Pinna Nobilis – the Noble Pen Shell #earthweal

I thought at first it was a man-made form
for nothing natural I ever saw so noble:
how ironic that the Noble Pen Shell
is a natural Mediterranean marvel.

In less than the fifteen years since I first came here
its population, all but disappeared
in fact, this area is a conservation zone
with efforts made to halt the steep decline.

In Spain, 99% of the population killed by a
newly-discovered parasite, in the short time since 2016:
this parasite forces the shell to stay open
rendering this shellfish defenceless.

Of course, we can’t be sure that humans are to blame
we once spun the byssus into fine sea silk
now that industry’s dead, as these molluscs almost are:
I can’t help but think we’ve had a hand in this.

Even here, where you can still see live shells in the harbour
the sea looks sick: blooming with red-tide algae
or frothed with jetsam, here where no fish swim
ironically, another endemic species is named the Arca Noae, or ‘Noah’s Ark’ shell:

What Ark can save us once the seas are dead
and all the land burns, like a living hell?

Written for earthweal

This week, Sherry hosts ‘The Great Forgetting‘ challenge, which makes for sobering reading. She writes:

For your challenge: Today we will remember the lost ones, and the ones who will soon break our hearts by leaving. Choose a creature that has gone extinct, or one you love that is endangered. Tell us about it. Get inside its head as it lived, or is living its slow dying. Or, to take another tack, show us your creature in its glory days, when its demise would have seemed unimaginable. Let’s remember the wild ones, so they won’t fade into the Great Forgetting.

I chose the Pinna Nobilis, or Noble Pen Shell: a giant clam, endemic to the Mediterranean, which can grow to a length of 4ft (120 cm)! It’s true that the first time I saw them in Portorož harbour, I thought they were too large to be clams, and that they must be some man-made product of the fishing industry. When we lived in Spain, I found fragments of their shells on the Costa del Sol (see featured image) and wondered what marvellous sea creature I had discovered. It was only when we moved to Slovenia that I found out more about them. The population in Spain is already all-but extinct. Here, they hold on by a tenuous thread, fine as the silken byssus by which they attach themselves to the rocks. This thread used to be spun into a super-fine, golden cloth known as ‘Sea Silk,’ which itself has a fascinating history.

The quote ‘for nothing natural I ever saw so noble’ is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when Miranda sees the princely Ferdinand for the first time (1.2.418-419). Prior to this, she had been accustomed to the company of the beastly Caliban, timeless emblem of colonialism and enslavement. It is ironic that the supposedly savage Caliban possesses a unique understanding of the natural world which he inhabits. At the end of the play, Prospero admits his own hand in Caliban’s state of moral degradation, ‘this thing of darkness/I acknowledge mine.’ (5.1.276) How much more ironic these lines seem now, with all the darkness of extinction that we have inflicted upon the natural world.

Finally, an apology: my lines are a bit off and clumsy this morning, and I think this poem may need some revision. I was busy with The Anthropocene Hymnal Live yesterday, and today I am pretty tired. I am happy to say that the event was a huge success, and I hope to have a video recording to share with you soon. With this, I leave you a picture of the ‘Noah’s Arc Shell,’ as mentioned in the closing lines of my poem:

Arca Noae

31 thoughts on “Pinna Nobilis – the Noble Pen Shell #earthweal

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  1. I think “human activity”, these days, should be the default assumption, until we can prove otherwise.
    Just because human activity has been known to cauise so much damage.

      1. Yes. With covid, we will never know because whoever is responsible will cover it up. It’ll get political, because nobody wants to be seen as the culprit. They should have realised this before spending cash starting an investigation.

  2. What sadness. And wait until we discover who assisted in bringing this on. The answer is the same: Blatant irreverence for what we have— as if it were only ours. It is not!
    Thanks for bringing awareness. We cry together. 🙇‍♀️

  3. So horrible and so, so sad. Thank you for the fascinating information. I knew nothing about these giant clams, or sea silk. I’m definitely going to have to write about that some day because how magical is that? And how tragic that it no longer exists.

    I love this challenge of Sherry’s too.

  4. The beaches are bereft of shells in general compared to even 10 years ago. Thank you for giving the history of this beautiful creature. A great loss. (K)

  5. Ingrid, I learned something in this post about yet another endangered creature. The image of the seas looking so unhealthy is saddening. On our coast, we have styrofoam and all manner of stuff washing ashore from the tanker that spilled a hundred containers into the sea the other week………horrifying……..I am sad that this creature’s shell is forced open leaving it defenceless. One more sad tale, among so many. I am thrilled your Anthropocene Hymnal is doing so well, thanks to your huge efforts to get the message out there in the world. I will look forward to watching the event when the link is ready. Way to go!

  6. How sad. I am sure the pollution in the ocean is making these parasites breed up. It’s dreadful to think of how we have damaged the seas.

  7. when my sons were young, I used to docent at one or another of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Laguna Beach. my younger son was particularly avid about this, pointing out the marine life and cautioning others not to take shells. sadly, most don’t see the harm – ‘it’s just one shell’. times 1,000 a day, times 365 days a year…

    the oceans are being decimated by all manner of man-made causes, from oil spills large and ‘small’, fertilizer run-off feeding those algal blooms, factory ships that denude not just the water but the ocean floor, acidification, air-borne pollution, dumping…

    but… the great and terrible Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is now being addressed by a cleaning mechanism, The Ocean Cleanup. a small ray of hope ~

  8. Sad. A fascinating read, I never knew what sea silk was made from or anything about these giant clams. i do hope it is not too late for them.

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