seashells

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What do you collect? Most of us collect something. It might be a “traditional” collectible, like comic books or coins. If you’re wealthy, perhaps it’s vintage cars or rare wines. Travelers often collect souvenirs from far-off lands. I know a few people who seem to collect only regrets, which is pretty sad.

I’ve always been a collector. I’m mostly drawn to natural history stuff. When I was a child, I had an impressive collection of feathers (well, I thought it was impressive). I had all the common local species — cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, etc. — plus a good handful from birds of prey, such as barred owls and red-shouldered hawks.

The ones that brought me the most pride were a pair of wild turkey tailfeathers. Turns out those were the only legal ones in the whole batch. What did I know? I was 10 years old. I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations is long past. Besides, all the evidence crumbled to dust.

Seashells were always a big deal for me. I was planning to be a marine biologist. Nope — scratch that; I was planning to be Jacques Cousteau. Anyway, shells were a great way to connect to the ocean. I had a bunch that I’d gotten from my grandmother. In my mind, she’d collected them herself on some tropical island shore, but I’m betting they came from the Shell Factory in North Fort Myers.

I still enjoy shells, and I always find myself looking down while walking along the beach. I will also admit to getting excited about shells sold in tourist shops, though I have bought very few because I don’t like the idea of killing an animal for a decoration. (Many sellers claim the animals that lived in the shells were harvested for food, but in most cases that’s a total fabrication.) Every time I look at my nautilus shell, I feel like a hypocrite.

For guilt-free shells, fossils are great. I grew up in rural DeSoto County, back when a lot of the “dirt” roads were paved in marl from local shell pits. The road that ran past my aunt’s house in Nocatee was a fertile collecting ground. I had some beautiful specimens of extinct conchs, cowries and others that I wish I still had.

Unfortunately, teenage me decided that the all-white fossil shells were boring, and found a use for them in a non-collecting hobby: Target shooting. I could kick myself for that.

Butterflies made interesting collectibles and were abundant in the front yard, partly because there was 50 acres of orange grove across the street. My kid brother and I would go out with a net and killing jar (a re-purposed Mason jar with a quarter-inch of rubbing alcohol in the bottom) and come back with sulfurs, zebras, monarchs and a half-dozen swallowtail species.

Sadly, I had only a couple display boxes, so I would discard old specimens to make room for new ones. This was before I had developed my “don’t kill it for decoration” policy. On the other hand, we did learn an awful lot about butterflies.

On the ranch where I grew up, cattle sometimes died. A dead cow was hitched to the tractor and dragged to the back of the pasture, where scavengers would reduce the carcass to a pile of bones. These were the first bones I collected, mostly skulls but also some interesting vertebrae and ankle bones.

Later I would bring home other bones found in the woods, such as hog, raccoon, opossum and armadillo skulls. By this time, I was driving, and as the collection grew, I started bringing home roadkill to add rarer types (fresh dead only). I had foxes, otters, bobcats, owls (a lot of owls get hit on the road) and a bunch more, plus a couple goats with horns that grew funny.

Some of the roadkill was in really good condition — good enough to salvage the hide too. So using skills acquired in Cub Scouts, where we learned to preserve skins with salt and borax, I tanned a few furs. I had a really nice otter from Hwy 761, and a fox that I picked up on the way to school (ended up missing first and second periods that day).

When I left home, most of that stuff remained in my mom’s attic, which Hurricane Charley cleaned out back in 2004. All I have left from those days are some fossilized shark teeth, a few store-bought shells, and one Riker mount with two butterflies. Pitiful.

I have collected some more stuff since, though. There are moose antlers, deer and squirrel skulls; local shells; lots more fossils; various mineral specimens; and then my latest interest: Preserved snake skins, again taken from road-killed animals (most recently, a 4-foot diamondback that someone else had already removed the rattles from).

But mostly, I collect digital photos. That allows me to keep anything I want, even if I can’t legally bring it home, and there’s no need to kill anything. Plus, I’ve found that photos work well with my very visual memory, allowing me better recall of the events surrounding those photos. They are a major enhancement to my life in general.

If I still had all the stuff I’d ever collected, I would need a small museum to house it all. Even way back when, I had so much stuff that I took a lot of it to school and gave it to my science teachers for classroom specimens. There’s something to be said for being able to put your hands onto genuine natural artifacts, but overall, I think my wife is much happier with the photo collection. I know I’ll add a piece here and there, though.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@
WaterLineWeekly.com.

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