SHELLS ON A DESERT SHORE:
MOLLUSKS IN THE SERI WORLD

Cathy Moser Marlett
University of Arizona Press, 2014

For anyone interested in the complex relations between mollusks and humans, the Gulf of California, or the natural history of living mollusks, this book must not only be in your bookcase, but it must also be well read and well used. —Hans Bertsch, The Nautilus.

This book represents the accomplishment of a life’s observations and intimate exchange of ideas with Seri collaborators and it surely is an important contribution to ethnobiology as a discipline. —Nemer E. Narchi, Ethnobiology Letters.

Whether your interest is seashells, native peoples or the seashore in general, this book is at once intimate and rewarding. —Bill Broyles, Southwest Books of the Year, 2014.

Así todo, junto a la profunda impresión que nos imprimen los conocimientos y las prácticas de los seris sobre su vasto mundo de moluscos, tenemos en la obra de Cathy Moser Marlett un libro prácticamente imposible de ser superado. —Enrique Fernando Nava López, Anales de Antropología.

La riqueza del trabajo de Moser remite a muchas aristas que relacionan el universo de los seris con los moluscos. […] la biología, la lingüística y la antropología se expresan claramente bajo un mismo paradigma de estudio.—José Luis Moctezuma Zamarrón, Dimensión Antropológica

This combination of anthropological, biological and ecological information obtained from her own observation and also from various archival sources creates a work that is of interest to many readers from various fields. Additionally, this book contains a plethora of information never before described in such detail regarding traditional knowledge of mollusks in Seri culture. —Carolyn O’Meara, Journal of Anthropological Research.

Essential reading for everyone interested in the Seri. —E. N. Anderson, author of The pursuit of Ecotopia: Lessons from Indigenous and Traditional Societies for the Human Ecology of Our Modern World.

This is the definitive work on Seri mollusks, a subject scarcely scratched by earlier Southwest ethnographers. —Amadeo M. Rea, author of Wings in the Desert: A Folk Ornithology of the Northern Pimans.

About the author

Cathy Moser Marlett, the daughter of American field linguists, spent much of her childhood in the Seri fishing village of Desemboque, Sonora, Mexico, speaking Seri and Spanish in addition to her native English. While enjoying a barefoot childhood exploring the desert and the ocean shore with her friends she learned the invaluable arts of octopus hunting, clam digging and making Seri baskets (three that she completed remain her treasures).

Her parents’ interest in documenting the Seri culture was pivotal in forming her own appreciation of the Seris (Comcaac) and their world along the shores of the Gulf of California. The researchers who occasionally passed through the area and dropped in at the Mosers’ home for a meal or visit also played a role in developing her knowledge of the amazing world that she took for granted. With encouragement from these visitors who sometimes included her on their field trips, and with a microscope and art supplies, she began her love of science and illustration—a combination later brought together in studying with Donald Sayner in one of his last classes of scientific illustration at the University of Arizona.

Cathy graduated from Wheaton College (Illinois) in 1974 with a degree in biology and art, later studying linguistics at the University of North Dakota.

She contributed “A Desemboque Childhood” in Seri Hands, a special issue of the Journal of the Southwest (Joseph Carleton Wilder, ed., 2000) and “A Fine Day for Playing Hooky,” in Backcountry Pilot: Flying Adventures with Ike Russell (Thomas Bowen, ed., 2002). In “The Trooqui Treen: a Seri Truck” (Journal of the Southwest, 2015) she presents a piece of early twentieth century Seri history.

Her illustrations have appeared in numerous publications, including People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians (Richard Felger and Mary B. Moser, 1985), Unknown Island (Thomas Bowen, 2000) and, the most extensive, involving more than six hundred drawings in the trilingual Seri dictionary (Mary B. Moser and Stephen A. Marlett, compilers, 2005 and 2010, [2nd edition]).

Her book Shells on a Desert Shore began with a few Seri names and a simple collection of shells she made during a college independent study in the Seri area. It soon became obvious that there was much more information to be learned, and so began an adventure of investigating and recording all things mollusk from Seri friends while on later trips to the area.  

Cathy and her husband Steve, a linguist, have two sons. Cathy works with SIL International as an illustrator of literacy materials, and has taught linguistics and given workshops in basic illustration to indigenous authors in Mexico, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Besides getting to know a new granddaughter, one of Cathy’s greatest pleasures is spending time in the Seri area exploring isolated beaches or visiting with Seri friends, enjoying their songs and stories.

Cathy lives with her husband in Tucson, Arizona.

Addenda to Shells on a Desert Shore
(or, what's new, post-publication)

Laevicardium elatum shells with designs used in face paintings, painted by Angelita Torres, 2014. Angelita recalled that when she was a child she used the shells' surfaces on which to practice the designs. She added that sun-bleached bones, like those from sea turtles, were used as well.


Smoothed worm snail shells collected by William Neil Smith in the mid-twentieth century. The longest is approximately 12 inches in length.

A person who arrives so thirsty that he doesn't ask permission to drink water, but goes straight for the water, is called haxoj coom (coom < 'drink, swallow'). Using a long section of xapij (reedgrass, Phragmites australis) or xtoozajö shell (such as Tripsycha tripsycha) he sucks up the water from a vessel and drinks his fill. (María Luisa Astorga, Desemboque, March 2014)

Smoothed worm snail shells collected by William Neil Smith in the mid-twentieth century. The longest is approximately 12 inches in length.

A person who arrives so thirsty that he doesn't ask permission to drink water, but goes straight for the water, is called haxoj coom (coom < 'drink, swallow'). Using a long section of xapij (reedgrass, Phragmites australis) or xtoozajö shell (such as Tripsycha tripsycha) he sucks up the water from a vessel and drinks his fill. (María Luisa Astorga, Desemboque, March 2014)


A game of skill involved throwing a large tower shell (Turritella sp.) point-first at the astragalus bone of a deer or cow (called taa) to see who could have the most hits at the bone's center hollow area. The snail's name, xtapacaj, comes from ziix taa cöhapacax 'thing thrown at the taa'.



A game of skill involved throwing a large tower shell (Turritella sp.) point-first at the astragalus bone of a deer or cow (called taa) to see who could have the most hits at the bone's center hollow area. The snail's name, xtapaacaj, comes from ziix taa cöhapacax 'thing thrown at the taa'.


Correction: The illustration of the shell
wreath ("corona") in Figure 3.15, p. 43 should be:


Correction: Figure 5.6, p. 136. The caption identifies the tubes in the unusual fossilized beach deposit as worm snail shells (reflecting the name in the Seri place name). Instead, they are tubes made by marine polychaete worms, dating from the late Pleistocene (Markes Johnson, personal communication).

 


A Janthina prolongata snail, which lives floating on the sea’s surface, attached to a bubble raft of its own making. In my book I present two Seri names for this uncommon snail, both noted as not being well known.

I was since told of a snail having the tantalizing name copsiij heete yáxalca ‘what are attached to jellyfish’; I was intrigued, but unable to match a snail with that name.

Recently the puzzle was resolved when another person, with no prompting, provided the name when showing me a photo he took of a Janthina snail that he had found with others in beach drift. He suggested that the name reflected how the bubble raft, to which the live snail is attached, resembles a jellyfish.

Photo Gallery

Hi-res zoom: off

Contact the Author