April 3, 2017

Sea Urchins

I was not expecting to write a post about sea urchins. Yet here I am, racking my brains, trying to catch hold of something concrete - an image, a sensation - among elusive memories of sea urchins. One little picture in the compendium Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings sent me down memory lane. Vague, foggy, half-formed, half-imagined memories to be sure, but they are based on actual occurrences after all.
Image source: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=96416&picture=sea-urchin-shell-in-glass-jar
What I remember is spending entire days at the ocean with my grandmother. What I know is that Ga didn't drive, so Bampa had to have dropped us off in the morning on his way to work and picked us up on his way home. Perhaps he taxied us home at lunch time. I have no idea. I must have been 3 or 4 years old. What I recall is seemingly endless and serene stretches of playing in the surf, combing the beach on circuitous walks, and exploring the tide pools. What I may have superimposed from later years is caution, a small hesitation, when collecting certain kinds of shells. Because you might be surprised by a nip from a hermit crab who recently moved in, the new tenant none too pleased to have his lodgings caught in the terrifying grips of a chatty 3 year old.

The tide pools on this Massachusetts beach blend in my memory with the ones at Ordione Point in Rye, New Hampshire. I know my class - kindergarten? grade school? - took a trip to Ordione Point and visited an oceanographic center or research outpost or some such. Searching online to verify this memory makes me doubt it. I can't find the name or location of the research center. Perhaps we just had a guide at the state park. We could have had a guided tour of the tide pools, but I don't think so. I have a small visual flash of an interior room with an open-topped specimen tank. I vaguely recall the guide / scientist / biologist / person-of-authority picking up a creature from the tank and offering it to us children to hold. Stretch your hand out flat, palm up. Invented or recollected, I put out my hand and held the bizarre, spiky creature. I felt brave and proud for volunteering to hold it. It was a sea urchin.
Image source: http://archive.onearth.org/blog/an-urgency-for-sea-urchins
Real or invented, I remember I was not convinced the biologist knew what he was talking about. I'd seen plenty of sea urchin shells. An intact sea urchin shell was a treasure I searched for among the tide pools and along those beach walks with my grandmother. However, I had never given any thought to what the actual sea urchin looked like. I had always assumed it lived inside the shell, fully enclosed, much like a hermit crab. Clearly, the biologist was a little off.

My love for sea urchin shells hasn't waned from early childhood. One recent Xmas time when the Hubs and I were in New Hampshire, we nipped into one of the plethora of little shops in downtown Portsmouth. In this shop were sea shells for purchase. Gorgeous, unblemished sea urchin shells without a single crack or chip. And yet I had no interest in purchasing one. A purchased shell does not contain the search, the beach walks, the coastal sights and sounds and smells, the meandering conversations while combing. The purchased shell is a dead, empty thing. The found shell is the animated everything.
A symbol of dormant force, the sea urchin is associated with the cosmic egg representing embryonic life, and with related symbolism concerning stones. In medieval compendiums, its habit of anchoring itself to a rock was interpreted as a storm warning.
And according to this article and many other sources, in the days before sea urchins were a sushi delicacy in high demand, lobstermen referred to the pesky urchins that clogged their traps as whore's eggs. I wonder if this has any etymological connection to its association with the cosmic egg


  1. Replies
    1. Oh, I'm so glad, Rita. I never know when I go off on a tangent if it will resonate with or engage anyone else. Thank you for the encouragement.