What makes a person wander along a beach fingering along through the flotsam in search of treasures that have washed in with the waves? Are these people born this way? Has something happened to them to make them seek the solitude of the morning surf?
Though the beaches along the southern shores of Lake Michigan do not have the majesty of sea coasts, they nevertheless draw out the beachcomber in the Midwesterner. On my walks along the beaches from Chicago to the Indiana Dunes, I often come across this peculiar breed. They are of all colors and sizes, of every class and physical condition. Once, I saw a woman dragging her tank of oxygen through the rocks, as she sifted through the sands looking for glass. They are often older, but among children you can see the same instinct to marvel and collect, finding in a spent balloon or odd bit of driftwood or colorful stone something to decorate a sand sculpture.
The beach comber apparently has its origins among British sailers, who, exhausted, banished, or simply intrigued, stayed in ports and islands in the South Seas and in other distant shores far from home. There, they learned to live off what they could find on the beach, fishing, collecting, making a hut, co-mingling among the native people, and returning on the next crew or deciding that this life and the ways of these people were far superior than the harsh life of a sailor. I suspect that the beachcomber is part of a world wide tribe of people. And I’m not so sure that a beach comber even needs a beach to do his wandering and sifting through the debris of man and nature. The found art folk, the alley wanderers, dumpster divers, etc. My mother, who suffers from Alzheimers, walks around her yard and garden every day and picks up sticks that have fallen. Is that not a form of beachcombing? We come from a long line of hunters and gatherers, and some of the earliest archeological sites are along the shores of lakes in Africa.
But as I walk, I’m always looking for the beachcombers, to see what they’re doing, what they’re collecting, what they’ve got in that special bag by their side. Often they are simply picking up trash, the good Samaritans of the beach. (There are many of these in Chicago, men mostly, for some reason.) I met a man who'd been picking up trash for over 25 years on Hollywood Beach. He told me: "My daughter cut her foot out here once on a piece of glass, so I just think maybe I can do some good." On the Chicago lake front there are no real shells but there is glass, shards polished by the surf, and this occupies many of us beach combers.
“I’ve got pounds and pounds of them,” a woman told me last week, as I was about to go for a swim. She was dragging a stick through piles of tiny tumbled lake stones by Pratt Pier on Chicago’s northern most beach. “I pray while I do it,” she said. “It keeps me sane,” she smiled, showing me her finds. “I make things with them. Prayer glasses, you know, for candles.” She showed me her legs, scared with little dots up and down her ankles. “I got titanium bones, got rear-ended three times. Blessing in disguise, though. I pray for these rage road people, cause I was like them once.” She leans on her stick, then bends back down and picks up a thumbnail shard of green glass.
“You’ll think this is crazy,” I confessed to her, “but I collect brick and concrete stones.” I picked up a piece of concrete that had been tumbled into a polished stone of conglomerate pebbles. “Water is a powerful thing,” she said. “I’ll look for some for you. I’m collecting Warsaw granite, see,” she showed me a garnet colored stone, wet and gleaming in her black fingers. “I know this guy who picks up the trash here. His mother’s gravestone is made of the same granite. I give him all I got.”
I walked on down the beach, thinking of her, ambling there in the surf, picking through the rocks, as the waves came and retreated.