The tide is heading out and the sandy stretch of beach and tide pools are exposed. Kéet, my border collie, bounds along beside me. Up the beach, near the short trailhead, my dad sits on a log. I walk along the beach in Ḵaachx̱aana.áakʼw at Ḵeishangita.aan, the “Red Alder Head Village.” This area in Wrangell is the former site of one of the oldest Tlingit villages on the island, known as Institute Beach (or Shoemaker Beach), and also the former location of the old boarding school.
I can’t seem to find what I’m looking for. Did I miss them? Last night, my neighbor Alicia, messaged me a photo to ask what the round, mechanical-looking thingamajigs were that she’d seen on the beach earlier in the day. They seemed familiar, but I wasn’t sure what they were: a broken pot, an old gasket, a sea shell or a mini toilet plunger? A quick image search discovered what I suspected, that the strange round objects were not human-made but organic: moon snail nests.
Once I learned what they were, I had to go see for myself. Last night, the tide was already in, and it was stormy, so I waited for morning to drag my dad down to a nearby beach in search of a moon snail nest. Now, I walk the length of the sandy spit in the spring sunlight. We’re not out looking for the snail, because the moon snail, similar to a clam, burrows down into the sand to get away. They live about 4 inches or more below the surface, and the moon snail spends its days underground. It’s the moon snail’s sand nest I want to find. Sometimes they’re called sand collars, but they’re the snail’s nest or case, and each one holds thousands of moon snail eggs — It’s a circular ribbon of sand.
The moon snail is the common name for naticidae, a family of predatory sea snails. Worldwide there are about 260 types, spanning from the tropics to the Antarctic. You’ve probably seen the empty moon snail shells hanging on necklaces or windchimes and there’s probably a shell on your windowsill or sitting in your houseplant.
I continue to walk the beach. Every step I take on the soft sand I’m reminded I’m traveling through a delicate world. I walk carefully, looking in and around the tide pools. When you’re beachcombing, you’re venturing into the home of numerous marine creatures, especially invertebrates—sea animals without backbones, like these moon snails. These tips provided by Alaska Department of Fish and Game help to conserve our tide pools:
— Walk don’t run: Walk in the tide pools or around them, because if you run you can trip and fall and also walking uses less pressure on the animals in the tide pools.
— Watch where you step: If you can, use the rocks for stepping stones, rather than risk stepping on the creatures.
— Stay on the tide pool edges: You can see better from the edges and also you won’t disturb the creatures.
— Be gentle: Turn over only the smaller rocks and do it gently. Look where you’re turning over the rock so you don’t crush the creatures darting out from under the
— Wet your hands: Dip your hands in seawater from the tidepool before touching or handling a creature that’s been uncovered by the tide.
— Replace the rocks: Gently replace any rock or seaweed or log/stick you’ve turned over. The creatures need these for shelter.
These are basic tips, and if we consider how everything is connected, then we’re likely to take better care when we venture out into nature because we’re a part of it. Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, a mentor of mine, once said, “Everything possesses a spirit, a consciousness, an awareness. So the wind, river, rabbit, amoeba, star, lily and so forth all possess a spirit.” So, even the moon snail is an ancient fellow traveler on this planet.
I continue to sweep my eyes left to right, searching. Then, I spot something that looks like a small volcano with a large hole in the center — a moon snail nest. It’s smaller than I imagined. To my right, several more moon snails nests dot another sandy spot. I lean down to inspect the nest’s delicate sandy surface. Kéet sniffs it but loses interest. She’s more focused on what I could have in my hands to toss for her fetch game.
Looking down at the familiar shape, I consider it’s similar to a snail shell and like the spiral on the petroglyphs near town. The moon snail nest is really a snail house, temporarily housing snail eggs. I consider how my children are T’akdeintaan and they belong to the Snail House. The snail is one of their clan crests and they’re always excited to read about snails and the beautiful spiral shape in nature.
I recall a conversation with Nora Dauenhauer, a Tlingit scholar and linguist, who discussed the origins of the word táax’ in the name T’akdeintaan. She said it could be related to the shape of the snail shell and also like the benches in a tribal house, circling around the fire resembling a snail’s spiral path. I look down at the moon snail nest and I see what she meant.
I continue looking for more moon snail nests and I’m like a kid again, searching for the right rock, the right length of bull kelp on this same beach decades ago. I was raised just down the road, but I don’t recall actually looking for the snail nests. Now, though, the snail is as much a part of my infinite universe as the ever-present dog. I wonder how many moon snail nests I ran over with my bare feet in my lifetime, not knowing what they were. Today I’m excited to learn about something so beautiful.
I walk along looking in tide pools and searching the sand. I following a light of sight toward the ocean across a dip in the sand. There, another larger nest sits inside a wave formed area. I get down on my side in the wet sand, to get just the right photo with my iPhone. Spring and summer, during very low tides, is the best time to look for moon snail nests. The moon snail lays her eggs by pressing them together with two layers of sand and a sticky cement-like mucus. There are eggs embedded in the sand so don’t touch and break them open too soon. The eggs hatch in the summer and the sand is washed away and the larvae swims free.
Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley said to me: You never stop learning. I think of my mentors, Nora and Oscar, who are gone now, and my Sámi elders, and other Indigenous tradition bearers, whenever I set out to learn something new like the life of moon snails. Caring is paying attention, is learning, is reflecting on the new knowledge. It’s not being afraid to learn more. I curve the story around to form a spiral where one piece of knowledge connects to another—one petroglyph spiral, one snail shell, our family of T’akdeintaan snails, and the moon snail nest on this beach, bursting with thousands of babies, and the tide moving across the nest, waving ripples of spring sunlight. There’s a Sámi proverb that says: “Here I am. See me. Hear me. I am knowledge. Take care of me.” Indeed I will, moon snail nests.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.