We spend our lives seeking pearls of wisdom, rare gems of insight acquired at great price. We will plough an acre of racinated soil in hopes of finding one shiny stone; we will sluice and pan a creek in hopes of sifting the nugget that will settle our debts with enough for a bottle of Cognac remaining. But this is playing the lottery: it loses a lot. If we want hard truths now, we would do well to alter our perspective.
Look down, for instance. At your shirt. What holds it on? Those buttons – how they iridesce. What colour are they? What colour aren’t they? If, as buttons and some other things sometimes are, they are made of nacre, they will be hard, durable, pieces of some bygone bivalve’s shell, shining in elusive phantasms of colours. If you do not see the colour you want, look another way. If you do see the colour, it will shift in an instant. It is all soft, glowing, never too vivid. It is a durable reminder that what you see often depends on your position. And that things perceived are not always so – and can at the same time be quite different when seen from another perspective. Such is the mother of wisdom.
Mother of wisdom? Mother of pearls of wisdom. Mother of pearl. That’s what nacre is: mother-of-pearl. It comes from the shells of various molluscs: oysters, mussels, nautiluses, various others. Not all molluscs make nacre, but some of the most ancient lineages do.
Why does it shimmer and glow and shift its colours so? It is made of stacks of plates of aragonite held together with elastic biopolymers, producing a very strong material. The thickness of the plates is similar to the wavelength of visible light, and it causes interference with light rays differently at different angles. The shimmering colours are not intrinsic to the material; they are an effect of its arrangement and interaction with the surrounding. Shine a light on nacre and it will simultaneously reflect many different colours at many different angles, but you will only see what is in your angle of view. This is not the one true colour, but it is not a false colour either: it is what you see, and it came to you through light reflected from what you’re seeing, as colours do. Without reflection there is no seeing.
In this way is nacre like our minds, our personalities, the world: reflecting many things in many directions at the same time, and what another person perceives depends on their angle. And because it is a material in a shell, it helps protect the tender being inside. Shells have their uses, after all.
So nacre is the mother of wisdom: when we learn that what we see depends on our angle, we are one step farther forward. And then we can enjoy the light show for what it is. And why is nacre the mother of pearl? Pearls are made with nacre too.
Pearls, those very precious pieces, are made when an irritant intrudes inside an oyster’s tidy shell, a little flaw in its serene world, and the oyster encloses this irritating flaw in the shell material – the nacre. Gold is gold, and is as scarce as it is, but pearls are just a special arrangement of common materials – not even like diamonds, which are highly disciplined carbon; pearls are made of the very same calcium carbonite structures as line billions of shells. But because we want just the pure sphere, we seek it and kill countless other less irritated oysters in the course of finding it. The great price of pearls is the cost of the hours of slaughter required for finding one. We are obsessed with finding the perfect flaw.
In our own lives, we may often be as happy as clams, but we are never as serene as unslaughtered oysters. Life is too irritating, and we gain our own flaws and wounds that we coat with hard shimmering layers to make cherished things of beauty. After all our sea-changes, each of us grows as many pearls as a whole bed of oysters. But most remain hidden from sight, even our own.
And so, looking outward, we still toil to seek the pearl, shuck an acre of shells and chuck the nacre because it’s not in the form of our desire, while the same shifting shine, unnoticed, lines our shells and holds our shirts on.