The Universal Notebook: Where has all the sea glass gone?

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The beach is constantly changing. The beach remains the same. It is a dynamic constant in our lives, a strand of sand to which we return year after year.

This year, the first thing we noticed were all the rocks, a vein of smooth beach stones the size of belt buckles lying between the hard-packed sand of the intertidal zone and the hot, dry sand of the upper beach.

Were these stones deposited upon the beach by a storm or perhaps exposed by same? They weren’t here last summer, at least not so exposed and so concentrated. The stone strip enforced a tiptoeing to the sea.

The second thing we noticed was how the great barnacles on shingled cottages at either end of the beach seemed to have increased in size and in number. Times must be good for the cottage- and condo-dwelling crustaceans that attach themselves to the high cliffs. A great seaside inn once sat where the condominium complex is now, a rustic retreat that attracted affluent Anglos down from Canada. Their French-speaking countrymen migrated a few miles south to a separate strip of sand.

Sand is a rare commodity. Maine has close to 3,500 miles of coast, only 30 miles of which is publicly owned sand beach. And, in fact, the public only owns about 90 feet of this beach. The thousands of swimmers, sunbathers and surfers who flock to this sandy shore do so through the good graces of the families that own it.

In most states, beaches are in the public domain, but, owing to an unfortunate bit of colonial real estate law, in Massachusetts and its estranged child, Maine, upland owners own not to the high water mark, but to the low. This was a workable arrangement until the 1980s, when private and public interests began coming into conflict such that there have been access issues on Maine beaches ever since.

The only rights the public has in the intertidal zone are for fishing, fowling and navigation, which apparently means you are entitled to be there if you have a boat, a fishing rod or a gun. Most of the grateful serfs on the beach, however, are there to sunbathe, surf, body surf and swim.

The salty surf washes away the sins of the elders and the briny beach turns children to sandy, sticky little savages. Two boys bury a third beneath the sand and sprinkle potato chips on top. When the gulls swarm to the salty chips, the buried boy reaches out and to his surprise, and the gull’s, catches one momentarily by the leg. Both boy and bird scream and fly away.

Long walks on the beach are, of course, a cliche of matchmaking profiles, but even the matched and mated enjoy a long walk to the tide pools. The mile or less walk takes an hour or so as aging thalassocrats meander along like moon snails. They are looking for whatever treasures the sea might have deposited upon the shore –sand dollars, sea shells, special stones and, most of all, sea glass.

In a lifetime of beachcombing we have filled many mason jars with sea glass and shells from around the world, most of it from this beach. The lamp base in the living room contains at least a gallon of sea glass. But this year there seems to be no sea glass at all. A walk that might once have yielded several clear pieces, a few green and maybe a rare blue or even more rare red turns up nothing but surf clam shells and lobster elastics.

Where has all the sea glass gone? As far back as 2009, a sea glass website noted that collectors were beginning to see a sea glass shortage on in some places. Perhaps we have picked the beach clean. Or perhaps Maine’s returnable bottle bill has paid unexpected (and unwanted) dividends. Or is it just that aging eyes can no longer see what is there?

One theory is that the same tidal surges that exposed or deposited the stones upon the beach washed away all the sea glass. They also seem to have smoothed out the sandy bottom offshore such that the waves were much smaller most days this summer.

Not to worry.

There are pebble beaches in New Brunswick littered with glass and bits of china, raw material plentiful but as yet unpolished by time in the sand and surf. Perhaps, if we live long enough, the counter-clockwise circulation of the Bay of Fundy will wash this broken bounty, at once worthless and priceless, to us in its finished form.

In the meantime, we dive into the cold water, we lie on the hot sun and we wait.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.