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THE REAL DIRT ON: Mary Anning, or She Who Sells Seashells

Duria Antiquior, painted by geologist Henry De la Beche`

By Susan Krzywicki.

I am working on an exhibit for the La Jolla Historical Society about canyons in San Diego—the complex ecosystem of plants, birds, and people, as well as all sorts of social and political implications. As part of this, we show how the coastal bluffs and canyons formed. Fossils help us differentiate layers and provide dating for geological eras. While researching this, I ran across a woman who collected fossil shells and became a respected paleontologist in England in the first half of the 19th century. While a stretch from San Diego gardening, it points up the role that women naturalists have always played, reminds us that the soil in our gardens have history, and also celebrates a well-known tongue twister.

Nature Leads Us to Places We Never Thought We'd Go

Mary Anning, with her dog Tray, on England's Dorset coast.

Mary Anning’s family was poor, but Mary was a bright, observant child who loved being out of doors in the wilds of the English countryside. Her father had taught her the basics of shell and fossil finding, and after his death (when she was only eleven), she continued to enhance her skills. She was so talented that she was able to support her family by collecting and selling these finds. Just as winter storms here bring down chunks of our sandstone cliffs, the coast of England, near the English Channel, would weather a storm, only to expose new layers of chalk embedded with fossils and shells.

At the age of just twelve, Mary discovered a complete ichthyosaur skeleton, stuck in the cliffs near her home in Dorset, near the town of Lyme Regis. She also found the first two complete plesiosaur skeletons, and figured out the real source of bezoar stones: fossilized dinosaur poop. Harry Potter fans will recognize the term 'bezoar' from Potions class.

A Career and Success, but No Recognition

Of course, the Geological Society of London did not then allow women to join in the early 1800s. But Mary had patrons—the wealthy collectors who bought fossils from her, and after whom the finds were named and celebrated. One of her connections, geologist Henry De la Beche, painted what was at the time a famous pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life that he based on her work. He was kind enough to give her some of the proceeds from the sale of prints from the painting, titled Duria Antiquior, since she was perennially poor.

End to a Long Career

Stephen Jay Gould (American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist) said of her, “Mary Anning [is] probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology.” At the end of her life, as she was struggling with cancer, her patrons arranged a financial stipend for her. Mary, born in 1799, died in 1847.

Her claim to fame, seeking shells, is supposedly the basis for a tongue twister that starts “She sells seashells on the seashore.” As a keen observer of the natural world, gardeners can hearken back to Mary’s efforts to uncover (excuse the pun) the mysteries of what lies beneath the surface. Have you ever found a fossil or a shell from unimaginable times past in your garden?

Susan Krzywicki is a native plant landscape designer in San Diego. She has been the first Horticulture Program Director for the California Native Plant Society, as well as chair of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Gardens Committee and is on the board of San Diego Canyonlands.

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