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Monday, August 18, 2008

Recollections of Collections and Living Little

Candy the collector in 1956

Kids know something adults forget: there are tiny worlds of wonder right at your feet. Back in the days when I lived much closer to the ground, I knew those worlds intimately. Like a bug blazing a trail through a mini-forest of grass blades, I lived the exuberant life of explorer. Biology and geology were my favorite fields of research, often conducted barefoot on Vashon Island’s beaches.

The only problem with being a specimen collector came from sharing a bedroom with my big sister. That, of course, also meant sharing the bedroom closet, including the floor of that closet, which happened to be the location of my museum of specimens. (By the way, this was the sister who grew up to study interior decorating. Does that tell you anything?) For lack of proper display cases I kept my specimens in rumpled brown paper bags, unmarked but categorized none-the-less. For reasons I consider quite petty, she had “issues” with this.

Back in the 1950s, before the curse of plastic bottles, a walk on the beach could yield handfuls of beach glass, the power of nature made evident in colored gems ground down to frosty semi-smoothness after years of caressing by water and sand. Being a sharply observant beachcomber under three feet tall, I found plenty. Naturally one of the paper sacks contained beach glass.

“WHAT? ONE! DID YOU SAY ONE?” (That’s my sister yelling when she reads this.) OK. I’ll admit that there were three, one for each color: beer bottle brown, pop bottle green, and opaque white, (once clear). Actually, make that five. I forgot about aqua, and the most precious of all, cobalt blue. So there were five. What’s the big deal? The beauty of those pieces of beach glass made it all worth while. I admired and fondled them so often I think I took over where the water and sand left off, and smoothed them even more in my tiny hands. And if you held them to your nose you could imagine the faint scent of the sea. So dreamy.

“Somewhat-less-than-dreamy” might describe the scent that arose from a few other paper sacks in the closet. My penchant for seashells meant I couldn’t pass up any, even those rather recently inhabited. The clam shells left over from a seagull’s lunch, with half-dried bits of clam guts still stuck on, smelled pretty bad. But I found them beautiful. Just like the purple muscle shells, their insides held rainbows of mother-of-pearl, and sometimes barnacles decorated the outsides. I’d seen barnacles alive in the water, tiny creatures flicking hair-like body parts into the brine. Those stuck on my shells, though closed tight, still held the wonder of their underwater world. But the prize for smell and fascination went to the sack full of still moist sand dollars, their tops etched with leaf-like designs. They became to the closet what unwrapped Limburger cheese is to a refrigerator.

Did I mention the rocks? Rocks come in all colors, so that collection took up a lot of space. They look so gorgeous wet on the beach, in jade green, butterscotch gold, white and gray. Some came in brick red, and my Dad told me they weren’t really rocks, but ground down pieces of real bricks, from the many brickyards that once operated on Puget Sound, because of the native clay. They deserved their own special sack. Agates too. So did the “wishing rocks,” the ones with white rings around them, possessed of certain magical powers. All the rocks lost some color once dried, but it was nothing a little spit couldn’t fix.

Now when I walk the seashore in Tacoma, at Pt. Defiance or Titlow Beach, I catch myself crouching down, intent on the close-up view. It was a lot easier at age three. But I still wonder at the grains of sand, the lost feather, the bits of seaweed, green and brown. The kid in me can’t help hoping I’ll find something really special, a perfect periwinkle or the now rare piece of beach glass. My closet is still full, but not with these treasures. I finally gave up the collection, maybe as late as my early teens, when I discovered more interesting specimens: boys. And yet, if you showed up on my front porch today you could find a rock or two, or maybe a shell. I hope I never get so grown up that I can’t delight in turning away from the great big world around me and focusing for a moment on the one at my feet. Next time you’re out in nature, move a little closer to the ground and remember how it felt to live little.


Anonymous said...

my favorite, by far!

Marsha said...

In the relm of beachcombing, do we ever really grow up? I took my 80 year old father to Pt. Robinson last week. He can no longer walk the beach as he used, to or carry on a lengthy conversation. We sat silently on a log an ate our lunch. From time to time as we watched the fishemen drift by, Dad would laboriously bend to gather a treasure. He would keep several in his hand at a time, swirling them around like a polisher. When polished he would hand me one and say, "Here's a purty one." Whether pretty or not, it wasn't so much the rock itself as the beautiful sunny day, the light breeze, the seagulls, and the smell of seaweed left behind by the last high tide. The handfull of treasures later went in his pocket. I don't know where he keeps his paper bags. But when I find them I will relive the memories represented by every treasure.