I delicately scrape away the sand from the shell with the tip of my stick, then, leaning down, gently free it from the hold of the shore. Thousands of other shells are scattered around me – clams, cockles, and oysters – but this shell is my prize. I’ve found a perfectly formed scallop.
I often walk down to this small, hidden corner of Dingle harbor, just two kilometers from our home, to spend time wandering around the water. It’s quiet here, and don’t we all need quiet now and again?
Walking a few paces to the shore I use my stick to keep my balance on the slick seaweed, and crouch to wash the sand from the scallop shell in the lapping water.
Not many people come here. The access is down an overgrown lane off the main road; if you didn’t know it was there, you would never find it. The lane is used most often, I suppose, to haul seaweed from the shore to fertilize neighboring gardens.
As I wash the shell, I look across at the busy town, still partly hidden by the morning mist. Fishing trawlers and lobster boats make their way to the harbor mouth to begin the day’s work. But there is no sound from the town or boats. The distance is too far. The only sounds I hear are the lapping water, the birds calling overhead, and the insistent tapping of a hammer from the man refurbishing the old forge up on the main road. I am alone.
I lay the shell on a rock to dry in the sun and begin to walk to the tidal pond behind me.
In past times, the hidden lane was a road leading to a bridge over the harbor that provided access to the Ventry estate. Lord Ventry was the most prominent landlord in the area and his former Great House, now a girls’ boarding school, is just beyond the trees on the far shore. The bridge and road have long collapsed, but enough remains to form a natural barrier across the harbor, and that barrier creates a tidal basin. At high tide, water rushes through the channel where the bridge span used to be and floods the basin. At low tide, water rushes back out, but not all of it. A shallow body of water about ten acres in size remains, perhaps a meter deep. And that water teems with trapped fish and aquatic life.
And where there are fish there are sea birds.
As I amble around the edge of the basin, I spot a grey heron among the reeds on the far side, stalking his breakfast. His movement through the water is imperceptible, barely raising a ripple of the water’s surface. Then he strikes. His head disappears beneath the water and pops back up with a wriggling fish in his beak. He tilts his head back and the fish disappears down his long throat. He resumes his stalking as I move on.
I think about the shell I left drying in the sun. This one has delicate shades of pink, alternating bands of rose and coral and salmon on the outside, and pearl on the inside. Others that I have found are shades of purple with hints of mauve and ruby, or blue and green like the sea they come from. No two are alike. They all go home to rest on our mantle.
To the heron’s right, at the very back end of the pond, three Little Egrets – pure white with black beaks and yellow, webbed feet – conduct their own hunt, wading through tall grass. A half-dozen others, finished with their breakfast, roost high up in one of the ancient cedar trees that protect the west side of the basin. The cedar’s trunks are six or eight feet in diameter. I walk further along the path, my mind, like my feet, wandering.
The scallop shell has long been a symbol of the apostle James, the patron saint of Spain. Shells are used as signposts on the Camino de Santiago: the lines on the shell leading to a central point serve as a metaphor for pilgrims on their many paths to Santiago de Compostela. But its symbolism goes back even further. Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty, is often depicted rising from the sea on a scallop shell, symbolizing her birth from sea foam. Ancient cathedrals throughout Europe have baptismal fonts in the shape of scallop shells and the shells themselves are used to pour the water over squawking infants during the ritual.
My thoughts are interrupted by a different squawking nearby. Gulls of all sorts – Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, and Black Headed Gulls – gather in large groups on the rocky shore, picking at shells or snatching small fish from the shallow pools. Their racket soon subsides and they settle into the sand to rest after their meal. I keep on.
When we were in Lisbon in February, before this year began its slow decline, we spent a morning in the Tile Museum. I was, it must be said, skeptical about going to a tile museum, but it was delightful. As I inch my way along a narrow section of the trail around the basin, I think about the number of times the scallop appeared on tiles in the museum. It is, I realized a perfect form for art and architecture, its symmetry both strong and beautiful.
Another drama on the pond grabs my attention.
Two Cormorants, black, with a green-blue gloss to their plumage, occupy the center of the basin, propelled in lazy circles by their webbed feet. Suddenly, one disappears beneath the surface for three, four, five, six seconds. Where did it go? I wonder. Eight, nine, ten…fourteen, fifteen. Will it ever surface? Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Suddenly, it pops up twenty meters away, its long neck stretches out, and a fish goes down the gullet.
Relieved, I walk back to the rock and my pink scallop shell. I slip the dried shell into my pocket, pull up the hood on my jacket against a sudden shower, and walk down the hidden lane towards home, my pilgrimage complete.