I’m going to start at the end of this story, on the edge of leaving, not quite of this place anymore, but not yet of the new place I will find myself in tomorrow. On my last night in Galway, in 2007, I took a walk on the Promenade east from Salthill towards the city center. It was about seven or eight in the evening and I couldn’t bear to be inside on my last night—and certainly not on a night like this. Boundaries, of any kind, seemed to be elementally intolerable. Over the limestone karst of the Burren Mountains, across the variegated gray-green-blue water of Galway Bay, the clouds were flat and dark and heavy with rain. The clouds over Galway City itself were too fluffy to contain rain, or even the threat of rain, but they were made brilliant white by the sun in the west, that specific kind of white that can only be the result of sky that has recently seen storming. This is the kind of light I know as a Midwesterner, after an afternoon thunderstorm front has moved through from west to east, leaving behind the setting sun, which has a clarity and warmth and amazement found nowhere else in nature.
There was much rain happening in the vicinity, but the Prom was dry and the sky directly overhead was clear. Never have I walked through an evening like this and I don’t think I ever will again. I can’t explain it any better than that. It was, simply, glorious, in every sense and nuance of that word. The white light, the dark clouds, the texture of the waves. I wore long sleeves, but the temperature was warm and soft; the breeze was light and felt like laughter. The thin gold of the setting sun was gentle and I wore it like a shawl as I walked along, passing people who, like me, were beginning to emerge from shelters as the rain passed. Children laughed in shades of yellow and chased balls and each other; parents followed with smiles. As always, I could never tell where the line between Salthill and the Claddagh is; the boundary between the Claddagh and the city of Galway is more obvious: the Corrib River. As I followed the Prom, the rainbow got stronger over Mutton Island and as I moved, so did it. Finally, it settled across the Bay, over a white house that looked minuscule against the distance and the enormity of that rainbow, the intensity of those colors. When I went down to the edge of the water to look for sea glass, as is my habit, I found shells: I chose several of the brilliant sunshine-yellow shells that looked like they had once belonged to snail, barely the size of my thumbnail, and held them in my palm together. In the light of the post-storm, they appeared to glow and I wondered why nature would color a snail so brightly, if that would attract predators more than it would protect it from something else.
When I was a child, I used to hate the color yellow. The sight of it in any situation would cause a visceral reaction, make my head throb until I looked away. I refused to wear any clothing that was yellow, I couldn’t bear rooms painted yellow, and books whose pictures were comprised mostly of yellow I had to put down without finishing. It wasn’t until I was much older and my younger sister had outgrown her dislike of lemon that I started to question why I hated this color so much.
I have had migraines my entire life, inherited from my father’s mother and shared by other women in my family. I remember once my childhood best friend telling me that she had only had one headache in her life and I didn’t believe her. Some of my earliest memories, even from the age of three, are of being in the darkness of my grandparents’ guest room, shades drawn, curled up on the bed, trying to sleep off a headache. For me the migraine is the kind of sharpness that only can come on the edge of broken glass; nothing else is sharp enough. Light makes me scream inside my head; sounds grow thorns and press up against my insides like a blowfish. As I came to examine that memory of being in my grandparent’s spare room on the pink chenille bedspread against too-sensitive skin, that series of memories, I couldn’t have been more than three—the images are too dim to be much later—I remembered that the walls of that room were yellow.
Yellow is a primary color, a certain unalienable right of color, but it doesn’t have a consistent identity. Some cultures consider it the color of happiness, others consider it the color of envy, others still, the color of cowardice. It is the color of the Star of David the Jews were forced to wear during World War II. It is the maroon and gold of my alma mater, school colors we also share with my grandparents’ beloved University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. One-hundred and fifty stigmas of the saffron crocus must be plucked to gain one gram of saffron to flavor food or tint objects. Yellow fever felled Philadelphia in 1793, yellow ribbons show support for military troops.
Yellow, gold, goldenrod, mustard, amber, honey, canary, straw, lemon, maize. Yellow is as much a flavor as it is visible. Perhaps one must feel the edge of a color to fully know it.
A fragment of memory from a long time ago:
The beach at Fort Bragg, California is a working beach. A rough stretch of liminal landscape where rough water meets rough land. The air, on this particular day, carries the promise of rain, maybe even a good squall, and I wanted it to drench me. Boats bob and weave through the surf, water whose will is not entirely broken by the breakwater just at the edge of my peripheral vision. Fishing boats, hard-worn, wearing their stories like skin, moor at the quay. Where the water breaks against the land is not like the gentle beaches I know as a Minnesotan. The air stinks of fish and other things I can’t identify. My parents and youngest sister hunger for fish and chips; my middle sister and I try not to gag. I’m probably in my early teens, my sisters younger.
This is a bone-honest place. I remember standing there, slightly chilled by the wind and the water, and my imagination exploding with pictures and possibilities and ideals. I don’t know why I wanted to associate wind-chapped skin, burly men in thick wool sweaters, salty language, and epic battles between man and nature with this place, but I did. That was the flavor, different from what I’d been used to, but still recognizable. I’ve been surrounded by fishing my whole life; people come from all over the country to test themselves against Minnesotan fish and mosquitoes. I’ve stood on the shore of more lakes than I can count, watching boats on the lakes. I’ve even stood on the surface of the winter lakes and watched fisherman battle fish, inside or outside of fish houses. I’d fished for sunfish myself with my grandparents on Third Crow Wing Lake when I was little, sometimes standing on the dock with a stick and a string, wondering why I couldn’t catch anything.
Everything was different here at Fort Bragg. This was not a place I understood, but I felt good here anyway. I’d seen other types of fishing on television, deep sea fishing, huge fish bigger than the human trying to catch them, but it was one of those things that never struck me as real. Standing on that beach at Fort Bragg, I understood the difference. You couldn’t fight a walleye in a place like this. It wouldn’t be worthy of the fish or the fisherman. This was a place to test yourself against the elements, against the water, the fish, the wind, God. Fishing here was not a genteel gentleman’s sport (or a lady’s sport, for those women who enjoy it)—not like other modes of outdoor activity—like it is in Minnesota. Fort Bragg fishermen would not be comfortable in Minnesota. And vice versa.
This is the edge of the world. Rules of civilization do not apply here, no rules at all, no boundaries, nothing to establish a status quo. In my experience, all my lakes have boundaries. I can see the shorelines on the sides or I can see across the lake to the other side. The lack of boundaries to the ocean at Fort Bragg was not freeing, but made me feel vaguely uncomfortable.
Rules of imagination do not apply here either. The differences in imagination, the differences in what I found myself looking at grew to different dimensions as the years passed. It’s tempting to stand on that beach, or any beach, and contemplate the horizon, but after a while the possibilities the horizon or a seascape offers become stifling, too much possibility, too much infinity. It’s natural, then, to find something more easily comprehensible. Something more tangible. After a while, any imagination is too much. I had to turn away from the oppressive infinity of the horizon and concentrate on the tangible, that which was under my feet.
I’d never seen sea glass before—and I wouldn’t find out for another 15 years that Fort Bragg is considered a prime destination for sea glass hunting. For now, we were simply fascinated. My younger sisters and I picked up several pieces, rubbed the dirt off them to examine them closer. At first, we didn’t even know what it was, these rock-like things that littered the beach but were not rocks. We were not so far out of childhood that we couldn’t be fascinated—and admit our fascination with new things. Maybe it was something about the relative fragility of glass masquerading as stone. It was as strong as it could possibly be. There wasn’t anything more that could be done to it, save a sledgehammer blow. It was already broken, no longer whole, no longer sharp, all its broken edges dulled. It was as clear as it ever would be, no longer smooth, but faintly pitted and rough and opaque. I don’t know if my sisters kept theirs, but I kept mine. I still have the glass.
It was many years before I learned that what we had found at Fort Bragg by accident others seek on purpose. On my trips to Galway, hunting for sea glass became a daily habit, a ritual that anchored my days in the immediacy of being in one moment. Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, I came to know, is famous for its sea glass, tumbled glass like pebbles on the sand. Someday I will return, on purpose, just for the pleasure of seeing the setting sun against those colors.
Edge (v): to sharpen, to border, to move, to advance, to shape.
To set one’s teeth on edge.
To be on edge.
On the cutting edge.
To get a word in edgewise.
My father takes great pride in the sharpening of his knives, the swipe of the blade against the whetstones, each stone increasingly fine in grit until he tests it on the hair of his arms and considers it sharp. He taught me once, as a skill he learned from his own father, but without the practice of it, I know I have forgotten most of it. I have an affection for knives, as a cook and as one who likes to be prepared. I have a small Swiss Army knife on my keychain, a small multi-purpose tool in my purse. I have a certain reputation in my family now concerning knives, though it has been more than ten years since my last incident.
What is achieved by a knife’s edge, the edge of broken glass, or any other sharp object is an obvious separation, a fragmenting. But while there are those moments when brushing against such a sharp edge is disagreeable, sometimes this severance is necessary and desirable, the cutting of cabbage to braise with onions and apples and balsamic vinegar, breaking of a relationship that no longer functions, the parting of Before and After. What happens when a fragment is not a signal of something broken, incomplete, wrong? That it has become something to be feared, simply because it disturbs what we think of as completeness? Sea glass, sentence fragments, a life lived solo—they can be more powerful simply by standing apart.
Sea glass, naturally, started out as garbage. Here, this stretch of Fort Bragg beach was where locals tossed their trash. This is how I came to find the shard of Coke bottle there. But the motion of waves and sand over 50 or more years, against all those different colors and shapes of glass, turned them into something extraordinary. You can cheat and tumble glass yourself, but if you want the real thing, prepare to be patient. Barbara Hurd, in Walking the Wrack Line, writes, “Perhaps if we’re lucky, we might salvage the small or unrecognizable as an agent of perception, the thing that prompts the imagination to focus and funnel, to be the lime door we might occasionally walk through, the trigger, finally, to some larger question.” It’s tempting to make too much of tossing trash into the sea and the sea returning jewels, but there’s something about clouded clarity, the hardness and fragility of glass that leads me elsewhere, that compels me to collect moments like sea glass and keep them, regardless of my ability to discern their origins or purpose.
There are people who study and research early trade routes to determine what places might have the most old glass in the water. Some people have secret hunting places. There are people who know from what sources the glass come, whether it was a bottle or a plate or a red light from a ship. There are people who go scuba diving or kayaking for glass, for whom hunting is more than a hobby. Some make jewelry from it. Richard LaMotte, one of the foremost experts on sea glass, says that “a really well-rounded shard normally takes about 20 to 30 years to be created in a severe tumbling environment while glass in a more protected environment may never be adequately rounded. Ideally, give it 50 years if you have the time to wait.” And it’s the combination of the waves and the rocks and sand on the shoreline and the pH of saltwater itself that take the glass from simple trash to the frosted shard that looks like the sugared jelly candies that we used to sell in the candy store I worked at in college.
Orange is rare, so where did this tangerine piece come from? What would these bottle stoppers have held safe? And would these lavender pieces which look like large bottle stoppers, have been clear at one time, tinted amethyst by the sunlight, which reacts with the manganese used to clarify the glass? If so, they are at least 90 years old. Where did they come from and how did they come to be on this beach?
The pieces that fill these bowls aren’t uniformly frosted. Some still retain their edges. The ones I keep offer something else in the realm of value: the letters WAY that I think formed the last syllable of Galway on a piece of green glass; the clear—which shouldn’t be confused with white—that looks folded over on itself; the fantail detail in a few of them; the dark green—which is different from the more common bottle green; the dark gray glass, very thick, which isn’t completely frosted, but bears what look like the motions of waves and stone against the glass.
In 2015, when I came to Galway for the Arts Festival, the prize of the festival was a hot air balloon art piece called the Skywhale. The artist’s idea started with the knowledge that when life on land became intolerable, creatures evolved back into the oceans. As our oceans become more polluted, she wondered if the sky was the last place for them to go: so, what would a sky whale look like? It was inflated on the Aula Maxima on the campus of the National University of Ireland early in the week, on a gently beautiful evening, and as the weather turned blustery over the rest of the week, the artist’s hopes that she would be able to fly the Skywhale disappeared. But on Wednesday, word came through social media that they would be inflating it again down on the Claddagh, so we went to see it. The weather was mild, that gorgeous kind of Galway summer night, so that flight was not out of the question. We arrived about 7:30 and sat on the wall, people-watching, as the crew laid our the Skywhale’s tentacles and the vessel started to take shape. The Arts Festival brings more than 150,000 people to Galway over the course of two weeks, but most of the art is for adults. Some exceptions appear—street magicians and George Orange’s Man in the Moon acrobatics—but here was a moment where both children and adults were equalized in their visions of art.
I watched a hooker come into the marina, red sails and all, and my friend J. and I decided to walk down to the beach while we waited to see if the Skywhale would fly. We could still see it from where we were if it did become airborne. My niece has developed—and I have contributed to—a fascination for rocks and rock collecting, enough that I start to dream about her future anytime she expresses an interest in something. While J. and I waited for the Skywhale, which eventually took to the air, I hunted for sea glass for my niece’s collection. I found several I knew she would like, some that I would keep for my own. I fill tall vases and set them in the sunshine, bowls on shelves. And among these bowls of glass, I can still pick out the first piece, the one I found on that Fort Bragg beach when I was 13.
Ashley Hay, in her essay “Ultramarine,” writes of Australia in terms of “a place that has different shapes, different colours that mark it as special, as what it is, depending on who’s telling its story. It’s gum-tree shaped, ashy-green. It’s desert-open, rich reds. It’s inner-city, flat grey pavement. It’s opportunity, gold piled up. It’s dispossession, black and white.” But the color of her story is blue, the ultramarine of Sydney Harbor. “This blue that I stand and watch and fall into, running up the coast. That I crave when I’m not here. That I guzzle when I come home,” she writes. “It’s this colour—not wide brown or sun burnt or that monotonous khaki that used to be pinned on the eucalypts: it’s this colour that holds my place in its shape.”
Thinking of color holding a shape, I wonder what that would look like, if color in its amorphous state like glass bubbles and waves and cools into solids that hold our shape. And I consider the crystal factories around Ireland—the Galway Crystal of the vase in my cupboard, the Waterford Crystal of my rice pudding bowl, the 12-setting collection of Waterford stemware, Lismore pattern, that my father bought before in Germany while on active duty for the Air Force in the 1970s before marriage was a twinkle in his eye—and I consider that crystal is both a color and a variant of glass.
Hay writes of an artist from Holland, trying to paint Australia with the colors he brought with him from Europe, but finding the act of representing what he sees on canvas more difficult than he imagined, what is not-quite-right eluding him. When his teacher looks, “she points to his cold, unmixed Antwerp blue. We’re a much more cobalt country, she says. Or ultramarine.” Later, as she delves into ultramarine itself, she considers the specificity of the color as Winsor and Newton ultramarine; she quotes the Australian artist Brett Whiteley, who believes that ultramarine “has an obsessive ecstasy-like effect upon my nervous system quite unlike any other colour.” Where is that edge, between Antwerp blue and ultramarine? And why does it matter?
Once I saw a Russian photographer’s work of Lake Baikal, a phenomenon that caused the ice on the lake to fracture, exposing the most incredible shades of turquoise ice I have ever seen. It is the kind of color that can only be found in nature, never in colors attempted by humans. And I remember seeing other photographs of the most brilliant blue icebergs I will probably never see in person. When it’s winter at home, I love most the way that light behaves when there is snow on the ground, even if the sun is not shining. Even those days when the skies are gray and heavy, I still need sunglasses to navigate the world. At night, the reflection of the moon on the snow is sometimes bright enough that I do not need any other light to walk around my dark house. Snow makes me think of my 90-year-old grandmother, holding my newborn nephew, reciting the first stanza of James Russell Lowell’s “The First Snowfall,” and thinking about the ways that memory refracts in our brains, the way that some things get through and others do not. When my grandmother looks at the world, is it like trying to rub the frost off the glass to see more clearly? And instead of the rime on the window, warmed off by her fingers, is her world instead like the frost on sea glass? Retaining only color as a defining property?
While yellow has the effect of remembered pain on my childhood nervous system, jangling it like coins and fraying my edges, blue seems to be the antidote. My sisters and I share the same eyes, this changeable blue-green with pupils rimmed by golden yellow, but in my childhood pictures, my eyes are the same true blue as my mother’s. The true blue of my mother’s eyes, the aquamarine of her birthstone, the sapphire my father bought his future wife before he even knew who she would be. The color of my niece’s eyes, bright blue-gray, with the start of gold around her pupil; the dark indigo of my newborn nephew’s eyes, so dark they are almost black. Melanin, the brown pigment, needs exposure to ultraviolet light to fully develop, which is why our eye color can change over the course of time, why babies are born with blue eyes that change.
I think of the amethyst sea glass on my shelf, once clear and white, tumbled by the waves and rocks to pock its surface, the ultraviolet light of the sun through that water reacting with the manganese in the glass to turn it to lavender.
At the beginning of the story that ended with that rainbow over Galway Bay, I arrived in Galway and walked the streets, shuffling around people, content to breathe Irish air and blink against the white-gold brightness of near-solstice-strength Irish afternoon sun, on that edge between afternoon and evening. Afterwards, I went to Busker Brownes for dinner, a lovely bowl of intense carrot-basil soup and a cup of apple spice tea. I was craving the darkness of good, strong Irish tea, but I knew that caffeine would be counterproductive. After a roundabout reunion with the streets, I walked back towards the Claddagh and the pinks and blues and yellows of the houses on the Long Walk, but I ignored Father Griffin Road that would take me home.
I took the path along the river, down Nimmo’s Pier to the bay. The afternoon was late, nowhere near a good time to return to my jet-lagged dreams of sleep, so I went sea glass hunting. It felt really good to be down there by the sea, to smell the brine, to let my hair be tugged out of its ponytail by the wind. Why does the sea, all that briny, salty smell, why does it always feel “fresh”? It should not be described in such positive language, but I always want to breathe it deeper. Half of the answer might be that it’s unfamiliar, because I’m a freshwater girl. I don’t know the other half of the answer, but it might be because I’ve been gone from Galway for two years and no other place on the planet makes me feel like this place does. I’m so glad to be back that only the basin of Galway Bay, rimmed on the south side by the Burren Mountains, can contain my relief and joy and excitement.
The last time I was here, the sea glass was tough to find, mostly because I wasn’t looking for it in the right way. I hoped to find one or two pieces and call the outing a success. The quest took on the simplicity of a treasure hunt. Some I discarded because they weren’t worn enough, not opaque enough, not pitted enough, not smooth enough around the edges. I found a few large pieces, one large green curve, one brown, but most were clear, in various frostings that edged them towards white. Some were merely curves of glass, some were straight, one was three quarters of a bottleneck. One was a complete bottleneck that had been squished, like it had been made out of play-dough rather than glass. I picked up the little pieces, the almost-slivers. Clear, white, green, turquoise, purple, brown—every color I saw, I picked up. I wanted it all. I had visions of filling a windowsill with sea glass. I’m continually fascinated by sea glass, long after the charm should have worn off, and so the pursuit of it is equally attractive.
The reality is that I was collecting trash there on the wrack line, so as I prepared my bags to fly home, I realized I could not take all that sea glass with me, so I sorted my treasures into colors, then trimmed the pile down by size and shape, and settled on what would fit inside a quart-sized plastic bag. The rest went into the recycling bin. There’s something about the everydayness of glass, in the cracking but not shattering of my windshield, in the fragmenting of my drinking glass against the sink when I lose hold of it, the face of my watch, the light bulb in my lamp, the art of glass in sculptures, the mirror my grandfather bought my grandmother as an engagement present. It reflects, it protects, it holds together, it cuts deeper than we can know when we brush against it.
Karen Babine is the author of Water and What We Know (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), winner of the Minnesota Book Award and current finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Slag Glass City, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, North American Review, Passages North, and others. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.