“And maggie discovered a shell that sang/ so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles and …” So Edward Estlin Cummings writes in “maggie and milly and molly and may,” the late poet’s paean to the wonder of the ocean and childhood.

There is something about seashells that enchants us. For me, the incantation started early. As a boy growing up in Pensacola, my family would travel often to the shores of Santa Rosa Sound. The water there is calmer than in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, and a boy of four or five with an especially adventurous disposition was less likely to get in over his head or be swept away by a rogue current. During those long, watery days, while the other children built sandcastles or chased one another with dead minnows, I was more inclined to wander and watch. That’s how I first became acquainted with hermit crabs. They were a bit like me — little, lumbering, angular fellows who relished solitude and did not much enjoy company. I was fascinated by these creatures, who carried their homes about on their backs and could withdraw whenever threatened. I would find them in the nooks and crannies of pier pilings or under rocks or cowering in piles of seaweed. I would grasp them by their shells, plucking them from the water and setting them on their backs in the palm of my hand. Inevitably, though, once they had been found out, they would retreat back into the dank safety of their homes.

If I persisted in trying to coax them into the light, they would re-emerge only long enough to pierce my tender fingers with their quick claws. Plunk! — Back they would fall into the water, and I would run squealing to my mother, finger pulsing. But I always returned. As I grew older, I learned that hermit crabs — besides being cowardly – were thieves, stealing their homes from other creatures and, often, each other. In elementary school, I graduated from the safety of the sound to the waves and foam of the Gulf of Mexico, where I discovered that seashells came in all shapes and sizes. I would spend hours with my nose pressed to the sand, searching for tiny augers, clams and brightly-colored periwinkles. I began to collect them, cataloguing their different shapes and patterns, and I grew curious. I read “The Edge of the Sea,” Rachel Carson’s timeless account of life in the intertidal zone and learned that every shell had a story, was formed by and had given shelter to a living creature. I learned that that the perfectly round holes in my clam shells, which made them the ideal pendants for necklaces or bracelets, were formed by predatory moon snails, whose smooth, round shells were among the most-prized in my collection. I wanted to see this world for myself. So I ventured out — bucket and flashlight in tow — in the wee hours, when the retreating tide revealed a new, strange planet. Giant horse conchs lugged their stony houses through the mud. Fluorescent pink worms with feathered heads chased my light from their sandy tunnel-homes — like something from the campy science fiction films my grandfather used to watch on Saturday mornings. That’s what shells are. They’re artifacts from another world — like a meteorite or the smoking, empty hull of some spaceship crash-landed in a deserted field. They hint at other, stranger ways of being, prick our sense of wonder like a startled hermit crab. They leave our hearts throbbing like a wounded finger — But we always come back for more.

Want to try your hand at sea-shelling? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Go at the right time — You can find good shells on the shore after a storm, or early in the morning thanks to tidal action and surf. For the best results, though, go at low tide. To find out when that is, head to the weather page at www.pnj.com and consult the tide charts.
  2. Bring the right gear — You can sometimes find good shells on the beach, but to find the best specimens, you’ll likely have to venture further afield, into the shallow water just offshore. To do that, you’ll need a snorkel and goggles and a mesh bag for storing your finds. A sand flea rake can also help with sifting shells that are just below the surface.
  3. Be humane — Only collect unoccupied shells — Unless you’d be okay with someone stealing your home to “add it to their collection.” Mollusks use a lot of energy building their shells — and hermit crabs use a lot of energy stealing them. So have some respect.
  4. Identify your finds — Learning the story behind the shells is half the fun. Plenty of great shell guides exist in print and online. A great resource for identifying local finds can be found at www.pensacolazack.com.
  5. Make ‘em sparkle — Most of the time, when you find a shell, it won’t be all bright and shiny. Algae and other sea critters build their homes on them, and wave and tidal action can tarnish them. To restore the shells’ natural luster, you can use a steel brush or knife to remove barnacles and other objects. Then, rinse them and soak overnight in equal parts bleach and hot water. Rinse again and set them on a towel to dry. Once that’s done, you can spray them with enamel or coat them in clear nail polish to bring out the colors and preserve them — or, if you’re like me — you can leave them just as you found them, barnacles and all.