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PONDER | Your Place in Nature

Currency of the Apocalypse

By Steve Hawk

seaglass, Steve Hawk, beachcomber, Half Moon Bay, sea glass


A stubborn high-pressure ridge has encamped off the Northern California coast, whipping up a nonstop face-slapping gale. The surf is rotten, has been rotten for a month, and the beach this morning is brutal and uninviting, but still I veer like a sandpiper to the water's edge.

Good news: Mine are the first footprints in the low-tide scree, so I don't have to worry that some addicted crack-of-dawn prospector has beat me to the best pieces. Around here, sea glass is serious business. At least for some people it is.

I've grown deft at spotting the polished saltcrust gems. My wife calls it another useless skill in a life awash in useless skills.

Sand needles my ankles and spray mists my glasses as I scan the serrate of last night's high tide. Pebbles, shell flecks, kelp bulbs, jellyfish fragments, and bright plastic bits—pyrite all—beckon in the low sun. I've grown deft at spotting the polished saltcrust gems amid such glinting flotsam. My wife calls it another useless skill in a life awash in useless skills.

I tell people that I search for sea glass only because it gives me an excuse to rub up against the ocean on days when the surf sucks. I say that simply strolling the shore—dodging surges, alarming seagulls, breathing the tangy fecund air—recharges my salty soul.

My wife smirks at this claim. She knows that these hunts are less about the hunt than about the booty. She's seen me empty my pockets on the kitchen counter with unfettered pride, sifting through common browns and whites to show her the coveted seafoam greens, the rare deep blues. She laughed aloud when I confessed that I sometimes dab cooking oil on my palms, then massage the best pieces to make them gleam.

But I refuse to concede that my interest in polished beach trash has ascended to the level of obsession. I've witnessed sea glass addiction firsthand, and it scared me. About an hour south of my home in Half Moon Bay, there's a sandy cove, famous among the cognoscenti, just below a bluff where a glassblower's shop once stood. Even though people have mined it for decades, the cove still coughs up nuggets. When I first ventured there about five years ago with my two sons, we watched a wetsuit-clad man march into the water carrying a wire-mesh scoop. The shore break was serious, head high and thumping, and the man got rolled repeatedly. But he eventually sloshed to the beach with maniacal eyes, holding out for all to see a shard the size of an Oreo. It had red, yellow, and orange stripes and made me want to mug him.

A short time later, I discovered near my house a stretch of beach that, during the right combination of tide and swell and at the right time of day (early, before the addicts arrive), can be a sea glass Comstock. This is where I've come on that windy morning, alone. The sand glitters with good glass, and within an hour my pockets bulge and my pants droop.

Back home, I dump the pieces on the counter so I can cull the keepers, which I will later move to a Plexiglas cube that serves as a side table in our living room. I've been piling glass into this display box since the day I saw that maniac emerge from the sea, and it's almost full now. I'm not sure what I'll do when it tops out.

I scatter my morning take on a towel and imagine with a weird sort of yearning a future of worldwide deprivation in which sea glass will be valued as cash—currency of the apocalypse. I think about how rich I'll be, and smile as I reach for the cooking oil.

Steve Hawk is Sierra's executive editor.

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