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Although he's short of stride, our new beachcombing pal digs into his work with a relish for detail and a keen eye on the extraordinary. Give him a square foot of sand and he'll come up with shell fragments that would baffle the most experienced conchologists.

Last year he was a blanket-bound eight-month-old who could only gaze longingly at the pebbles and polished beach glass that lay just beyond his reach. But this summer Jonathan is several steps ahead of the sand fleas.

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He had plenty of practice, of course, over our long New England winter. As he wobbled about the living room and kitchen each day, telltale signs of the collector-to-be were unmistakable: He stooped to examine every exquisitely patterned molecule of dust he spotted and gurgled with delight whenever he came upon a rare and ancient crust of pizza. When spring finally arrived and he and his playmates discovered the world within the driveway, they traded bits of gravel and stone back and forth like so many valuable baseball cards.

Now that Jonathan is free to explore the unfenced dunes of his dreams, however, he still tends to prefer small, self-contained territories. He's especially fond of wetlands that are bordered by tidal pools and familiar beach towels, and there he's content to spend his time in the sun pulling mussels off their slippery perches and chasing surprised hermit crabs around the legs of equally surprised friends and relatives.

Horseshoe crabs and other semiambulatory specimens are prize finds, but he also enjoys squatting down for a good, long study of an occasional mermaid's purse or razor clam. As he pokes and pries and shakes and bangs, grinding once sturdy shells into chalky powder, I often find myself wondering how Miss Edith would have harnessed his animated curiosity.

In the Cape Cod camp of my girlhood, Miss Edith was one of several spinsterly paradigms of discipline and diligence who spent seven weeks each summer fashioning young minds and bodies into models of good posture, good grooming, good sport spirit, and good solid training in the natural sciences. From the doorstep of her Nature Cabin, she regularly sent us off into the surrounding forests and shores to collect and classify.

One climbed exhausted up Miss Edith's ladder of success, pausing for only brief respites of pine-cone labeling and bird-call whistling between collections. The second-grade Scampers got off lightly, with only 10 specimens required per collection, but the junior high school Pioneers and Harvesters had to scavenge up between 40 and 50 unblemished boat shells and primly pressed oak leaves for each successive badge of accomplishment.

Miss Edith insisted on perfection, in nature and in her charges, and she looked upon a softshell clam with a hairline crack as an affront to her own self-respect. The unsuspecting merrymaker who turned in a chipped angel wing with her otherwise unscathed bivalves came in for a severe reprimand and often felt obliged to put in several hours of overtime at the Nature Cabin, dusting butterfly wings and hornets' nests and vowing to herself to never again so much as glance at a crooked quahog.

I suspect that a lot of us who learned our malacological ABCs at Miss Edith's stockinged knee still cringe at the sight of storm-battered shells lying in heaps along the high-tide line. But what is one to do with toddling offspring who see in a pile of kelp and crushed periwinkles a trove of wonder?

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No doubt we'll do what admiring parents down through the summers have done - treasure each newly discovered, eagerly offered scrap of seashore life as if it were the Hope Diamond. Perhaps because it is.

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