Unalaska

(just as a heads up, I have decided to take part in NaBloPoMo… so I’m going to try to write every day… feel free to comment)

In my thirty month tenure here in the Mollusk Department I’ve had the pleasure of working on a number of projects, and learned quite a bit about Mollusks. Considering the name of my department and nature of my job, this was expected. Learning about ethanol and handling formaldehyde also fell in my list of expectations, as well as database management and conservation techniques.

I did not expect to invest so much energy in geography. I’ll give my short opinions first:

Many islands have fabulously interesting names.
Many places have been renamed too many times, and I don’t know nearly enough history to intuit what the correct current name should be.
I wonder what travel was like going to the South Pacific back in 1884.

Today’s favorite place name actually got me chuckling at my desk. We have a few Modiolus modiolus (Horse mussels) from Alaska, specifically from Unalaska Island. Unalaska, Alaska… don’t tell me that isn’t funny.

The catalogue I am currently working on has a lot of material from the Philippines. Several of us in the department were all excited when one entry elucidated the mysterious P. de Mesa as Pedro de Mesa. It’s so nice to learn a person’s name! Mr. de Mesa collected a lot of material, and purchased much as well, and it came into the museum in the 30s and 40s. I’m on my second catalogue of information, and he pops up every few pages.

One day some of us in the office were joking about Mr. de Mesa and how he must have been some quirky fun guy in the Philippines grabbing shells all the time and mailing them off to Harvard, and the former department curator actually spilled a little bit of the story. He only has bits of the story, but P. de Mesa has become infinitely more interesting.

Mr. de Mesa was an elementary school teacher who had a fascination with shells, and would collect or get his students to collect shells. He sent shells here to the museum, and he also sent shells to a shell collector in Japan. The Philippines were one of Japan’s conquests during WWII, and the shell guys looked out for de Mesa and would let him know when the army was coming through, so that he could hide.

This, to me, brings up ideas of this amazing spy and hiding story for a very Indiana Jones-esque elementary school teacher who goes off searching for shells instead of archeological trophies. The sheer volume of shells we have from P. de Mesa at the museum has me convinced that he must have been kept fairly safe during the war.

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