King tides, storm surges, the pull and push of lunar and solar gravity all combine to mix and churn the sea bed. Rocks, shells, driftwood, dead sea creatures, bottles and shards of glass get tossed and turned. And much of this ocean detritus finds purchase on the beach. It’s prime season for beach combing, metal detecting and, for my daughter and me, sea glass hunting.
Nothing against beach combers and metal detectorists – it’s all thrilling treasure hunting – but sea glass is special to me because I find it to be a unique type of sand cycle involving time and human activity at the shore. From sand to glass and, with much tumbling in the surf, the rubbed off edges of glass return to sand again. The sea glass cycle begins as sand that ultimately becomes the subject of festivals, jewelry and personal mementos of a beach stroll.
Remnants of blue, green, white, red and brown glass may start off as discarded bottles, but are transformed into treasure in 20 or 30 years. Or longer. It’s easy to picture the Coca-Cola bottle origins of the light blue-green sea glass. Cane sugar, original formula, of course! I successfully search my memory banks for images of the Bubble-Up and 7-Up bottles I may have left at the beach 50 years ago. Brown sea glass is certainly beer bottles, perhaps Schlitz, PBR or Coors. Opaque white sea glass may have started off as clear Nehi or Crush bottles. Years of tumbling and erosion turn the clear glass to a soft white hue. And every now and then, a larger chunk of sea glass is discovered among the stones and seashells that may have started life as a buoy or decorative vase.
I’ve read that red is the rarest and the most valuable sea glass because of the gold formerly used in the red glass manufacturing process. But I like to think that the most precious is the sea glass you find with your child or with your parent, friend or partner. It’s not just a piece of glass anymore. There is now a place, a time, an experience with a loved one, infused into the glass. The sea glass is now part of a joyful story of discovery. Now to be rubbed, turned over, examined and displayed by the successful treasure hunter.
Mermaid tears some call them. The legend has it that Neptune banished his daughter to the deepest depths of the ocean, separating her from her one true human love. Tears of sadness turned to glass. It is, of course, kind of sad that our ocean was used as a dumping ground. But then the miracle of time and erosion and the sand-glass-sand cycle and, for me at least, a different kind of tear can emerge. I imagine the mermaid eventually breaking free of her father’s heavy-handed punishment and rediscovering her true love. So, when the sea glass hunt is unsuccessful, I think of the mermaid with a smile on her face. And when the hunt is successful, the only appropriate tears are tears of discovery and joy. Mine and my daughter’s!