learned about hammocks when I stumbled upon Marjorie Kinnan-Rawlings back in 1995, and I wanted to write like her. I still do. She inspires me, much as she was inspired by the people of the Florida hammock. I think finding that little snail on the violet bubbles might just be the coolest shell gathering find ever!!!

    1. Wendy,

      You confused me for a minute. Now I know there’s both Marjory Stoneman Douglas (“River of Grass”) and Marjoie Kinnan-Rawlings (assorted stories, “The Yearling”, Pulitzer Prize, etc.) Good grief. Of course, while she was writing of rural Florida, I was pretty heavily into “Little House on the Prairie”. Geography as destiny, kid-lit version.

      Speaking of houses, look at the photo of her house here, and my favorite getaway in Breaux Bridge, the old City Hotel. Interesting. Not identical, but clear echoes.

      I’d say you got a pretty good start on things with “Before the Saltwater Came”. Maybe time to start a new tale?


  22. This is a first lines heaven of a post, beautiful! And finding all this out from your shell discovery, I see what you mean about being whisked off by aliens into research world. It’s really illuminating to hear of people like Simpson, here we tend only to hear of the more commercial side of Florida – it’s Disneylands and hotels!

    I’ve recently read a book by another US naturalist, Aldo Leopold – A Sand County Almanac, his passages about losing the prairie are very moving. Like you and many of your readers I’m definitely with Simpson when he says that being in nature is ‘a new life for the soul.’

    1. Sarah,

      Clearly, Mr. Simpson didn’t have the sort of marketing team that benefits Disney. To my way of thinking, that could be as much a positive as a negative. We need to know about people like Simpson, but the last thing we need is “Mollusk Land”, complete with carnival rides with seats shaped like conchs and rafts of college kids dressed like Janthina drifting through the crowds. ;)

      I always have to do a double-think when Leopold’s name is mentioned. I always think first of Leopold and Loeb, which is quite something else. Interesting that you bring up the “Sand County Almanac”. A friend’s in process of moving to Baraboo, and is hoping to enjoy some of the beauties Leopold describes.

      I’ve done my share of living in and visiting cities. I’ve had wonderful experiences, and I understand the pull of the museums, galleries, concerts and such. There’s an energy that can’t be denied. But cities are changing, just as society as a whole is changing, and the energy is different. I’ll likely never live in the country again, but I’ll never be far from the natural world.


      1. Haha that’s quite a (dys)vision!

        I’d love to visit real prairie, where’s the best place to go? Baraboo?

        I feel extremely lucky to have experienced both city and country and to be able to still take advantage occasionally of those museums etc – staying with friends makes it so much more possible. But I couldn’t live there now.

        1. Here’s a story of real, unbroken prairie just about an hour from my house. It’s wonderful, but the Flint Hills of Kansas are spectacular. I’m still sitting on a pile of photos and some posts from my trip through Kansas last fall. They’ll be along shortly. A great read for you would be William Least Heat-Moon’s “Prairy Erth”, about Chase County, Kansas.

          There are various kinds of prairie. We have coastal prairie. Farther north in Texas, there’s blackland prairie. Kansas is tallgrass. They’re all wonderful, and worthy of preservation. Thank goodness people started thinking about them before they were as gone as Simpson’s house.

          1. thanks Linda i just read that post, very exciting…though slightly alarming as well on the amount that was lost :(.

            Over 300 species, that is rich!

            As nature conservationists never tire of saying ‘it’s all about the management’

            I’ll see if I can get hold of Prairy Erth.

  23. Hi Linda,
    Surprise, I started reading your header and had to follow the story. You know I loved this as a lover of South Florida.
    I thought I knew most of our South Florida lovers of our natural beauty but I have never heard of Simpson….
    Of course I know about Douglas and some of the others.

    Thank you so much for a well written and informative essay!


    1. Patti,

      Perhaps there’s more subject matter here for your painting. How about “Hammocks and Hammocks: The South Florida Life” for a title? You could include everything from paintings of the natural beauty of the land to the equally fun images of the umbrella-drinks-and-hammocks lifestyle!

      We can’t travel every path in life, but I really am interested in these Florida naturalists. I fear too many people even in the States think of Florida as beaches, orange juice, and Art Deco Miami. Well, and “Miami Vice”, I suppose. There’s far more to it than that!


  24. What a beautiful and informative piece of nature writing. We do live in different worlds. And so, thanks to blogging, we can connect and get a glimpse of what others see and the natural environs they live in. I have the Rocky Mountains, Boreal Forests. What I do miss is the ocean, and all the arrays of lives along its shore. Something I can only see through your eyes.

    1. Arti,

      What’s more, mountains aren’t just mountains, and oceans aren’t just oceans. The Rockies are as different from the Appalachians and the Adirondacks as the Gulf of Mexico is from the Pacific or the Indian. Even here in Texas, you can find seashore, pine forests, desert and mountains – the variety of the world is staggering. As you rightly point out, one of the pleasures of blogging is being able to see these multiple worlds through the eyes of those who live there.

      Did you ever sing the children’s song, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”? I love that he went over just “to see what he could see”. Just looking around is usually enough to find something new nad interesting, even in our own back yards!


  25. I’m late at the party once again, but once again I’m glad I came late because your beautifully written post about a little purple shell has spawned the most fascinating conversation. Brava and Muchas gracias Linda!

    From your walk on a beach I learned all about
    1. Janthina janthina – the common purple sea snail,

    2. Charles Torrey Simpson a man whose name should be as well known as John Muir but none of the previous readers had heard of him – – shame on us or should the shame rest entirely on Florida, a State which welcomes the likes of Disney, golf courses up the wazoo and villages for senior citizens that are as big as cities, but doesn’t respect nature enough to keep Charles Simpson’s home as a museum?

    3. a hammock isn’t a “string-bed” tied between two palm trees on a beach where I can lay and sip a drink of pineapple juice and rum with a little umbrella in it!

    4. English castles, keeps, motts and moats, matagorda and the Florida Keys…

    5. The expression “To the purple born” came from to the ancient Phoenicians who made purple dye from snails….

    6. And finally the beautiful Spanish poem of the Camino. I was moved when I read Antonio Machado’s “No Hay Camino” but after watching Joan Manuel Serrat powerful interpretation on YouTube I wept – even though I don’t understand Spanish – and had to watch it again. Thank you and thank you and thank you.

    1. Rosie,

      I thought of you when I read “No Hay Camino”. I was most taken by the image of a disappearing wake upon the water, and printed out the English version to ponder. The song is beautiful, isn’t it? I was so glad that Georgette pointed me toward it.

      Preservation seems always to imply arguments – sometimes heated. There have been a few set-tos in Houston over the years about architectural preservation. The forces of “newer and brighter” vs the forces of tradition and history can be something to behold. In the end, I suppose it’s more important that awareness of Simpson’s work aid in the preservation of the land, but it would be nice if his house had remained. On the other hand, there are questions… If no one had tended to the property all those years, it well might have been an eyesore. From 1932 to 1963 is a long time to be bickering over a house.

      Just remember – a hammock is also that lovely string swing! After one of your hikes, a drink in a hammock in a hammock sounds like the perfect way to recover!


      1. “a drink in a hammock in a hammock”. Thanks Linda you’ve given me the perfect title for a hike.
        Its true that a neglected house in the Florida climate would be in bad shape after 30 years

    1. Claudia,

      Too many people see the world as nothing more than a commodity, something to be controlled and exploited. It seems to me that one of the qualities which distinguish a person like Simpson is a deep realization that the world came first, and that we’re only a part of it. Caring for it requires a good bit more knowledge and love than some of us are capable of.


  26. I enjoyed this (of course!) and my mind can’t turn loose of the idea of emerging with purple dye on my skin from those beautiful mollusks! I would have filled my pockets as well and would embrace that kind of tattoo, as long as it eventually faded!

    1. Lisa,

      The purple would fit right into one of your paintings – I’m sure of it! As for wearing it – surely you’ve come across that poem called “When I am old, I shall wear purple”? My only question is – why wait? Which is exactly the point you make in your blog, over and over!

      ( Funny, what the mind does. When I typed that last sentence, it came out, “Which is expatly the point….”!)


  27. I remember visiting the beach in Florida long ago. One had to rise early in order to collect the scallops decorating the shore – if your feet hit the sand after 9AM, the beach will have been swept clean by other conchologists.

    At the Palos Verdes beach in S. California, we see – in addition to turban shells, cowries and slipper shells – the empty egg cases of sharks: their occupants by then dangerous and graceful under the waves.

    You capture exactly the wonder of discovery – that fleck of color, that tempting pattern – that comes from wondering across the sands.

    1. aubrey,

      I’ve never gone shelling in Florida or Southern California – one of these days it will happen. I need to go here, and now. Winter is our best season for beachcombing – I think the currents affect things, and the lower tides.

      Cowries are so beautiful. No wonder they’ve been used for money as well as decoration. I have a basket I brought back from Africa decorated with cowries – and how I’d love to see your turban shells.

      I’m thinking again about Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s wonderful lines – “One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach — waiting for a gift from the sea.”


  28. beautiful, living creature and beautifully written. i love your first paragraph. it’s like a song in the way it flows. of course as a musician that’s a perfectly reasonable comparison for me.

    1. sherri,

      The Janthina looks like it belongs in one of your photos. I can almost see it there, with a lovely lavender wash over the sky and the beach stretching away…

      I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to read your comments about the first part of the post. It took some work, I’ll tell you – but it’s very good to know that the work can disappear behind the words.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.