The touch of a shell – blind shell scientist

The touch of a shell – blind shell scientist – excerpt from ‘Privileged Hands’

Geerat Vermeij

A TRAY OF SHELLS STANDS BEFORE me in the bright December sunshine streaming in through the north window. I know that this haul, dredged yesterday from a rich community of sponges and pen shells off the Otago Peninsula of New Zealand, will yield surprises. It will prompt questions that I would not have known to ask, and it will steer me to thoughts that only firsthand observation can provoke. I turn over each shell in my hands, employing fingertips and nails to scrutinize all the subtleties of shape and surface ornament. There is astonishing diversity here. A hand-size star shell, its long hollow spines jutting from the flattened whorl like sun rays, competes for space in the tray with hairy mussels and bearded ark shells. A thick layer of sponge obliterates the delicate scaly ribs of a scallop. Thin slipper limpets tumble out of the openings of snail shells in which hermit crabs had found a secondary home. Borers have attacked the large plain triton shells so thoroughly that the thin internal glaze of the shell is pockmarked with patches where the snail builder was compelled to repair the damage. From Privileged Hands, by Geerat Vermeji, to be published in September 1996; 1996 W. H. Freeman and Company. The shell shown above is an Oliva sayana.

How odd that all the cold-water shells from New Zealand are so thin. Certainly they contrast with the thick-shelled productions so characteristic of mollusks in Chile, Maine, and the Pacific Northwest. The rich diversity of surface sculpture also attracts my notice. Spines of the sort displayed by the star shell are common enough in tropical shells from comparable depths in the western Pacific but rarely adorn shells from cold regions. Do such architectural features reflect the heritage of a tropical ancestry? Perhaps, but several of the spines appear to have been broken and then regrown when the snail builder was alive, suggesting that they might have served a valuable function in the living animal.

In other ways, the snails and clams of Otago conform faithfully to expectation. Like cold-water shells everywhere, most reveal a coarse, chalky texture, not the hard marblelike feel of warm-water shells. Why should this be?

Thirty-seven years earlier and half a world away, I asked that same question. Quietly and without fanfare, perhaps even without any conscious thought on my part, that question transformed an ordinary day in fourth grade into a day when all the enjoyment I had always felt for natural objects crystallized into a burning curiosity.

That morning must have dawned like any other in the fall of 1956. As my brother Arie and I made our way from the rambling second-floor apartment on Salem Street in Dover, New Jersey, to the East Dover Elementary School, the sweet aroma of decaying leaves and the fermenting crab apples that lay trampled on the pavement was interrupted only briefly by car fumes. Within five minutes I sat in my seat near the window in the front row, within easy reach of Caroline Colberg’s large wooden desk. The first lesson dealt with the early American explorers. Their names and the places they conquered–Cortes in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, Cartier and De Champlain in Canada–fired my imagination. I pictured thick jungles and rugged mountains, and the greed and courage of Spaniards slogging across Panama to gaze upon the Pacific.

History had to make way for art. Although pictures drawn with pencil or pen held no meaning for me, Mrs. Colberg insisted that I participate. My assignment was to produce a catalog of leaf shapes, each leaf carefully traced with a stylus on a sheet of braille paper laid on a board to which window screening had been nailed. A sharp raised outline of the leaf would appear on the back side of the paper, to be carefully labeled. The simple ovate leaves of cherry, apple, and lilac posed no problem; maple and oak, with their lobes and toothed margins, challenged my untrained hand.

My habit of working quickly through assignments left me with oceans of free time. Oblivious to what the rest of the class was doing, I would avidly lose myself in the pages of the seven-volume braille dictionary that stood on the long table at the front of the room. But on this day there was something new to divert my attention. Always eager to decorate the wide windowsills of her sunny classroom, Mrs. Colberg had brought to school a few shells that she had acquired on her frequent travels to the west coast of Florida. My strategic location next to the display afforder ample opportunity to sneak a quick look.

I was prepared to like what I saw. Back in the Netherlands, I had already grown fond of shells. A successful day at the beach meant a good haul of cockles, wedge shells, and razor clams. Cockles, their valves neatly adorned with a fan of ribs ending at the crisply saw-toothed margin, contrasted with the plainer clarns in which the uneven riblets ran parallel to the smooth edge. But these chalky productions paled in comparison with the elegant Florida shells. Mrs. Colberg’s finds felt as if they had been crafted by a sculptor with an eye for regularity and intricate detail. The ribs on the cockles were crisper, more prominent, and adorned with a flourish of little overlalapping scales. The shell interiors were not dull, but smoother and more polished than I had ever imagined possible, so that my fingertips glided over their surfaces as they would on glass. There were snails as well, often with the most unlikely shapes. How could one explain a shell as odd as the lightning whelk, with a spiral crown of knobs at one end and a drawn-out spout at the other? Why was its interior so stunningly sculptured with smooth, evenly spaced ribs that spiraled away beyond the reach of my fingers?

Daily the display grew, as my classmates, many of whose fathers had fought in the Pacific during the Second World War, brought shells from home. A shell from the Philippines I now know as Tectarius coronatus presented a perfectly conical shape, its whole surface evenly sprinkled with sharp, glossy beads set in tight spirals. Cowries challenged my notions of what was possible in the realm of nature. The exterior was so implausibly polished and so evenly domed that I believed someone had applied an especially thick coat of varnish to the shell. Not until much later did I come to understand that the polish is natural. In the living animal, the shell is enveloped by a retractable flap of mantle tissue, the inner surface cells of which secrete the glaze.

Mrs. Colberg told of the beaches on which one could casually gather these works of art. I daydreamed of such places. They would bear exotic names, and gentle waves of warm water would reach up from below, depositing shells in which corrosion never compromised textural complexity. I wondered why the cold-water shells of the Dutch beaches were so chalky and plain, whereas the tropical creations were ornate and polished.

My fourth-grade teacher had not only given my hands an unforgettable aesthetic treat, but she aroused in me a lasting curiosity about things unknown. None of it was in the books; there was no expensive conspiracy to teach science, no contrived lesson plan painstakingly conceived by distant experts. Instead, Mrs. Colberg captured the essence of her task. She created an opportunity, a freedom for someone to observe, an encouragement to wonder, and in the end a permissive environment in which to ask a genuine scientific question.

If that autumn day in 1956 passed unnoticed for Mrs. Colberg and the rest of her class, for me it was like no other. On that day, a wonderful teacher set the course of one man’s life.

ONCE AWAKENED, MY CURIOSITY KNEW NO BOUNDS. I wanted shells of my own, and I longed to know their names and the habits of the animals that built them. By February 1957 a few cigar boxes held the beginnings of my collection. Using wooden crates scavenged from local grocery stores, my father built a sturdy cabinet of six open compartments, each lined with vinyl sheeting to hide the rough wood beneath, in which I could store my shells and books.

Arie enthusiastically took up reading books out loud. While he read, I transcribed place names, descriptions of shores, and facts about sea life. Arie illustrated my notes, filling page after page with faithful braille renderings of seaweeds, sponges, worms, jellyfish, shells, sea stars, crabs, fishes, and birds, all accurately labeled. Then he turned his talents to drafting detailed braille maps. Features of interest were indicated with letters and numerals, for which he provided a key on an accompanying page. With this extraordinary dedication, Arie and the rest of my family effectively broke the information barrier by making available to me the full richness of the print media. Even at this most elementary level, the existing braille books in libraries were wholly inadequate. I cannot remember a single book about shells in any braille library. Braille publishers of the day viewed raised illustrations as unintelligible and produced only maps that were so uncluttered that all but the largest towns and physical features were left out. My parents did everything they could to deepen my commitment. Mrs. Colberg, too, egged me on, even giving me a few of her prize specimens. When one of the fifth-grade classes visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, they returned with a box for me, full of the most marvelous shells, each one accompanied by a formal Latin name and the place from which it came. I now possessed my very own Tectarius coronatus from the Philippines. There was a Strombus canarium, smooth on the outside but even more so inside, from the mysterious Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Next to it sat a silver-lipped stromb, Strombus lentiginosus, intricately knobbed and corded externally and again thrillingly polished on the underside.

If Mrs. Colberg harbored doubts about my ambitions, she kept them to herself My obsession must have looked like any boy’s fanciful dream of becoming a fireman, a baseball player, or an astronaut. Sooner or later, this blind boy would settle on a career, to put it discreetly, more consistent with his limitations. Yet none of this was said. Instead, there was unanimous and unreserved encouragement.

THE PEBBLES SPARKLED ALONG THE NARROW GRAVIEL PATH beside the canal. I paid little attention to my mother’s repeated requests that I walk upright as I gazed down at the dance of sparkles beneath my feet. There would be more than enough time to straighten up once we reached the dull paving bricks of the streets closer to home. Meanwhile, the changing display of shadows and reflections offered a welcome diversion from the relentless pain in my eyes.

The pain had been with me since that warm sunny day in September 1946 when I was born at Sappemeer, a farming community built on the reclaimed fens in the northeastern Dutch province of Groningen. Doctors soon concluded that I was afflicted with an unusual childhood form of glaucoma. Swelling enlarged my eyes, and medicines relieved the pain only temporarily.

Most of the next three and a half years of my fife were spent in hospitals, first in Groningen and later in Utrecht. Though fragmentary, my memories of this period remain vivid. A kindly nurse occasionally allowed me to tear newspaper and to crinkle aluminum foil in her room during free hours. Drawers beneath my bed held a few toys. Once, when my mother brought me to the hospital at Utrecht, I cried and cried as she disappeared slowly from my view. A nurse scooped me up in her arms and whisked me to bed before I could fully take in our parting.

A dreadful routine developed at Utrecht. Operations on my eyes were scheduled every Wednesday and Saturday. As I was being wheeled into the operating theater, I could already smell the faint traces of chloroform that warned of things to come. My head would be firmly fixed in place while the surgeons tended to my eyes. I struggled to keep my promises not to cry, knowing that I would be given the empty metal spools on which bandages had been wound if I succeeded. Later, in bed, I would make elaborate constructions by clamping the spools together. A few days of respite passed before the next operation. On Tuesdays and Fridays, my mother came to visit for a half hour. I insisted she read me the same nonsense verses over and over again. When my father came on Sunday, the verses would be recited yet again.

Despite my poor vision, which enabled me only to distinguish colors and some vague images, I found the outside world beautiful to look at. Bright colors especially pleased me. I wondered why the sun looked yellow during the day but turned orange as it set. On the walk from the railway station to the hospital, we would pause at a particularly bright orange door.

It was becoming obvious that the measures being taken to relieve the swelling and stem the pain were not working. My parents now faced decisions with far-reaching consequences. Should farther attempts be made to salvage what little of my vision remained, or should the risk of brain damage be eliminated once and for all by having my eyes removed? Professor’ Henricus J. M. Weve, the chief surgeon and the country’s foremost ophthalmologist, recommended the latter course. Artificial eyes, he explained to my parents, would eliminate the pain as well as the threat of brain damage and, most important, would create a normal appearance. Rather than draw attention to my blindness, the new eyes would enable others to see me as a normal human being. Wisely, my parents accepted Weve’s advice and authorized the removal of both eyes.

The final operation took place in June 1950. On the operating table I saw a glow of yellow. And then there was nothing.

If I had difficulty adjusting to blindness, the memory has faded. Almost immediately after returning home, I discovered the value of echoes for telling me where I was. Sounds bouncing off obstructions provided cues to the size of a room, the position of a tree, the speed of a bicycle or car, the presence of a person, whether a door was open or closed, and much more. It wasn’t that the remaining senses became more acute now that I was blind; I simply relied on them more. The information they conveyed now meant something, whereas previously I could afford to ignore it. My world was not black and hopeless. It sparkled as it did before, but now with sounds, odors, shapes, and textures.

OVER THE NEXT 17 YEARS, MY FAMILY WOULD MOVE TO the United States, I would work out my own methods for studying, I would make my way through American public schools, and I would manage to succeed as an undergraduate at Princeton. By the fall of 1967, though, the time had come to plan for life after Princeton. I was intent on pursuing doctoral studies in biology and geology, but I had thought little about which programs would be most suitable or even whether they would take me.

For a time I toyed with the option of returning to the Netherlands. Like the rest of my family, I found many aspects of American life unappealing. Save for oases like Princeton, much of the country seemed to disdain intellectuals and to revel in the banalities of television. Naively, I believed that Europe still clung to a higher standard. Thoughts of a European education were short-lived. Letters to the geology department at one Dutch university elicited the quick response that the study of paleontology by a blind person was totally out of the question. A professor at Leiden replied to my inquiry by stating that, although he had no objections to my studying with him, his research on organic form might not suit my interest.

Having decided to stay in the United States, I turned my attention to several eastern universities that had close associations with museums. Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology was unusual in having not just one but several distinguished curators of mollusks. Then there was Columbia, which was close to the American Museum of Natural History. My first choice, however, was Yale and its Peabody Museum, where researchers were doing exciting work on clams. So I arranged for a day of interviews in New Haven, convinced that only through face-to-face meetings could Yale judge me adequately and could I see how reality stacked up against reputation.

The main event of the afternoon was to be an interview with Edgar Boell. Comfortably housed in his eleventh-floor office, this grandfatherly and very gracious director of graduate studies in the biology department radiated an air of quiet, benevolent authority. His skepticism was palpable. How, he began, could I work on morphology? How could I possibly stay on top of the vast scientific literature in my or anyone else’s field if nothing was published in braille? Patiently, I recounted my experiences at Princeton and my long-standing dedication to the study of shells. Boell listened intently, but I sensed that his doubts wouldn’t yield.

Would I like to see the mollusk collection? Boell asked. Indeed, I would. Down the elevator, down the long flight of outside steps, and into the basement of the Peabody Museum we went. Percy Morris, the curator, was there to greet us. Like Boell, he must have been in his sixties, and he tempered his welcome with a touch of wariness. If only they don’t ask me to identify anything, I thought to myself.

“Here’s something. Do you know what it is?” Boell asked as he handed me a specimen.

My fingers and mind raced. Widely separated ribs parallel to outer lip; large aperture; low spire; glossy; ribs reflected backward. “It’s a Harpa,” I replied tentatively. “It must be Harpa major.” Right so far.

How about this one?” inquired Boell, as another fine shell changed hands. Smooth, sleek, channeled suture, narrow opening; could be any olive. “It’s an olive. I’m pretty sure it’s Oliva sayana, the common one from Florida, but they all look alike.”

Both men were momentarily speechless. They had planned this little exercise all along to call my bluff. Now that I had passed, Boell had undergone an instant metamorphosis. Beaming with enthusiasm and warmth, he promised me his full support.

Acceptance to Yale in February with a full fellowship made the rejections from Harvard and Columbia almost irrelevant. Both schools informed me that they lacked the special programs and equipment that blind students needed. Harvard in particular considered work on shells by a blind student outside the realm of feasibility.

ALL THE WORLD’S CREATURES LIVE AND evolve in a context. They are not little worlds unto themselves, isolated from one another and from the forces of wind, water, and earth. Instead, they persist, resist, respond, and perpetuate themselves in an environment rife with challenges and opportunities. Biologists seeking to document and explain patterns of evolution must penetrate and observe the world from the organism’s perspective. Much can be learned from books, but the knowledge thus gained is inevitably filtered through someone else’s faculties. There simply is no substitute for making one’s own observations in the wild.

But is it reasonable to extend this necessity to a blind man? Isn’t blindness, a condition nearly synonymous with helplessness, emphatically incompatible with experiencing unsupervised nature? The dangers are all too obvious–venomous snakes, stinging ants, poison ivy, crocodiles, crumbling cliffs, freak waves, slippery rocks, deep crevices. The list could go on. None of these risks should be underestimated. I have been exposed to every one of them.

When my wife, Edith, and I searched for shell-crushing crabs in Guam during the summer of 1974, we frequented a tract of boulders on the seaward part of the reef flat in Pago Bay. One hot afternoon, I tilted a huge slab, steadying it in a vertical position with my leg as I gingerly inspected its lower surface with my left hand. There was the usual rich assortment of sponges, worms, and small snails, but there was also something else. Resting motionless on the rock was a smooth creature that yielded slightly under the gentle pressure from my fingers. It was not long or soft enough to be a sea cucumber, so I had no need to anticipate the expulsion of immensely sticky threads from the animal’s insides. No, this creature was broader, flat, unmistakably fishlike; but there were no scales, and it remained still. Stonefish–the thought of that fearsome sit-and-wait predator flashed through my mind as I gulped. Edith, busy with a slab a few paces away, interrupted her search to see what interesting animal I had discovered. With a gasp, she confirmed my suspicion. Quickly but gently, I returned the slab to its original position, leaving the inhabitants of that marine underworld to carry on as before.

We both knew the outcome could have been disastrous. Had I brought my hand down more vigorously on the fish, it would have been provoked to erect its dorsal spine and to inject a potent neurotoxin that at the very least causes excruciating pain.

Sometimes I was not so lucky. In August 1993, Edith, our daughter Hennine, and I paid a brief visit to the Polynesian island of Moorea. I was eager to visit the wave-exposed reef edge, always a good place to find mollusks, and an especially favorable habitat for Pollia undosa. This species was of special interest to me because of my work on snails whose outer-lip edge is marked with a small pronmion that may stabilize the animal while it clings to rocks. As usual, I snaked my fingers under ledges and into holes, places where snails are apt to shelter. On this occasion, a pair of jaws belonging to an aggressive moray eel was waiting for me. The bite was sudden, brief, and powerful. Although the affected finger required a few stitches and initially felt numb, the attack left no permanent injury. Ironically, the moray shared its lair with a beautiful adult Pollia.

Fortunately, such brushes with natural dangers have been as infrequent and inconsequential for me as they have been for most of my sighted colleagues.

I CANNOT CLAIM TO OBSERVE SHELLS BETTER THAN OTHERS do, nor would I pretend to discriminate more easily among species on the basis of shell features. Every observer brings to his or her own science a unique perspective, and I am no exception. Inspection of an object with fingertips, fingernails, and thin needles reveals not only the broad outlines but also the small details–the number, relative size, and orientation of elements of sculpture; the placement of teeth and folds surrounding snail-shell apertures; the pattern and asymmetry of clam-valve serrations, and the like–that a casual observer is apt to overlook.

Shells have always been more to me than just beautiful variations on a theme of spiral architecture. These works of art, and the environments in which they were fashioned, have shown me the way to some of the larger questions in biology, questions about function and evolution and construction. Shells hold as many surprises and prompt as many questions now as they did when I filled my first cigar box with them in 1957.

Why are northern shells chalky and tropical ones so beautifully crafted and so finely textured? Why do some predatory snails have lip spines while others do not? I do not know, but I shall ask. Nature will surprise us if we let her.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Discover

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