Searching for agates on beaches – what better way to spend an October morning?
Whirling to lock the door, running late as usual, I fumble impatiently for keys in their assigned purse compartment: nothing. A frantic tour of unauthorized locations: nothing. Desperate, I foolishly check pockets in a jacket not used since last fall; my fingers stumble over unexpected shape and texture. The pocket’s fleece lining gives up something small, smooth and hard. Impatience flees. Smiling involuntarily, I am on the beach again.
Ocean at my back to reduce reflected glare, I turn and glance up the beach. Not quite idly: I have flown and driven some distance expressly to be here at this confluence of low tide and early morning. Low tide to expose the biggest expanse of beach; early morning to give me first crack at the ocean’s cast-offs, hoping for agates.
Agate: a sub-variety of chalcedony, a translucent, cryptocrystalline variety of quartz, one of the commonest minerals in the Earth’s crust. One of the harder minerals, agates form in substrate cavities. The geology website explanations sound obscure, even sinister. What does ‘substrate’ mean, anyway? And ‘cryptocrystalline’: is that the latest military encryption software?
What it means is this: cooling rocks can form with interior holes; sometimes itty-bitty quartz crystals coat the walls in thin layers, gradually filling the cavity. Agates are set free when the rock encasing them goes the way of all flesh, worn down by water playing constantly over its surface and by repeated jostling from other rocks.
I could buy better agates in rock shops, but finding free-range agate satisfies the hunter-gatherer within. My hunting schedule is based on internet tide-and-sunrise tables, my hunting focus on local advice. Although quartz is as common as beach sand, agate nodules are maddeningly elusive, the hunt for them frustratingly slow. It is less about finding agates than about being where agates can find me.
This mid-October morning I first scan the broader beach, feigning indifference. Like a regular at a singles bar, I know not to appear pathetically eager. Instead, I calmly contemplate the graceful, graded shelf of pebbles before me. Like other Olympic Peninsula rocky beaches, what it lacks in creature comforts for sun worshippers it makes up in organization. Persistent wave action has ordered these pebbles better than any human would.
The high-tide zone is a litter of large rocks, with surprisingly neat, horizontal bands of successively smaller rocks stretching back to the water. It seems counter-intuitive: why aren’t larger rocks closer to the water’s edge, smaller rocks further away? Doesn’t each wave carry less and less weight as it rolls up the beach?
Like the iceberg’s visible fraction, the water hitting the beach is only part of the whole wave. Any truly heavy lifting was abandoned as a bad idea well offshore. Moveable rocks — still constituting an impressive range of weights — jumble together as water rushes exuberantly up the beach. Suddenly the waves lose both confidence and forward momentum. A brief hesitation and they skitter back down the beach, lightening the load. Larger rocks go first; at the last minute even baby pebbles are coldly abandoned, victims of nature’s survival logic: It’s you or me, kid.
The panorama admired and analyzed, I can make my move. Braced on this slippery slope, hair whipping around my eyes, I drop my gaze from the far to the near prospect. Bam! Something red-gold explodes ten feet away, between me and the advancing and retreating tease of tide. Finally summiting the hills to the south, the low-angled sun has lit up an agate perched on a ridge of ordinary stones.
Like a predator scenting prey, I consciously stop moving; my breathing stops on its own. To grab this agate I must move, but moving risks changing the light angle that makes the agate spectacular and, indeed, visible. I try to memorize its location, knowing that waiting too long risks losing it to the incoming tide.
Walking with an intentness belying my earlier disinterested air, I make it to the agate just before the next wave. A moment of appreciation only, and it is tucked in my pocket. It would be tacky to gloat, unseemly to make a fuss. Although I do what I can to improve the odds, luck plays a pivotal role in the outcome.
I have no good reason to pursue this outcome again and again, to collect agates, if by ‘good’ one means ‘practical’. Too small even to display, the agate that found me on the beach has simply become part of my history — or I a part of its, given our relative life spans. One day it will be free to find another lover.
For now, it whispers its sweet nothings in my ear. Irregular yet perfect, it reassures me that beauty comes in various forms. A lucky find, it counsels humility about what I can hope to achieve through my efforts alone. Touched only by the unconscious, persistent artisan that is the sea, it speaks compellingly of the long view, spurring me to contribute my mite to the whole. In reminding me of the day we met, it promises other moments when the world will catch fire, just for me.
Standing by my door, I replace the agate in my pocket, retrieve my keys from an obscure corner of my purse, and return my day to its schedule. As I head out into the whirlwind, a small corner of my being remains on the beach, at peace.