The Gift of a Mermaid’s Purse

Posted by on Nov 2, 2017 in land | 3 Comments
The Gift of a Mermaid’s Purse


The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach–waiting for a gift from the sea.

–Anne Morrow Lindbergh–

I had only about an hour to walk the beach, listen to the surf and the gulls, and survey the far horizon. I was at Virginia Beach for my annual environmental educator conference, and the hotel was quite a long trek away. But when the sun came out and warmed the November sky, I knew I had to skip some sessions and go spend some time with the sea.

I wasn’t searching for treasures. I truly was open, choiceless as a beach, but I didn’t have to wait long for the sea to present a gift. It was a mermaid’s purse, the common name for an egg case of a skate, which is a fish that resembles a ray. Depending on the kind of skate, the embryo lives in that mermaid’s purse for at least half a year, but as long as two-and-a-half years! And when a predator, such as a sea urchin, comes around, the embryo has the ability to sense the predator and then play dead. And by play dead, I mean not simply stop moving around inside its mermaid’s purse, but even to temporarily stop its heart.

The mermaid’s purse reminded me of the fragility of nature and its adaptability. It was a beautiful little gift from the sea on a bright November day.

Photo: Skate egg case, Virginia Beach, November 14, 2011
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  1. Peggy Woods
    November 4, 2017

    Thanks for the information regarding a mermaid’s purse. It was new information for me.

    I can tell that you have the heart of an environmentalist as well as a poet and naturalist from the little I have read of your writings David. The book you wrote titled A WILDERNESS WITHIN: THE LIFE OF SIGURD F. OLSON is fabulous! I was familiar with John Muir but not Sigurd Olson. After reading your book about him now I want to read some of the books he authored.

  2. David Backes
    November 5, 2017

    Thank you so much, Peggy! I’m glad you liked the biography. As for Sig’s books, I’d recommend starting with “The Singing Wilderness.” More people call that their favorite than any of his others. Probably next-most often called a favorite is “Reflections from the North Country.” That one happens to be my favorite, but it is less pure nature writing and more philosophical than his others. “Listening Point” and “The Lonely Land” are probably neck-and-neck after that, with the former especially popular among people who own a northwoods cabin or spend time at one, and the latter especially popular among Canadians, because it recounts a long trip along the Churchill River, and when it came out in the early 60s it sparked a major new interest in wilderness canoeing in Canada.

    • Peggy Woods
      November 5, 2017

      I will definitely take your recommendations under advisement starting with “The Singing Wilderness.” Thanks!


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