Everyone at my Michigan summer camp had probably 10,000 Petoskey stones – except me.
Around 419 million years ago, when plants were just beginning to creep onto dry land, a microcarnivorous rugose coral species called Hexagonaria percarinata burst into being in a prehistoric sea. For ages, the corals seized their minuscule prey and formed colonies, and finally sank to the bottom to be permineralized into softly mottled fossils. Half an eon later (or so), the fossil stones, now smoothed and rounded by lake waves, were unearthed in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula on land owned by the prominent Ottawa chief Petosegay. The name stuck.
In water, the coy Petoskey shows a lacy pattern, dove grays and muted browns nestled together, punctuated sharply with white. Still alive. On dry land, it hides itself away. The best place to spot Petoskeys is the swash zone, where Lake Michigan laps at its beaches. Or so everyone told me.
“It’s so easy!” my fellow campers would bellow, unhelpfully. Counselors would walk next to me in the surf, pointing directly at little gray specks. “See it? See it? Hooray! Now you’ve found one!”
We all knew I hadn’t.
That first year at camp, I was consumed. I had to have one, just one, of my very own, found on my own. Beach time for me became Petoskey time, no exceptions. I wandered aimlessly from promising pebble to algae pile to driftwood and back.
It was no use. My eyes, or maybe my mind, just didn’t have the trick of spotting small things. My gaze slid up to the blazing sky or out to the horizon, where lake tankers occasionally chugged by. My thoughts swirled away to the squirrelly intrigue of intra-cabin relations or my homesickness, and I wasn’t just blind to Petoskeys. “Look at the piping plover!” Where? “That kid just did a flip!” Huh? “Low branch!” Ouch.
But eons pass. I went back to camp for a second summer, a fifth, an eighth. I accepted my status as a lowly Petoskey-less peasant, and gradually stopped looking for them. To fill the void, I learned to start a fire with flint and steel, split wood, tie a bowline, canoe rapids, leave no trace of my presence on camping trips. My cabinmates turned into sisters. I became a counselor, and found a larger, slower way of living, attuned to more than my own needs, alert to the larger world. I became the one pointing out plovers, low branches, and – on one memorable occasion on a trip in Canada, and thankfully from a van – a bear.
My 10th year rolled around. I knew it was my last. I said goodbye in my mind each time I visited the dining hall, the dusty gravel roads, the squat little cabins graffitied with 100 years’ worth of camper signatures.
But I had to face facts: Still no blasted Petoskey sighting! (Not that I could take one with me, now. To preserve the dwindling supply, a new state law made that illegal.)
Nevertheless, on my fourth to last day, I went down to the beach to hunt again for the first time in years. “I’ve grown so much. This will be easy,” I thought. It was not. Two hours later, my neck cramping, I left my search to lie down on the dry sand.
Thonk! My head hit a rock treacherously buried just under the surface. I grabbed the offending pebble to glare at it before throwing it away – but then noticed a light pattern. Could it be ... ?
I raced down to the water and dipped the accoster in. Frilled rosettes bloomed across its surface, a thousand shades of the subtlest smoky colors revealed. Across a gazillion years, a little piece of fierce sea beastie had found me. My screech of delight cut across time and space, and also startled some nearby gulls.
Next up: a four-leaf clover.