The Conch Tree

Conch Trees on Chappaquiddick. Photo by Lily K. Morris
The old shell, empty of life, is discarded, and washes up on the beach — for someone to find and stick up on a sassafras branch.

A narrow footbridge crosses the marsh to a tiny island covered with sassafras trees, a few feet back from the beach at the edge of Cape Pogue Pond. The tree roots are vulnerable to wind and saltwater soakings, so the sassafras are stunted, with many dead branches. Twenty or more years ago, someone stuck a horseshoe crab shell onto a protruding twig of one of the trees next to the path that leads through the island to the beach. Most likely it was my mother, who summered in our family house on the bluff above the marsh. She loved the outdoors and was interested in all kinds of multi-legged creatures.

At that time, horseshoe crabs were plentiful in Cape Pogue. Nearly every house had its collection of their shells, lined up in size from less than an inch to two feet, including the tail. A horseshoe crab is an arachnid, a kind of living fossil related to spiders, another of my mother’s favorites. As it grows, the crab gets to be too big for its shell, so it crawls out the front. Its soft inner shell allows it to grow after its exit. The old shell, empty of life, is discarded, and washes up on the beach — for someone to find and stick up on a sassafras branch.

Within a few years, that sassafras tree was festooned with horseshoe crab shells of all sizes. Other families stayed at the house on the bluff, and everyone who liked to beachcomb left a crab shell hanging off another branch. It was hard not to pick up the shells, even if you had too many lying around the house already, so it was nice to have something to do with them.

Time passed, and like the shore itself, the horseshoe crab tree and the sassafras tree island evolved. The island used to be almost in the middle of the marsh, and when I was a kid, we had to lay down boards to keep our feet dry between the island and the beach. The shoreline has kept on retreating until now the back of the beach touches the island, and the boards are long gone. The horseshoe crab population changed, too. In the 1990s horseshoe crabs were used extensively as bait for conch traps, and all but disappeared from the pond due to overfishing.

As horseshoe crabs became scarce, the tree metamorphosed into a conch tree. No one decided to convert it into a conch tree — it just happened over time. Conchs are another one of those irresistible beach treasures, with the glowing sunset inside the mouth of each shell. As the horseshoe crab shells fell to the ground, conchs appeared on twigs or stuck into the crotch of branches. Over the years, old shells faded in color and fell like the autumn leaves — although they didn’t disintegrate as quickly — and every year, bright new shells replaced them.

A few years ago I looked for some trace of the horseshoe crabs under the original conch tree, but I couldn’t find any sign of them. The house on the bluff above the marsh is gone now, too. When my mother died, it was taken down, and bluff and the little island belong to the Land Bank. Many people use the path to the beach now, and in recent years the conchs have spread, fungus-like, to the other stunted trees and bushes on the island, and even to a tree across the marsh. This is a development I hadn’t considered, and a change which gave me mixed feelings. In some ways, it makes the original conch tree not feel so special anymore, like an invasive species such as bittersweet — pretty in one spot, but not something you want to see everywhere, choking out the native growth. But on the other hand, the spread of conch trees reminds me that many people now get to experience and appreciate this special corner of the island that I’ve loved all my life.

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