Cathy Moser Marlett spent her childhood darting barefoot up and down Mexican beaches, catching clams or octopuses stranded on the shore at low tide.
Starting in 1951, her parents, Edward and Mary “Becky” Moser, worked as field linguists with the indigenous Seri people in the western Sonoran Desert along the Gulf of California. There, working with faith-based SIL International, the Mosers were the first to write down the Seri language and establish an alphabet. Eventually, they translated the New Testament into Seri.
The family made their home in the village of El Desemboque, several hours north of Kino Bay on the northern Sea of Cortez.
Today Marlett, an only child, and her husband, Steve Marlett, build upon her parents’ work.
During her research for “Shells on a Desert Shore: Mollusks in the Seri World,” Marlett, now 61 and an illustrator of literacy projects for SIL International, sat down with childhood playmates who today have grandchildren, speaking in the Seri language she learned as a child.
Her 300-plus page book, published in May by the University of Arizona Press, contains more than 100 of her drawings of the region’s mollusks. As Marlett presents her research, she also includes personal anecdotes.
“These people have lived there for several thousand years and intimately know the sea and desert,” Marlett said by phone recently. “The mollusks are kind of another aspect of the Seri culture. The reason it (the book) is mollusks is that I spent hours on the beach as a child. I got to know the intertidal zone, and I loved the shells.”
Not only did mollusks provide easy food for the Gulf peoples at low tide, but their shells also doubled as utensils and containers. The blend of scientific documentation and personal recollection in the book highlights a cultural lifestyle and language. Today, less than a thousand people speak Seri, making it an endangered language.
Marlett plans to compile a separate work for the Seri community to give younger generations a tangible account of their culture. It will include her drawings along with the scientific and Seri names of the mollusks. She does not plan to publish this work.
“I don’t want them to feel like I’m taking something out of their culture and keeping it for myself and showing the world, and they’re not involved,” Marlett said. “This is their story. This is not my story.”
Growing up as an only child, Marlett entertained herself by reading, drawing and striking up conversations with the researchers that passed through her home.
The collection of illustrations in “Shells on a Desert Shore” reflects Marlett’s love of art and science, a passion cultivated when bush pilot Ike Russell and his wife, Jean, whisked Marlett to Tucson for several days as a kid. On that visit, she met with University of Arizona professors who encouraged her to draw the world she saw.
“My parents got me a microscope, and I’d sit at the kitchen table and draw things I saw in the microscope,” Marlett said. “Art and biology have always been a combination for me.”
Marlett contributed about 600 illustrations to two editions of a Seri dictionary developed by her husband and mother in 2005 and 2010. Her mother died last year at the age of 88. Her father died in 1976.
The research for her own book has taken her a couple of decades, interspersed with the rest of her life. Throughout the years, Marlett and her husband, a Seri linguist, have made trips from their home in Tucson to the village of her childhood. When their two sons were children, they would cart the family south of the border during school breaks.
The house she lived in with her parents still stands. She says it is the second oldest house in the fishing village, though it is falling in today. They no longer stay there on visits or camp in tents. These days, they take a trailer.
“It’s a wonderful place to grow up, walking the shore barefoot,” Marlett said. “It was an idyllic childhood in a sense.”