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ARTICLES by Annie Olson

"As If By Magic"

published July 2020 in American Conchologist

I went to the mailbox today and there was my favorite magazine! My American Conchologist for October of 2019. My routine is to look first at the front and back covers, appreciating what’s been selected. Then I open to page 2 and read the captions. Taking my time to enjoy. And last, I read the letter from Tom, our dear and faithful editor. Waiting for later to read the many thoughtful articles. 


His last words seemed written with me in mind, explaining the need for articles for the next issue, ending with these words. “So if you hav been thinking of submitting a piece, now would be timely.” I took the snail by the “horns” and called Tom right away and and was invited to write this article. Hope you like it. 


I’m as shy as the snails I have collected since I was a young child. So I’ve been intimidated to write my story for all of you. Unlike most of you, I ever got the chance to seriously collect and do research. Although, if I’d picked a life occupation, it would have been the study of gastropods of the Gulf of Mexico, from Marco Island to Cedar Key, focusing mostly on the inter-tidal zone. 


I learned to fly when I was 16 here in Holland, Michigan, instead. Three years later I met a man who was also pursuing flight. I thought he was he was a Japanese exchange student at Hope College, but he turned out to be a full-blood Tlingit Indian from southeastern Alaska. So I found myself catching salmon in my 40 fathom gill net in the sloughs of Lost River. I exchanged the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico for the cold water of the Gulf of Alaska. 


My shell collecting now had to be done as time and money would allow, using catalogs and the postage service. As you can guess, my totem animal is The Snail. And like a snail, you can see in the words and whorls of my life. What I”ve eaten, where I’ve lived, and the predators that have tried to eat me, but I’m here, alive, and able to write this. 


My passion for gastropods began when I was only five. My grandma provided funds for us to travel from the cold of Holland, to the warmth of Ft. Myers Beach, the winter of 1950, staying at the Rancho Del Mar. I remember the tough grass on my tender feet, the scream of their peacocks, and the tiny pool. Most of all, I fell in love with the tidal flash and the sea grass beds. And I remember this animal with a beautiful home it could make itself and then retreat into from danger. 


I was like a newly hatched duckling imprinting on all the different snails hiding in the sand. I wanted to be a snail! Of course! And I’ll never forget The Shell Factory on US41, the Royal Palms lining McGregor Blvd, Edison’s home and laboratory, and the ferry to Sanibel. 


To add dessert to our trip, we flew a DC-3 to Cuba, staying at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and swimming alone in their famous saltwater pool. I saw the book offer in this issue of American Conchologist for Cuba land snails and I recall a lovely documentary a few years ago featuring a woman who took advantage of the isolation of Cuba to study them extensively. 


A lot has taken place since I wrote the intro for this article. Wishing I lived on some tropical island, all alone to compose these words, but I don’t. I live in a condo with my husband of 20 years, who made it possible for me to exhibit these shells I form of polymer clay for the 2001 Sanibel-Captiva Shell Fair. And now I am his care-giver. So, in a way, this is his story too. Being there, encouraging me, as the shells evolved. 


October 15, 1987, was the pivot point that birthed these shells. I had been asked to give a talk for Grand Valley State, the college from which I was about to graduate. I got out my boss on Native American issues to prepare myself. Not knowing now with my heart, not just my head, what we as a nation had done to get the land. Especially by these words of Black Elk. 


“And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made on circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” - “Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt


I realized the hoops were composed of the rock, the plant, and the animal nations too. Not just the human nations. This knowing awoke me to environmental issues in a new way.  I was seeing anew my shell collecting. I had to admit to myself that I collected shells only for my pleasure. And that for me it was wrong. So I quit. Cold turkey. 


Well, the desire to have shells to collect and organize never left me. And my inner person who woke me up was prepared, it seemed, to show me a different way. 


I had a nudge in 1991 to attempt to make an auger type shell. It was a cold winter day and Was in front of the fireplace in my folks home. A brass sculpture of sandpipers over the mantle. I rolled a long tapered cone of white polymer clay. My fingers working together brought into being my first crude gastropod. My fingers acting like the mantle that forms natural seashells. 


For nine years I made thousands of shells. Trying to capture the essence of colors, etc. that adorn real shells, but I always fell short. It was as if the form, like the melody of a song, was waiting for the lyrics to appear. 


It was winter again. January of 2001, and it happened. I rolled the cone with the colored clay. Forward over and over again. Not back and forth as I had done for nine years now. Simple. Obvious I should have known. I was so focused on forming a perfect tapered cone, I ignored what I knew. How a real marine snail “paints” color and pattern on its shell. Depositing calcium carbonate and the minerals that compose the colors as it spirals around. The mantle doing all the work. 


I looked down and saw what I’d done. Realizing this was the way for me to express the essence of coloring upon my shells. Melody and lyrics together. Improving each other as I made shell after shell. 


For the next few hours, I made at least 100 shells. Then I went out and bought a nice wood bowl to put them in once they were baked. Got my magnifying glass out to look at them. And then had the surprise of my life. 


“They look real!”


I’m not an artist. I’m not a scientist, either, but I have always loved snails and their shell homes. I have also loved the feel of polymer clay. And I have also loved color. 


The three joined together to now satisfy the shell collector in me. In a new way. In a new way. Collecting multiple color combinations instead. 


This is how I ended up in the 2001 Sanibel-Captiva Shell Fair. 


There is so much more to this strange story. Why I’m writing a book about these snail children of mine. With the desire to teach others how to form them, and by doing, connect with the very animals who make the shells we study and appreciate so much. 


I have been showing people how I create my shells for almost 20 years now. And I was shocked again! Most people don’t get it. Don’t get it that a live animal makes these ‘Jewels of the Sea.’ So ready to teach us about this beautiful planet we call Earth. 


I find it so ironic! Slugs are an animal that most people find repulsive, not realizing the seashells they love so much are formed by a similar animal. 


I invite you to go to my website: to see more photos and read text I wrote for the shell fair, and to see all the things I make with them. Just like the real ones. 


Thanks for hearing my story. Not just reading it. 


Annie Olson

I love texting


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