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.”