Humans have an innate attraction to seashells – we’ve collected them, prized them, traded them, studied them, paved over them, and yes, even held them up to our ears. They interact with our lives in many ways, illuminating our humanity and at times, inhumanity.
In science journalist Cynthia Barnett’s recent book, “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans,” we learn all about shells, from the unacknowledged people throughout history who have prized them to the ways shells are chroniclers of human and environmental truths. As the remnants of living mollusks, shells can tell us about past environments, our current climate crisis, and how we might adapt in the future.
In this edition of A Public Affair (originally recorded in October), host Chali Pittman speaks with Barnett about all things seashells, including how they’re formed, what they can tell us about past and future oceans, the citizen scientists who have studied them, their difficult role in colonialist history — and even the source of the tongue-twister “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
About the guest:
Cynthia Barnett is an award-winning environmental journalist who has reported on water and climate change around the world. She teaches environmental journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and has written for numerous publications, including National Geographic magazine.
Her fourth book, The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans was released in July 2021 from W.W. Norton. Her previous books books include Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. (2007), Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis (2011), and Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (2015), which was longlisted for a National Book Award and a finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.