The Beautiful Little Bay Scallop
In the fading light of a raw December day, as the sun begins to set, I stoop to collect scallop shells on the beach. I am not here for that purpose, but I can’t help myself: they are so beautiful and there are so many- tens of thousands- of them strewn about.
Recent storms have washed these bay scallops (Argopecten irradians) ashore in numbers I have not seen in over fifty years. It is not only the storms. My shellfish constable informs me that warmer temperatures have driven scallops into deeper colder water, where they have thrived, so their biomass has greatly increased in Cape Cod Bay. More scallops—more to wash ashore. Also, the new wave attenuator at MacMillan Wharf acts to block their movement westward, so they pile up on East End beaches. So we have a natural phenomenon, but one affected by climate change and human infrastructure changes.
Sometimes I find these poor creatures trapped in tide pools, desperately trying to skitter to safety. Bay scallops are actually capable of movement, and as they squirt and flip about they elicit a sympathy like no other shellfish can. I throw a few back in deeper water, but it is of little avail. The gulls are feasting.
I can’t help myself because they are so beautiful. No two are alike, exactly. Their colors run from white to cream to beige to blue-gray to obsidian black to striped and blotched to burnt orange (my absolute favorite) and all combinations of these.
I stop to wonder why these little bivalves are so beautiful. Their larger cousins the sea scallops are for the most part all white, as are many of the other shelled animals in our bays and oceans. What is the value to the bay scallop to be adorned in shells so various and ornamental? Do their many little blue eyes register their beauty?
It begs a larger question: why is there beauty in the world? What is its function? How does beauty function? Is it just a byproduct of other biological processes, or an end in itself? Is there a gravitation to symmetry and attractiveness? Is there a pervasive aesthetic sense or sensibility in the world? Or are we just the beneficiaries of a random process that begets beauty as a corollary to other goals?
Those of us who can’t find the way to point to a beneficent Creator or believe in the concept of Intelligent Design still grope about to seek an overall evolutionary principle that somehow tends towards beauty. It is as if the grand chaos of the universe from which the Earth and everything on it (including us) evolved has moved from a vast cold bleakness to a more vibrant and orderly arrangement of matter and energy, and, yes, to beauty.
Well, that’s a lot to heap on a little scallop shell. And before I go too far with this it is time to haul out that old maxim: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, Thoreau himself famously referred to the outer beach as “…a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it…” There are times I might agree, when tons of noxious seaweed pile up, or, even worse, the rotting carcass of a whale rolls in.
But these beautiful little bay scallop shells: you can’t beat them.