Beach glass is increasingly rare these days, given the proliferation of plastic tubs and containers, squeeze bottles of lotion, sunscreen and ketchup, Juicy Juice boxes and pouches, and all manner of silvery, pop-top disposables (whose bright kiddy colors dotting the grey shoreline are as jarring as a pool of antifreeze in a forest). But let me begin with an overview. Clear glass is traceable, most often, to hard liquor and white wine bottles—the latter abundant in the warmer months here in the East, tossed or fallen from our decks and pleasure boats, left behind after our beachy celebrations of sun and solstice. The browns are attributable to brewery trash—Buds, Bud Lites, Millers, and the common, local, sometimes historically significant varietals (National Bohemian in Baltimore). Stellas, and other upper-end finds, produce chips the color of spectacular Nordic eyes, original-flavor Sucrets, jade beads, back-lit aloe. The blues are most highly prized (cf. the New Yorker cartoon with happy couple on beach, strolling the shore, hand in hand, him saying, “You are my blue beach glass”). Where might the blue originate? Milk of Magnesia, classy vodka, Vicks Vapo-Rub bottles, all crashed against jetties or reefs on their journey inland. And, too, there’s the chance of finding a pressed blue letter or word, indicating a truly old liniment jar, or a blue iodine bottle’s thickened corner worn to a platelet, a sort of halved marble, its center swirl gutted and smoothed.
Chips of beach glass are not usually arranged discreetly but rather displayed in a jumble in decorative bowls or casually scattered in large, non-native clam shells. In bathrooms. In hallways. Mostly liminal spaces. Though so many pieces are thumbnail-sized, I think of them (silently, to myself) as grains. Since they are en route to being such (with proper diurnal rolls in tides, and scrapes along ocean floors) I preemptively call them by their most evolved—or is it devolved—name. So these grains proceed to our shores with their various characteristics shining forth, making some more collectable than others. The main characteristics (of the object, of the encounter) that a sea-glass comber considers when collecting are noted below. You might commit them to memory by way of the acronym O.P.E.—as in the archaic, poetic “open,” c. 1250, which aptly describes both the attitude and eye required for this endeavor.
1. Opacity: Have the motion and pressure of waves, abrasions of sand, hydraulics of tides, the peristaltics of passing through (as some must have) various, fishy digestive tracts, worn away the grain’s clarity sufficiently? Thus, unlike a diamond (clarity-ranked and produced at great cost to the environment and with much human suffering), it’s the working of the natural and beneficently eroding world that we’re after here. It’s the roughing up that constitutes value, a scraped, worn and irregular aspect we prize.
2. Perimeter: each piece of beach glass is a study in the ellipse. The ellipse is a broader, more universal form than a circle, though it appears to yearn towards circularity. It labors under our assumption of the circle as higher form, the spherical as enlightened. In its attraction to waves and their languors, one sees in beach glass the evections of its passage through seas, bays, inlets, estuaries, a kind of micro-scale record of the moon’s effect on tides—in the way insignificant-seeming frogs best register subtle environmental changes. Imagine, for instance, an old jeweler’s loupe, its leather case dusty and dried, its lens scratched –; an antique: that is, an object whose state of being is deepened over time by true wear, not a self-conscious made-to-look-worn thing. Where once was a clarity and, one assumes, a circularity, there’s a smudgy and surprisingly ovule form, all the better to fit the eye socket, pressed into place and held by orbital and suborbital bones. Such a thing wears in a way that reveals a body’s peculiarities, as well as the object’s own tendency to bend and adapt.
3. Retention of the original act of Espial. I mean, these are hidden gifts, and to find them takes an eye trained for certain tones, colors and shapes, amid all the purply siren calls of clam shells, of scallop shell crimps and fractal flutings, the rough iridescence of oyster shells, the mussels’ seductive, wet, midnight shine. Razor clams bearded with algae. Seaweed with inflatable, poppable pockets (very engaging, highly distracting). Finding beach glass requires focus—a dimming of range, a bounding of perspective. So much so that the actual moment of finding embeds, and each piece retains a tracery of its original spot: here’s the green from under the boardwalk; here’s the brown from near the lighthouse which we reached after walking for nearly two hours. Here’s a most surprising, clear one, found, though nearly camouflaged, in the dry white sand of the upper dunes amid the pebble-sized, extremely smooth and limpid spheres of Cape May diamonds (bits of granite worn in a uniform, pea-shaped way, found nowhere else along the East Coast, powerfully enticing, succinct, so opposite the lovely worn volutes of conch and the undulant crescents of glass under consideration here.)
Not too many people are patient enough to throw back the young pieces. I do, personally, because without fully developed features, without the properties sand and tides produce (the opacities of age, the diversiform shapes), beach glass is detritus, junk, trash. Sharp, splintery breakage. Time makes it otherwise. How much time? When is a piece cured? At what point might the hydrodynamics we’re studying turn our specimen from waste to prize? All logical questions, though none have definitive answers. “Definitive” would require tracking devices in the wild, centrifuge trials in labs, carbon-dating electron-micro attention, charts and maps and sampling tools, like those Alaskan ice-borers that dig down through seasons of freeze and melt and pull up long cores of time. So while this point, the moment of transmutation from junk to value, certainly could be researched, I’ve found through experience that the eye is the best judge and scientist here. The ability to internalize OPE, to make decisions about a specimen—to stoop-and-gather, or pass it up—conjures a state of being familiar to b.g. collectors: a kind of happy blankness, a reverie that counters the anomie of one’s daily landlocked existence.
This state might best be defined by isolating its component parts: reverence (such as the ocean and its might demands); primitive postures (largely lost to us today: the bending, gathering, and sifting of bits, the sitting back on haunches in an open-hipped squat); an eye for buried brightness; the pulse-quickening moment of finding; the clever manner in which worn glass at once holds and deflects sun; the essential strangeness of a rare blue chip found tucked amid all forms of biotic matter; a sun as heavy as a hand on the back, the esperance of waves, the sand supporting then shifting into troughs around feet, feet sinking into suckholes as waves crash and recede . . . all while the looking goes intently on.
And so in response to the many memos submitted and received over the years from colleagues, on such useful topics as the distinctions between ax and maul, the properties of a variety of woods, i.e. the give or resistance of their fibers upon chopping, their relative BTUs (which I’d forgotten is British Thermal and not Burn Time Units), and to redress my tardy response to a very fine recent memo (recapping Jeffrey Lockwood’s research on the sudden disappearance of the locust swarm) which reads, in part: “it is believed that they bred in certain river valleys in Colorado, and when settlers first arrived and plowed up the land for farming, they killed the eggs that were buried in the soil and so inadvertently wiped out the North American locust,” and including this lovely line, too, so rhythmic, so pleasing read aloud: “These locust swarms had a biomass as great as the bison herds and swept over the great plains in regular migrations”—and other memos of note: a short history of personal gun use; urban vs. rural pigeons; the mysticism of glaciers—I submit, here, this brief. Pulled as it is out of thin air, pulled from the place where that-which-we-didn’t-know-we-knew abides. Where so much gathers in a rich miasma until called forth by luck, competition (the aforementioned memos were very good), an impulse to sketch, itchiness for form, abundance of love for an object, a drive to give small things their due, or the weight of a personal collection piling up, asserting its presence. I submit this memo whose true subject is both a founding tenet and sustaining goal of the whole operation I’m running here, a subject which bears repeating at times of reorganization, challenging times of uncertainty and instability, lest we forget it: the bright uselessness of joyful endeavors.
Lia Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), she has also received Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as five Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and other honors. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, AGNI, Emergence, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, where she is writer in residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program, at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in The University of Iowa’s nonfiction MFA program, and at conferences, workshops, and graduate programs throughout the country. Her newest collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin), and her latest collection of essays is All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books). She is a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 4/2017)
Purpura’s AGNI essay “Glaciology” won a Pushcart Prize and is reprinted in the 2006 anthology.