Obsessively exploring the beaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal as a child, I overlooked the limpet shells because they seemed common, rough and battered. The cowrie shells beckoned with their polished domes and gleaming teeth. I collected, categorized and even drew my prized collection.
And then, earlier this year while walking the wild Soetwater beach on the Cape Peninsula, limpet shells caught my attention. They suddenly seemed miraculous, a metaphor for coping with adversity. They are plastered to the rocks in places and patterns that seem random but are very specific, their shapes designed for the place they occupy in the inter-tidal zone. They fight territorial battles, tend their algae gardens by pruning and fertilising, and guillotine aggressors appendages by slamming their shells down on them. Kelp Limpets are shaped to fit on the stem of the Kelp and only one occupies each stem. If the Kelp holdfast breaks free in a storm, the limpet senses the change in pressure and parachutes down to the seabed to start searching for an unoccupied stem. South Africa has the highest biodiversity of limpets in the world, with up to 2600 individuals per square meter.
I took a bucket of (dead) limpet shells home to Mpumalanga and began working. Through drawing, I got to know these creatures intimately and they took on a sacredness, as can anything in the natural world if we pay attention. For weeks I kept drawing and moved from biological observation to a more playful space in which these wonderful shapes started to enjoy whimsical relationships and became drawings for thinking.
Keywords: Limpet shell,