Privileged Hands

A Scientific Life

Geerat J. Vermeij

Henry Holt and Co.

Priveleged Hands
Chapter 1
A tray of shells stands before me in the bright December sunshine streaming in through the north window of our cozy rented house. I know that the previous day's haul, which we had collected by dredge while on board the Munida from a rich community of sponges and pen shells off the Otago Peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand, will yield surprises. It will prompt questions that I would not have known to ask, and it will steer me to new 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-sized star shell, its long hollow spines jutting from the flattened whorl-like sun rays, competes for space in the tray with hairy mussels, bearded ark shells, and huge fan-shaped pen shells plastered with colonial sea squirts and the long sinuous tubes of worm snails. A thick layer of sponge obliterates the delicate scaly ribs of a scallop. Thin slipper limpets tumble out of the openings of snail shellsin which hermit crabs had found a secondary home. Borers had 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.
In my pastoral setting, with the insistent cries of lambs for their mothers drifting in from the grassy hills beyond, I have time to contemplate what I have seen in the field. How odd that all the cold-water shells from New Zealand are so thin. Not only the deep-water snails and clams brought up yesterday by the Munida are lightly built, so are the dogwhelks, mussels, turban snails, and even oysters from the nearby rocky shores. Certainly they contrast with the thick-shelled productions so characteristic of molluscs 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 so?
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 to 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 was 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--Cortez 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. Mrs. Colberg enlivened the lesson with tales of her own youth in Panama at the time the great canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was nearing completion.
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 catalogue 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 avidly lost myself in the pages of the newly acquired seven-volume Braille dictionary that stood on the long table at the front of the room. Ludicrously, it bore the title of Vest-Pocket Dictionary. For a time I wondered if the publishers had meant "Vast" instead.
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 and pieces of coral that she had acquired on her frequent travels to the west coast of Florida. My strategic location next to the display afforded 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 clams in which the uneven riblets ran parallel to the smooth edge. However I might have liked them, these chalky productions paled in comparison to 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 cockle were crisper, more prominent, and adorned with a flourish of little overlapping scales. The shell interiors were not dull, but smoother and more polished than I had ever imagined possible, so that 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 cornatus presented a perfectly conical shape, its whole surface evenly sprinkled with sharp glossy beads set in tight spirals. Cowries challenged my notions ofwhat 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 so that all of the sculpture was obliterated. 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. Most intriguing of all was the large heavy Florida helmet shell that Trina Mendon brought. Beautifully rounded knobs separated by thin finely beaded ribs adorned the domed roof. The flat base consisted of a polished shield, in the middle of which the long narrow opening of the shell gaped like a deep rib-lined canyon. The precision of the ribbing and the pleasing contrast between the glaze of the base and the coarser fine-grained stone texture of the dome produced for me an architectural splendor completely outside the realm of my previous tactile experience.
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 tropical creations were ornate and polished. My fourth-grade teacher had not only given my hands an unforgettable esthetic 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.
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. With this routine of what we christened "sea school" firmly established, Arie solidified his role as teacher by illustrating my notes with carefully drawn Braille illustrations. He filled page after page with faithful renderings of seaweeds, sponges, worms, jellyfish, shells, sea stars, crabs, fishes, and birds, all accurately labeled in Braille. We read through atlases to learn about the world's coastlines, and inevitably Arie turned his talents and geographical curiosity 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 and the clever use of minimal household technology--ply--wood, window screening, and a stylus--Arie and the rest of my family effectively broke the information barrier by making available the full richness of the print media to me. 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 of the land were left out.
I proclaimed to anyone who cared to listen that I would be a conchologist. What's that, people would ask. I barely knewmyself, of course, but books told me that people who study and collect shells are called conchologists. My parents, who strongly encouraged their two sons to develop serious hobbies, did everything they could to deepen my commitment. If Arie could collect stamps, and in the process acquire a formidable grasp of geography and world events, why shouldn't I devote my energies to shells? 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 glued to the bottom of the box and 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 around its narrow aperture.
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, baseball player, or spaceman. 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.
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 for one man's life.
© 1997 by W. H. Freeman and Company