The day began gray, with rain a good probability. It was about time really; I’d only had one day of rain the whole time I’d been in England. But it would be nice if it held off. This day, my daughter and I would be out on East Beach hunting fossils, our last adventure together before taking her to university.
But today we were expecting 50, so Chris Andrew, the museum’s biologist, and a third helper were also along. Chris was the funny guy to Paddy’s straight man, often poking fun at ‘geologists.’ It was wonderful to see the warm camaraderie between these guys who work together probably every day.
We listened to them explain about the kinds of fossils we might expect to find, using their toy props and fossil samples: ammonites, belemnites, spine bones from ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, gryphaea (devil’s toenails), sea lilies and their stems, sea urchins and coprolites (poop). Chris said it’s one of the highlights of his job that he gets to use toys.
And then we swarmed onto the beach. I knew I’d be fighting the urge to pick up sea glass and pottery shards, so I had to make a rule for myself – only patterned shards, nothing else. That worked fine until I found a little metal pin, a badge, with a sword and anchor on it. Well, I had to have that.
I’ve been beachcombing for about two years, and have worked hard to train my brain to see squares, spheres, triangles, trapezoids, shiny objects, and colors. But here, on this beach, I was supposed to be searching for brown, gray, and black items in circle, cog, and stubby pencil shapes. I’d take a few steps, get excited about seeing some beautiful colored sea glass, and then have to reprimand myself to “focus – focus on the gray.”
Paddy and Chris both warned us that this was not good fossil hunting weather or season. While the East Beach gets covered every day up to the cliffs by the tide, there hadn’t been a good storm to churn up the rocks and fossils for a couple months. On top of that, this was the end of the summer season, with many more visitors to Lyme Regis than any other time of year. Fossil hunting is the perfect summer holiday, especially for families, so the beach had been picked clean for weeks. Yes, every outing resulted in some finds. But it wouldn’t be as rich as our wintry visit in March. Even my eagle-eyed daughter was having trouble finding stuff, though she handed me two ammonites that weren’t quite up to her standards.
Meanwhile, I found my first ever bead, then my second, my third, and part of a fourth, all spaced hundreds of feet apart. Unable to contain my excitement, I made an exception for these as well, but chastised myself each time to get back to gray and black organic shapes.
Even in the usually rich belemnite field, I came up empty handed, though Chris found a few that no one else wanted. So I took them. Then, practically under my foot, I spotted a small green sphere. Could it be a marble? It was no longer a perfect sphere and smaller than a regular marble, so either old or very well tumbled. Of course, it might be a perfect fused green glass specimen. Regardless, I kept this additional gift from the sea. But, back to gray…
Very soon after, near a rock that I thought was dinosaur poop, I found my first-ever button. I was astonished. My first-ever button, beads, old marble, and metal badge. And I wasn’t even looking for them. This must be some lesson for life. Perhaps: Prepare your mind for success, but redefine success when it suits you. Regardless, I sent a quick prayer, “Thank you God, for these abundant gifts.”
At the end of the walk, they gathered the group together to split a pile of concretions, hoping to find ammonites within. Indeed, Paddy uncovered quite a few, enough for all the kids on the walk to get one each, and for those who came from a long distance away (Hawai‘i!). I chose a sample with a small ammonite that also contained a piece of fossilized wood. I was thrilled.
Paddy welcomed everyone to bring their ammonite to his Fossil Workshop, so he could clean it. I went the next day. Realizing that if I wanted a devil’s toenail, I would have to buy it, I broke my rule (find treasure, don’t buy) and got three. One was a double.
Meanwhile, the rain had held off until the last hour of the walk. But then it came down quite steadily. My daughter sprinted the 45 minutes to our flat, while I trudged back slowly and carefully, though I didn’t stop for anything. By the time I got back, my shoes, trousers, rain jacket, and even the shirt underneath were soaked. My child had warmed up some soup and made us hot chocolate. We looked over our beach finds, treasuring this last bit of time together before returning to London, and parting in a new way at university.
Perhaps all these gifts from the sea were the Universe’s small way of softening the loss of the best treasures of my life, my daughter, and three years earlier, her sister. The lesson is that like gold cast into waves, they both will return to me, the mother beach, again and again, but changed in the process. Maybe that’s what they mean by Life’s a Beach.
For other essays from this trip to England see:
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