Tom could see "a world in a grain of sand." An English teacher in addition to being a sand maven, Tom collected sand with a little help from his students. Knowing of his collection, they would return from vacations with small vials of the precious granules from various beaches around the country and the world.
Tom bottled all contributions and added them to his collection, which eventually incorporated the stuff of beaches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and back via the Pacific. I added crucial sand from Scotland, missing from his inventory.
Tom labeled the containers and lined them up in a siliceous color spectrum from white to beige, and textures from freshly ground pepper to sugar. But unlike philatelists or lepidopterists or numismatists, Tom's collection left much to the imagination. Thank goodness.
One had to extract the complementary sounds of surf and sea gulls from his Maine vials; the images of sandpipers scurrying ahead of the tide encapsulated in his Sanibel Island (Fla.) vial; the bleak North Sea wind was brought to you by sand from Scotland.
Sand is surely one of the oldest of artifacts. It is the raw material of these ephemeral fantasies, as well as the enduring cathedral window, the intertidal castle, or more prosaic mortar. Even a tiny vial of sand can't help but invoke thoughts of palm trees, footprints, bare feet. Sand is always found in nice places.
I needn't take up space with all of the metaphorical uses of sand.
Tom's collection inspired me to keep natural artifacts of my travels, whether from a leisurely paddle to the island across the river or from a jet flight to another country. It's important to bring something back from unfamiliar places. And any walk around the block, taken in the spirit of Thoreau, is an investigation of an unfamiliar place.
I started my own collection of sand, but as I rarely found myself on exotic beaches, the practice ended in California with a single jam jar of Malibu's finest. During January in Maine, it was capable of inducing warm thoughts of surfing and lolling in the sun on the famous beach. But with little chance of growing beyond Malibu, this collection stalled out.
I passed along the grains of bleached surfer-dude beach to a friend as a silly Christmas present. Perhaps it has seeded some kind of a collection for him?
I moved up the evolutionary chain from sands to rocks, but clung to the shore as the requisite artifact zone. Collections need parameters. When we lived in Chicago, my office "in box" brimmed with evocative stones gleaned from various fields and shores - from Lake Michigan and up and down the East Coast.
For instance, the smooth purplish lumps from a friend's pebbled shore in Nahant, Mass., always reminded me of our evening spent casting from the rocks and catching bluefish. And there were diverse Maine stones: smooth granite from West Grand Lake, special pebbles with unique tidal carvings from various coves on Penobscot Bay, each a reminder of a canoe trip or beachcombing.
This collection weighed down many a summer suitcase riding the luggage carousel at O'Hare, as we returned home from vacation.
I wised up. I gave away my rock collection to my school colleagues when we moved. Each rock, once an artifact of my days next to bodies of water, became an artifact of friendship, collegiality, and years of rapport.
I switched to driftwood, nature's "found" sculpture. Even a humble branch or cedar stump, salted and sanded over the winter into smooth, writhing shapes, can evoke recollections of time on the shore as well as fantastical projections. Like cloud gazing, finding abstract shapes in driftwood makes art out of happenstance.
Driftwood, too, makes an excellent present. When I gave my friend Paul a particularly exquisite gnarled lump, he saw the dancer in it right away, and hung it above his desk to float.
Crow feathers came next. Crows abound in our town, and their feathers drift down daily from their elm-canopy aeries. I pick them out of the grass and add them to the collection can, a large bouquet of delicate, black "lift." Last summer, I had enough to give a friend 50 feathers, one for each year, for her birthday.
I've decided that such collections are different from most and generate a different philosophy and practice. They are made to be passed on, in the same manner they arrived, not hoarded or held.
The sand, stones, driftwood, or feathers have arrived by currents of water or air, and they move on to their next collector in a similar current. They become the currency of special tidings, a signifier of connection, a one-of-a-kind artifact of friendship.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor