Quite a few years ago, I wrote an essay that won first place in an essay contest. The essay was about a place I’ve visited for years, Glass Beach, in Fort Bragg, California. The essay appears below, accompanied by photographs from this weekend’s visit, and after the essay, a postscript. A lot has changed at Glass Beach since this essay was written, and yet some essential things are the same.
There is still glass.
On California’s northern coast, a string of small towns along Highway 1 weathers both the rough winters and the onslaught of summer tourists. The area known as the Mendocino Coast has become a popular weekend playground for thousands of San Franciscans getting out of the city. From the first hint of spring until after school starts, the tiny coastal towns and their beaches are inundated with tourists, bringing with them money, cars, and garbage. But in one place at least, tourists take garbage home with them. This place is Glass Beach, in the town of Fort Bragg.
Glass Beach is the site of an old dump. Until the late 1960s, household and industrial garbage was dumped right off the cliff onto the beach itself. Larger items were unloaded on the crumbly bluff a short distance from the shore. Then the refuse was burned, bladed over with dirt, shoved into the ocean, and the process performed over and over again for many years. Such dumps were once common up and down the northern California coast.
At Glass Beach, a concrete retaining wall was poured over some sections of cliff in an attempt to stop the incursion of the sea into the landfill. But nothing stops the sea, a lesson many landowners on the Mendocino coast are learning to their cost. The rough winter storms batter at the light, sedimentary soil of the bluffs, sometimes eating away several yards a year.
At Glass Beach, as the sea devours the soil shoved over human refuse, it also uncovers glass, ceramics, scrap metal, and just about everything else that could be thrown away. Winter waves wash junk out of the bank, corrode it, batter it, beat it until garbage becomes beautiful, or at least, intriguing. Among the natural sand and stones and bits of abalone and other shells which comprise the beach lie pieces of glazed dinnerware–Blue Willow, Fiesta Ware, and Fire King are recognizable–with patterns intact but edges ground smooth. The remnants of leather boot heels and soles are polished with a patina only the sea’s stropping can give. Hunks of metal, fused by heat and rust, tumbled in wave action against stones, wear until they look like free-form works of art created by a talented metalsmith.
But more than anything else, there is glass: greens, browns, clear and cloudy whites, an occasional glimpse of blue, and more rarely, red. When a wave spills itself onto the shore, the rocky cove is transformed into a treasure trove. It’s a romantic image. Glass glints like gems in the sun when the wave recedes; jewels strewn about like common rocks, as if a pirate’s chest had burst just as it washed ashore and spilled out emeralds and ambers, diamonds, sapphires, and rubies.
Tourists love Glass Beach. They bring bags and buckets, shovels and rakes. They carry home pockets full of glass and interesting bits of metal. Some locals spend time on the beach as well, sifting through the sand and pebbles for the rare pieces of cobalt glass, the even rarer ruby. Many street-front living room windows in Fort Bragg sport clear jars of beach glass, and northern California artists have used the detritus of Glass Beach in sculpture, crafts, and jewelry.
It doesn’t seem to bother any of the glass pickers that they’re sorting through the garbage of an earlier generation. The view from the top of the bluff doesn’t appear to disturb them. Sharp metal and glass protrude from the crumbly brown earth of the bluff, exposed but not yet refined by the tumbling wave action. Old auto parts, pipes, cables, cans, wire, huge bolts, the remains of machines too rusted and corroded to identify. Parts of a washing machine, asphalt tiles, chunks of concrete, rags of cloth, a whole drum containing who knows what: the innocuous side by side with the potentially deadly. On top of the bank, rattlesnake grass and wild mustard grow thick, and ancient mallows bloom from four-inch stalks the size of saplings at their bases. Their age, and the fact that there is so much glass and almost no plastic, point to the time decades ago when the dump was closed.
Even after dumping was prohibited at Glass Beach, few residents in Fort Bragg cared about cleaning up something that contributed to the economic well-being of a town which once depended on fishing and lumber, and which, by the 1990s, faced the harsh realities of a depleted fishery and dwindling forest, leading to dependence on the tourist trade. Fort Bragg lies near the northern end of the Mendocino coast. The community needed something to pull the tourists up past the quaint charm and art galleries of the town of Mendocino just to the south. Glass Beach helped.
* * *
On my semi-annual trips to the Mendocino Coast, I’ve picked through the glass and other curiosities on Glass Beach for various projects—jewelry, bowl fountains, garden decoration. This time, I join the glass pickers on a sunny day in spring. I’ve come to pick up a particular color of glass, a pale, translucent green. Coke-bottle green. I’m planning to turn the glass into a pair of earrings. The jewelry will be a gift for a writer friend of mine who has no earrings to compliment her most priced possession—a neckpiece fashioned of silver and two-thousand-year-old, pale green Roman glass. The Roman glass has an iridescence I cannot match from Glass Beach. That sheen comes from being buried in hot desert sands on the other side of the world, in another dump, in another millennium. Silicates in the sand bonded with silicates in the glass, which was once sand itself. Because of the relentless sea, Glass Beach glass will never acquire that opalescent patina.
As I sort through handfuls of sand and glass and metal fragments, setting aside a copper button top from a pair of Ben Davis jeans—the slogan, “Can’t Beat ‘Em,” still legible: a testament at least to the durability of the fastener, if not the jeans—my eyes look for the right color, the right shape. The sun is warm on my shoulders, and the hum of conversation between pickers sounds in counterpoint to the deep, bone-felt surge of the sea. There is something soothing about the activity of sorting glass, searching for that perfect piece. The eyes and fingers look for patterns, leaving the mind free to wander, to wonder over philosophical questions, perhaps to find other patterns.
The town of Fort Bragg has changed since I began to visit here regularly in the 1980s. Bay Area influence is creeping slowly northward. Inns and trendy little restaurants advertising California cuisine have cropped up to lure tourists from the city and provide them with the kinds of accommodations and dining experiences they are accustomed to, and shops with expensive gift and clothing items line Fort Bragg’s main street, slowly shouldering out the older businesses which once catered to locals. Those migrants from the city have brought a new environmental consciousness to the north coast.
Today, when I arrived at Glass Beach, I found graffiti spray painted in foamy white letters on the retaining wall that holds part of the bank back from the sea. “Litter Beach” the words spelled out, and under that, “Denial?” In those words, and in the local paper, I read of a push for a Glass Beach clean-up.
There is no doubt in my mind that the unexposed junk buried in the bluff at Glass Beach may contain environmental hazards, perhaps toxic chemicals from the area mills, certainly oil from old engines. But I hope the coming clean-up will be judicious, that the dangerous and potentially dangerous garbage can be removed while leaving the innocuous behind.
For while it is impossible to ignore the fact that this is indeed a place formed as much from human refuse as it is by nature, only the demands of a very limited perspective can overlook the beauty of Glass Beach.
Beauty from garbage. It isn’t such a farfetched idea, after all. The leavings of a thousand cultures lie lovingly encased in glass in our museums—mended pots, worn scraps of leather and textiles, broken implements of stone and bone, horn and antler, cracked vessels of glass. All discarded because their usefulness was ended, now rescued from the midden heaps of vanished peoples by students of human history. To those who visit the climate-controlled cases, beauty is a matter of time and perspective.
* * *
Later in the evening, after a dive not far from the beach, my husband drops an abalone pearl into my palm. Abalone pearls are usually irregularly shaped and dark, with the same silvery-green, iridescent sheen that colors the inside of the creature’s shell. These pearls are fairly rare but have no monetary value, unlike the pearl from an oyster. Yet abalone pearls have their own unusual beauty. This one is peanut-shaped. As I turn the little pearl over in my fingers, it breaks in two at the waist. Inside one half is a tiny shard of green glass.
Beauty or garbage? The question circles around in my mind again as I curve bright silver wire around pale green beach glass to form earrings which will complement another, more ancient piece of dump glass.
Perhaps beauty and garbage are always a matter of time and perspective.
* * *
Since this essay was written, there has indeed been a major clean-up of Glass Beach, with some unforeseen consequences. Two coves of Glass Beach were given to the state, to become part of the state parks system. The large pieces of old machinery, like washing machines, have been pulled out of the soft, sandy bank. That’s probably a good thing. Some work was done to try to stabilize the banks and prevent more erosion, and you don’t see barrels of unknowns peeking out of the dirt any more.
Much has changed at Glass Beach since our last visit here two years ago. The area around Glass Beach has now become Noyo Headlands State Park and is under development with a paved parking lot and paved paths. I’m sure it won’t be long until what was once a dump and which has been open tourist access for decades will become a fee area.
Many of the coves previously accessible have been roped off, and there are warning signs posted everywhere.
People seem to ignore them at will, as we did, crossing a rope barrier to descend a set of wooden ladder stairs to a cove where glass is abundant, as it used to be on the main beach before the big clean-up.
The tide was in, but we still had plenty of glass to work with, and the signs I’d seen previously that prohibited glass collection were gone. Evidently, the state and county governments are of two minds about Glass Beach and glass collecting. Captain Cass, of the Glass Beach museum, says that the state cannot regulate glass collecting below the high water mark, and therefore, all glass collecting is legal. We went with that.
This time, we were collecting glass for our friends, whose daughter is getting married this summer. Karen, the mother of the bride, intends to create tiny succulent gardens in wine glasses for party favors, and a few polished pebbles from MacKerricher State Beach and a few pieces of glass from Glass Beach will adorn each little garden. We spent a pleasant couple of hours sorting and picking glass.
As for me, I’ve got a different project in mind. I started finding quite a few pieces of heart-shaped glass, so I’m thinking about jewelry again. I also picked up a number of larger pieces of glass for a mobile. The place really gets my creative juices flowing.
And here’s an odd fact. The biodiversity offshore is greater at Glass Beach than at any other point along California’s coast. Some biologists speculate that it’s the breakdown of the glass that feeds this biodiversity. Turns out, some people believe that old dump glass is a good thing for the ocean. Beauty from garbage. Nature will always find a way.