Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Plaintive Abalone

A fairly common installment along the California coast is the abalone shell. This bowl-sized structure is an enduring feature of many gardens, as here in the cemetery at Carmel Mission. I mentioned quite some time ago the possibility that "abalone" could be a Native Californian word, though if so, we got it already filtered through Spanish. At any rate, the Indians of California had extensive uses for this mollusk; it was excellent food, and the polished shells were used as a type of money, as described in the following quote:
"The money answering to gold is made from varieties of the earshell (Haliotis) and is called ullo. [. . .] They cut these shells with flints into oblong strips from and inch to two inches in length, according to the curvature of the shell, and about as broad as long. Two holes are drilled near the narrow end of each piece, and they are thereby fastened to a string (made of the inne[r] bark of the wild cotton or milkweed--Asclepias) hanging edge to edge. [. . .] Being susceptible of a high polish this money forms a beautiful ornament, and is worn for necklaces on gala days."
At the turn of the century, there was a thriving abalone industry in California, an industry of largely Japanese fishermen who used diving suits which enabled them to stay submerged in the cold waters off Monterey for three hours at a time. The boat above is a model of the type they employed; the unique oar at the stern helped the rower to hover above the submerged diver.
The forgoing touched on man's interest in abalone, but of the abalone itself? Wikipedia will have to suffice to explain its true habits; all I could garner from my personal library was a poem, largely culinary, containing a verse which would have done Lewis Carroll proud:
He wanders free beside the sea,
Where e'er the coast is stony;
He flaps his wings and madly sings--
The plaintive abalone
  • The description of ullo was by Stephen Powers, quoted in "Abalone Industry of the California Coast" by Mrs. M. Burton Williams. Printed in Out West: A Magazine of the Old Pacific and the New, Ed. Lummis & Moody, 1908
  • The polished abalone shell and the model boat are both in the Monterey Maritime and History Museum. The model was built by Tom Fordham.
  • The verse is from "The Abalone Song," attributed to George Sterling and published in California Heritage by John & Laree Caughey

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