We’ve been pretty serious shellers for decades. It’s a shared family hobby that turns beach walking into a treasure hunt. In the beginning, almost everything we found merited further scrutiny at home. Excitement over our finds temporarily obscured their flaws. But we quickly came to our senses. Even our children learned that lots of shells were best left behind. They took delight in discovering a beautiful specimen and grew in confidence by knowing that it was appropriate that much of what they found wasn’t going to be kept. Even a young child can distinguish between beach detritus and a real find. Don't confuse them with faint praise!
When locals told us there were no shells on the beach, it only stiffened our determination to prove them wrong. The beach was vast and teeming with life. How could there not be good shells? We learned that you’ve got to go slowly and pay attention to find the good stuff but the good stuff was usually there. With the help of a guidebook we learned to identify and name our finds. We became amateur curators of our collection.
What the mind knows, the eye will see. Once you’ve seen a netted olive, or a reticulated helmet cowrie or a flamingo tongue in situ, it’s easier to find others. As our shelling skills grew, so did our standards. We became much more discriminating. Not every shell is a trophy. (Not every trophy is either- but that’s another story). Shells with obvious flaws were immediately rejected because we knew they would only detract from the pleasing collection at home. And on closer inspection, lots of shells with less glaring defects were culled on the second pass. What had begun as somewhat ordinary collection soon became spectacular. We remembered that for something to be special, a bunch of other things must not.
Maybe it’s a stretch, but I think our shelling can explain the concept of marginal utility which economists use to predict what a consumer will be willing to pay for “one more unit of something”. How much satisfaction is gained from acquiring (in this case finding and keeping) one more unit of something (in this case, a shell)? When “one more” increases total satisfaction, the marginal utility is positive. When “one more” makes things worse, it’s negative. This explanation might put me on the wrong side of the economists, but the shells we rejected had negative marginal utility. They dealt a blow to our overall satisfaction. Adding another “unit of imperfection” to our collection diminished the whole. And any reasonable person wanting to maximize satisfaction would feel the same way.
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing more to take away.” Maybe Antoine de St.Exupéry was part behavioral economist as well as philosopher. There is always room for one more flawless shell in our bowl. But perfection was achieved a long time ago when we acted on what we knew to be true. It’s the reductive process that really satisfies.
A footnote: We’re ethical hunters. No gastropods were made homeless by our desire for their shell- no matter how desperate that desire.