Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Golden Cowrie

Scott Bradley

It strikes me that I might have shown a bit of obstinacy with respect to requests that I "write more sea stories", though things said since were not in reference to that request. Were I able to write these stories in such a way as to make them germane to the focus of this blog, I would gladly have done so. Yet, since at the time of these 'adventures' I was entirely uninterested in anything to do with Daoism, I did not experience them in that context and thus find it difficult to recast them in that light. Still, I will attempt to comply and see where it leads.

I am a collector of nature's wonders, a vice which I have had since, as a toddler, I fell asleep with pill bugs in my fist. I started collecting cowries while working in Saudi Arabia where my chief recreation was diving in the Red Sea. When I started to cruise aboard my sailboat, I continued this collecting. It kept me busy and in the water. I did, finally, understand that killing things, even glorified 'snails', so as to possess their beauty was not a healthy way to treat nature. So, I bought none (commercialization being the end of so many beautiful things) and limited my collecting to two of each species, and finally quit altogether.

Cowries are, for those not familiar with sea mollusks, that animal which possesses an ovate porcelainous shell kept incredibly shiny by virtue of its ability to completely cover itself with a 'mantle' which continuously lays down more material. The golden cowrie is a "classical rarity" long valued by collectors. It was worn by Polynesian chieftains as a sign of their authority. It is not really that 'rare', but since it lives in coral caves beyond the depth of most 'free divers', and like most cowries is nocturnal, it is not easily found.

I obtained my golden cowrie through barter. It is an established practice for cruisers to trade with the 'natives', mostly for fruit, veg and seafood. Sometimes when you drop the hook in front of some little village on the fringes of 'civilization' it's 'away all canoes!' to see if you've got hooks and batteries and clothes . . . I never cared much for the practice since, if you don't cheat them with glass beads, you probably will end up paying 5 times the market price for a hand of bananas.

My girlfriend and I followed a hand drawn 'mud chart' into a maze of tiny islands and reefs somewhere in the Solomon Islands to an amazing little amphitheater of an anchorage surrounded on all sides by jungle clad cliffs. After a day or two of marveling at the 'whoosh, whoosh' of the wings of hornbills which overflew us, a dugout canoe showed up. One of three occupants was the chief of a nearby village of which we were unaware, and he had a golden cowrie his son had found which he wished to trade.

I told him I had only one thing which he might think worthy of his cowrie and brought out a throw-net I'd bought with a view to feeding my kitty when larger game was scarce. He took it up, examined it and declared, "Me likum!!" And so the deal was done, two happy barterers where usually there is only one. And now I guard my precious cowrie hoping to find some young collector to whom to give it, but it is "Me likum!" that is the most precious thing of all.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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