Pearls of Wisdom

Photograph by Kelly Cheng / Getty Images


Words by Willow Defebaugh

Bivalves offer not only pearls of beauty but of wisdom, too. The Overview looks at what they can teach us about suffering.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Across the ages, humankind has searched for a cure for pain. Diving into this subject led me to an unexpected place, a story which begins on the ocean floor. On seabeds deep and shallow rests a creature whose iridescent nacre reflects what little light can be found in the distorted depths of the water. And while its walls might seem impenetrable to the life that swirls around it, this animal is continuously processing its environment—sometimes resulting in the most lustrous material known to humankind. I’m speaking, of course, about mollusks and pearls.


Mollusks are invertebrates, a sprawling branch of the tree of life. Those that are capable of producing pearls—which include oysters, clams, and mussels—belong to a group known as bivalves. You would recognize these animals from their two-part shells, which they grow using an internal organ that secretes calcium carbonate. The two valves are held together by a thin ligament which serves as the hinge. Nestled safely inside is a central muscle it uses to open and close its shells. Who among us isn’t tempted to wall ourselves off, from time to time?


Like the fish that swim past them, bivalve mollusks breathe using gills. What sets them apart, though, is that they also feed through them—filtering the surrounding water for algae and other nutrient sources. With their valves held just slightly ajar, miniscule hairlike strands called cilia wave back and forth to draw water in and filter out the food. Clams are capable of filtering up to 24 gallons of water per day, while oysters can reach up to 50 (roughly two to three per hour). I admire them for this: their ability to sift through uncertain seas for that which nourishes them.


While this filtration system is formidable, occasionally something unanticipated slips through. This can be pernicious, like a parasite, or simply debris like sand. In order to rid themselves of this source of distress, certain species respond by producing a shimmery substance known as nacre—the same they use for their shells—which they coat the irritant with until it becomes smooth and thus no longer a danger to their delicate insides. What’s more is that nacre is made up of a mineral called argonite, making it not only exquisite to behold, but impossibly strong. 


Oysters, clams, and mussels are integral to aquatic and marine ecosystems, helping to filter and clean the waters they inhabit. The near-10,000 species they encompass reach every corner of the ocean, from warm tropics to the freezing arctic. While commercial harvesting protects these creatures from endangerment, they are still at risk due to climate change. Ocean acidification (from carbon pollution that’s absorbed by the ocean) makes it harder for these animals to grow their shells. And because of their filtration systems, bivalves are sensitive to environmental pollutants, holding on to toxins that can be harmful to those they would otherwise nourish.


Meanwhile, in the human world, pearls have become a shining symbol of status and wealth, cultivated by cultures across seas and centuries. It’s ironic that these gems have become an emblem of the United Kingdom’s royal family—especially the late Queen Elizabeth II, who was rarely seen without hers—considering that the monarchy is also a principal driver of the climate crisis through its ongoing history of colonization, imperialism, and industrialization, as site editor Daphne Chouliaraki Milner pointed out in a feature for Atmos this week. Specifically, they are often worn at funerals, and have thus become a mark of mourning.


Bivalves offer not only pearls of beauty but wisdom, too. Try as we might like to defend against it, suffering—both intentional and accidental—is an inescapable part of the waters we are all attempting to filter our way through. Denying our afflictions and those of our world only cuts away at our insides. All we can really do is tend to them with care. The same parts of us that seek to wall ourselves in are capable of healing, too. Doing so won’t make our problems disappear, but with time, they will smooth over—and if we’re lucky, produce something pretty.

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