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Shells and Such

Jan 2010

by Michael O’Brien

I’m making scrambled eggs for dinner tonight.

I was walking around the kitchen, holding the eggs, looking in the fridge for other ingredients. Trying to think healthy and not immediately grab the cheese; of course, I dropped one. It didn’t splat but hit right on the round end cracking enough to begin leaking. I put it in a bowl, and it emptied out. Not all at once: I had to shake it a few times but didn’t break it further. Once empty, I was amazed at its lightness, and its strength.

Looking closer, feeling the surface, you could tell it wasn’t actually smooth. There were bumps on it. The shell was thicker in some places and thinner in others.

We think about eggshells “being formed” as if it was an automatic process…I guess it is a biological function, uncontrollable by the chicken, but I like to think that some higher power, call it what you will, supreme being, evolutionary imperative, it’s not important to name specifically. Somehow, there was a knowledge that life, as it is taking form, needs protection.

Protection from what? All things external to the womb? Sure to a large extent, the shell protects from impact; too much light, it’s not a universal shield though. The egg must still be kept warm and protected against being squashed.

You hear people say, “So and so is coming out of their shell,” as a way of saying a person is emerging as themselves and are ready to face the world without the protection the shell offered. It takes work to get out of one’s shell I think.

I remember seeing on The Wonderful World of Disney shows about chicks breaking out of shells, alligators breaking out of shells, turtles, even a duckbill platypus! The process was remarkably similar for all the species: what was inside began poking, pecking, chipping away at the shell until it cracked. Then there always seemed to be a period of resting. Then more poking and pecking, and the hole in the shell got bigger and bigger. Then more resting. Then a final burst of energy, and what was inside flopped out into the nest. Usually they were a mess, still covered with what nourished them, feathers askew, and exhausted by the process. They’d rest some more then finally roll and tumble and scramble around the nest. Probing its limits, poking their head outside.

I remember seeing the parent alligator scooping up the squeaking, emerging babies in their mouths and shuttling back and forth between the safety of the nest and the safety of the water giving the emergent generation an extra chance to survive the first few moments in the world.

Turtles weren’t so lucky. They’d emerge en masse and sprint (for a turtle) to the edge of the water, hoping their mass numbers would let a few survive being plucked up by seabirds.

I can’t remember any species moving in and out of their shells. But I think it would be a handy trait to have. To be able to retreat to the quiet place where you first became aware. Kept warm by your family nest so you could re-emerge from time to time. There’s probably a reason why nature doesn’t do that. Still, I’d like to leave it in the suggestion box.

I pull back to my shell from time to time in life. Mine isn’t the translucent perfection of an egg, with its clear form. Mine seems to change, a competition here, a book there, obscure details in history I really don’t know why I enjoy learning, writing this blog, a bit of wood and a sharp tool, a fountain pen and a good piece of handmade paper. These are safe places for me. It’s true; you could say I hide in them. But it’s not really hiding I don’t think. It’s just a safe, quiet place to develop.

That’s what makes a shell more than a boundary. It’s really three dimensional, a space for growth.

It’s true that to re-emerge, one will have to invest effort. Poking, pecking at the shell until you hear it crack, see a bit of daylight, then you can rest for a little while and build up some energy to make the crack larger, pressing the pieces to the side and taking that first breath of air. I remember that’s what the first step out of the car in the pine woods at the lake was like…a first breath. Then some more rest, building energy, flopping around, learning the limits of the nest, and preparing for the mad dash to the edge of the water. Operating on instinct, knowing there are risks, predators looking to feed themselves. But believing that if you make it, life in the water will be more fulfilling than in the nest, in the shell.

If you come across my shell, step lightly; I’m in here working, building energy for the next emergence.

Step lightly wherever you tread. Respect the shells you come across. If you see an emergent floundering, help get them safe passage to the water.

Be good to each other.

Time for dinner.