I knew very little about sea glass until two summers ago. I had seen it in magazines, mostly pastel blues and greens, and I love those colors. I looked for pieces on beaches I visited, but Waikiki and Santa Monica yielded none, and over the years, I collected only a few, small pieces of frosty-white, sea glass. Then I rented a small cottage in Maine with its very own, private beach, and all of that changed.
Rocky and exposed to the twelve-foot tides of Blue Hill Bay, my little beach offered pockets full of sea glass every day. At first, I didn’t see them. My eyes were trained to find “lucky” beach rocks, the kind with bands of color that go all the way around them. And I had a secondary love for any rock that was smooth and shiny—or shaped like an animal—from black to green to red to white. So sea glass was a little sneaky to my eyes.
Tossed and etched by waves and rocks, sea glass is dull in the sun and doesn’t stand out among its shiny-rock neighbors. And it is usually small. Some pieces were already broken when they went overboard—maybe that’s why they were tossed—and you can hardly blame them for breaking into ever-smaller pieces as time and beach action had their way with them.
But at some point, a shard has had enough, and it stops breaking. From then on, it rolls and tosses from ocean to beach and back again, and its transparency is replaced by a soft, dusty lustre. Some become jewels—cabochon ovals, triangles, and teardrops. Others cling to their old identities—the edge of a bottle’s base, the delicate opening of an inkwell, the threads that held a cap secure. Nearly all are curved, and their colors represent the full history of glass making.
That’s what got me hooked. A scholar by trade and a genealogist by inclination, I can’t help but wonder about the histories of things. How did this bit of gray glass make its way to this beach, on this day, and where had it been before? Were they pop-bottle and mayonnaise-jar remnants of recent picnics, or were they the sole survivors of colonial journeys and the pirate trade? I had to have a book.
Soon, my sea glass was laid out on sheets of white paper, divided by color family and shade, and I leafed slowly through the colored illustrations of my reference book, Pure Sea Glass. As it turned out, I had both: fifties-era, CocaCola glass and the deep, dark, green-black of an 1830s, pirate-era, rum bottle. These gray ones were rare, and these lavender ones were made from the same process that created the violet windows on Boston’s Beacon Hill: too much manganese. The still-visible stamp on this one marked it as a soda bottle from the flapper era, and the graceful lip of the inkwell was Victorian.
My generous, little beach brought me pieces of sea glass every day, all the more as my eyes learned to scan for them. I learned their hiding places on the high sides of large rocks and among the camouflage of same-sized pebbles. Sometimes, a pearly specimen sat right out in the open, and I amused myself by imagining that it wanted to end its continuous tossing and come home in my pocket, ready to give up anonymity and be appreciated again as an individual.
Two summers in a row, I’ve found bits of the same, mysterious vessel. The pieces are deep teal on one side, snow white on the other. I found two pieces the first year, and the next summer, three more washed up onto the same beach on different days, as if to say, “We’re still out here. Don’t you wonder about us?” I do.
Each piece of sea glass has a story, and I’m drawn to finding it out, in the same way that I’m drawn to learning the stories about people. There’s no way to research them all, of course, but the very fact that each could be discovered is somehow validating to me. Recognizing that they are there, that a bit of research will be rewarded by a new and interesting story makes us all—sea glass and people—seem like books on a shelf, waiting to be read.
No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…” Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
I suppose that’s why I do what I do. If I find and tell a story, it may sit forgotten on a shelf for awhile, but when someone comes along and reads it, the ripples of that life will continue onward. It seems a small enough thing to do for the lives that touch us in some way.
The tide comes in and recedes again. It’s another day for discovery.