She zigs, she zags, darts left, darts right. She backpedals better than a lot of NFL cornerbacks. She virtually never walks straight ahead, and she never looks out to the ocean, only down to the sand. She always carries a plastic bag laden with treasures she finds at the beach.
I call her the Manic Collector, and our paths occasionally cross at my local beach. I use the term "cross" loosely here because never once in our encounters has this somewhat elderly woman ever looked at me, much less uttered a greeting, even though we often pass 10 yards from each other. She's also totally indifferent to Sonny the husky, refusing to acknowledge her presence. I can understand the indifference to humans on the beach, (I practice it all the time) but a friendly old dog?
No contact. What matters is the mission — the mission to collect things washed ashore. In all my rambling down Oregon ocean beaches I have never seen such unmatched zeal to collect or such an eccentric way of moving down the beach.
Who knows why she collects. OCD? Crafter? Artist? Lunatic? Purveyor of shells? Pagan ritual? Several times I've come close to asking but didn't want to intrude — it feels rude to interrupt her passion. Several times I had her framed exquisitely with my camera against waves and skies but couldn't depress the shutter. The other day, in a light rain, she was moving faster than usual and I had to get the shot. So I did.
Why do so many of us bring home treasures from the beach? Why do some of us even specialize in agates, driftwood, or feathers?
Not too long ago, I had the occasion to visit a friend's apartment in Pacific City on the North Oregon Coast for the first time. Her apartment overlooks the ocean and she lives inches away from Nestucca Spit, a three-mile stretch of sand that ends at the entrance of Nestucca Bay. My friend zealously investigates the spit with her two dogs as much as possible, and bad weather never deters her. She's almost in my league as a beachgoer. Almost.
Upon entry into her home, which smelled like salt, and was about the sexiest thing I'd inhaled in months, I could not believe what I saw: almost her entire décor was made up of collections of items found on Nestucca Spit. Just from a cursory look, I counted something like 30 different items being collected, all of them natural. They were stored everywhere and organized by an ingenious classification system that screamed auteur. I fondled her collections and learned she fashions all sorts of jewelry with them. Her connection to these objects is strong, magical, and sets her apart from so many people who are dying in the concrete lands (meaning pavement and traffic) and need precisely this kind of connection to restore themselves.
Later the same month, I had the chance to talk to my neighbors' down the street. They're a retired couple and spend a lot of time on our beach. We somehow got on the subject of collecting things, and she said, almost offhandedly, that they have accumulated 500 pounds of agates and store them in various places around the house. Five hundred pounds!
She also told me she had no idea what they were going to do with the agates.
I'm a limpet man myself. Limpets? "A marine gastropod that has a low conical shell broadly open beneath, browses over rocks or timbers in the littoral area." Limpets live on rocks, scrape along them, and eat algae. When you discover them, it's because, as I understand it, waves or predators dislodged them from their habitat, they died, and their shells came to rest in the sand, where I find them, take them home and give them new life because they are so beautiful I can't leave them behind.
After my last encounter with the Collector, which was six months ago, I took stock of my limpet collection and felt it was small, decorative only. When relaxing at home, I barely paid it any attention.
Then something happened, and limpets became something else altogether, and I integrated them into my life in ways that heretofore would have been inconceivable. Has anyone integrated limpets into their life like this before?
What happened? A woman broke my heart and suddenly all these limpets started appearing on the beach. Or maybe I finally noticed them.
I collected limpets, I studied them. They became a character in a novel I'm writing. I gave them away to anyone who seemed in dire need of something simple and beautiful. I found more and brought them into the classroom. I devised a Limpet Poetry Magic workshop for my creative writing students. Try it yourself. (I've modified it slightly because my students handled the shells.)
Limpet Poetry Magic
Look at the photograph of this limpet.
Examine the limpet for 15 seconds. Now write down a description of it in a 60-second stream of consciousness blast.
Draw the limpet on paper. Now close your eyes and draw it from memory.
Come up with three to five words that rhyme with limpet.
The limpet is a type of snail with a shell for protection from predators. Write a sentence about the shell you've constructed to protect yourself.
Describe this shell. What does it look like? What's it made of?
Limpets eventually lose their shell. Assume one day, you will too. Who do you want to find it and what do you hope they will or will not do with it.
Let us suppose limpets are the most advanced species on the planet. What excellent advice do limpets have for human beings?
Complete this phrase: "A limpet a day...
If you were to tattoo a limpet on your body, where would you put it?
The limpet died but left behind something beautiful. After you die, what is something beautiful you hope to leave behind?
Confess a secret to the limpet.
Suppose the limpet is an oracle, ask it something you have to know.
If the limpet could talk to you, what would it say?
Are limpets worth saving from extinction? Why or why not?
What can you see when you look through your limpet's keyhole?
Peruse all your responses. Underline the best ones.
Write a poem about limpets or anything you like.
The resulting poems were incredible, and they made me want to tattoo of a limpet on my left arm. I have to.
How do I account for this limpet madness within me that resulted from an abrupt loss of perfect love? I can't explain and don't even bother trying anymore. I just roll with this magic the way I imagine a limpet rolls in the waves on the way to its death.
I hope I never stop collecting limpets. Something will be very wrong with me if I do.
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Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain