In the 1960s my family spent a week every summer at Tower Hill church camp — a row of beat-up old cabins in a pine forest in southwest Michigan. The woods were full of owls and raccoons and poison ivy and blackberries, and just beyond them lay the dunes and the slow, blue pulse of the lake.
It was a “rustic” (inexpensive) getaway, and since the camp staff was overworked and underpaid, a “low-maintenance” camp. The tennis court demanded a nuanced game. The challenge was not to keep the ball inside the lines, which were mostly worn away, but to hit a piece of the pavement that wasn’t buckled or cracked or overgrown with weeds. The playground was a heavy splintering teeter-totter, a metal merry-go-round and a steel slide that grew so hot in the afternoon it would raise blisters on your legs.
The paint was always peeling on our cabin, #13. Mosquitoes and horseflies and yellow jackets found the small holes ripped in the porch screens. The windows, all propped open with sticks, would crash down on your fingers if you tried to close one. Mice lived in the electric oven during the winter, so when you turned it on in July you were baking mouse crap pie, filling the space with a nauseating stench. The cabin’s outhouse was loaded with spiders and centipedes. At night monster bugs lurked in the black corners, just outside the flashlight’s beam.
Yet my three older brothers and I loved the place. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the blurring of the inside and outside, or how time slowed until it moved like the clouds drifting above the woods.
My favorite part of the day was the mile-long walk each morning from the cabin to Lake Michigan. The sweetness of white pine mingled with sweat and suntan lotion. The plastic rattle of sand shovels and buckets echoed each step, a rhythmic backdrop for my brothers’ teasing and laughter and my parents’ quiet conversations. At the end of the walk we exited the dark woods onto the dunes in anticipation, breaking into a jog for the last 100 yards. And then it appeared again — the unbroken promise of the lake — more water than we could ever hope for. And it went on forever. We sprinted over the sizzling sand, pranced into the cold water and lunged into the curl of a wave.
Now, 40 years later, my wife and I sometimes bring our three kids to cabin #13. We walk through the same forest, the same colors and smells. And when the kids emerge from the woods onto the beach, they feel the same urge to run for the water that I did. They make their mad dash, and I take off after them. My limbs don’t bend as far or as fast as they once did, but I can keep up. Barefoot in the hot sand again, I dive back into the lake and the shivering joy of childhood.
Notes in a bottle
One summer, when I was 7, I read a book about a boy in Maine who sent a letter in a bottle to a friend on the other side of the ocean. Though it never arrived, I loved the dream of the bottle drifting across the wild sea. So I decided to try it. I would send a letter to my friend Paul Wolfgear in Lexington, Missouri, where we lived at the time. I don’t think I understood that Lexington was not on Lake Michigan. I’m not sure that I even knew that the lake was not an ocean. The Missouri River ran by Lexington, and it was big, so I figured it would work.
That very afternoon I scribbled a short letter to Paul on a half sheet of paper, rolled it up, put a rubber band around it and stuck it in a thick green Coke bottle I found in a trash can at the beach. I pushed the note all the way to the bottom of the bottle. For a cork, I jammed in a wet stick and broke it off near the opening. I walked a few feet into the lake and threw it in.
The bottle splashed about 10 feet from where I was standing then and began to wash slowly back toward shore. I walked out and retrieved it. Some water had gurgled in so I removed the stick, poured out the water, reinserted the stick, and threw it out farther. Never satisfied, I did this three more times, until the water was up to my neck. After the final throw I stood in the cool, green water, watching. The bottle soon disappeared, and I knew it had filled with water and sunk to the bottom.
Though I couldn’t understand it then, what bothered me was not just that the letter wouldn’t arrive but that I lost the story, the drifting bottle of words bobbing through storm and calm, past steamers and fishermen, toward my friend.
I still wonder what happened to the letter I tried to mail to Paul in 1967. The stick and letter have dissolved, but what of the Coke bottle? I presume it either cracked in the lake or washed in and broke on the shore. Then, over time, the glass fragments would become more hydrated and begin to soften and erode — by the hour and day and decade. The rock and sun, the undertow and rip tides, the lateral tug and pull of the waves, wear down the glass. The lake tumbles our trash into treasure, broken shards into frosted gems, into lake glass.
It takes a long time — often 20 or 30 years, depending on the thickness of glass. Most of the pieces I find now are clear or brown or green, a few purple or blue. Some are the size of my pinky fingernail, others as large as a half dollar. Unlike the note in the bottle, these drifting fragments are a wordless story read with the palm and fingers.
The most weathered, pitted pieces are the most valued. Their beauty stems from their seasoning, from how much of the lake’s memory they carry. If undiscovered by someone like me they would all disappear, returning to their origin, to sand.
I have a large bowl of lake glass on my desk. When my writing goes poorly I pick up a piece — touch a story of loss, of transformation, and imagine the cold, deep re-membering of the lake, the slow journey of glass back to sand.
Glass and sand have been woven into one journey for thousands of years. Glass-blowing originated in 250 B.C., and the first U.S. glass factory was founded in New Jersey in 1739. But the recipe for glass has never changed much. Most glass today is still 70 percent sand (silica) mixed with 15 percent soda (sodium bicarbonate) and 10 percent lime (calcium oxide) which is then superheated (about 2,400 degrees F) until it liquefies (the soda prompts this).
Glass can be recycled endlessly, from glass to sand to glass and back again. It is this cycle that intrigues me — what the gem maker teaches the junk maker, what the lake teaches the human being about waste, and time and how to see.
Or how not to see. I’m not sure what we’ve learned. Consider what the cycle of glass and sand actually measures: the time it takes for the lake to recover from our excess, to clean up our mess. Twenty or 30 years is a short time compared to how long it takes for stones, for granite or quartz, to break down and granulate — 500 or even 1,000 years. But it is a long time compared to how quickly the lake is poisoned by human activity, by coal and nuclear and manufacturing plants, by pesticides and fertilizers and untreated sewage.
These poisons — mercury, furan, dioxins, PCBs and others — are hard to see early on, when more could be done to stop their harm. Consider the birth defects of a baby whose mother has eaten too many mercury-filled salmon, or the cross-billed syndrome in cormorants, or other genetic defects in terns and frogs, or the cancerous tumors in lake trout and herring gulls and other predatory animals. We don’t see this degradation until years after the dumping, and far from where the chemicals entered the water. Lake Michigan is sick. She may be able to heal, but only on her own time — by the clock of sun and water and steady ticking of sand in the wind.
When I told our 11-year-old daughter, Abby, about the slow process of lake glass I mentioned that it is now also simulated in factories, which chemically and mechanically compress several decades of life in the lake into a few 30-minute treatments in order to make lake-glass earrings and necklaces. This got Abby thinking.
One morning at the cabin she made her own lake-glass factory with a quart-sized plastic bottle. She put in three fistfuls of pebbles and three of sand, then added several shiny pieces of newly broken glass and filled the bottle three-quarters full with lake water. “I’m going to shake it for five minutes every hour,” she said, then started shaking it.
On the way back to Chicago that day I heard the sloshing rattle in the back seat every now and then. She checked the glass a day or so later but then forgot about it. I found the bottle a month later in the garage, the water evaporated, the glass pieces sharp and shiny, the mystery of time not yet unraveled.
Ways of seeing
The key to finding lake glass is learning how to see it. Consider how one learns to see arrowheads in a river bed, or a sparrow in a distant tree, or worry in the way a child’s hands move. Before the brain mechanically receives the image, it intuitively seeks it out. We don’t just look, we look for. We see, in part, because we imagine.
The angle and intensity of sunlight dramatically changes the appearance of lake glass. On an overcast day a penny-sized shard of clear glass newly rinsed by a wave lying alone on dark sand is hard to miss. On a bright sunny day a frosted, quarter-size piece of brown glass lying amid brown pebbles will be missed by most. The more one walks the shoreline at different times and learns the shifting colors of light and shadow on the water and sand, the more one learns to see.
It also matters when and where one looks. After a storm is best, when things have been churned up and laid out to be sorted. I tend to walk the same stretch of beach — in a state park next to Tower Hill, where there are no vacation homes to ruin the view. Over the years I have come to a quite unscientific hypothesis: New bits of lake glass wash up somewhere along that 2-mile strip every four hours. But I may be wrong. The “new” glass I find in the afternoon could be glass I missed on the first pass.
Last summer Carol and the kids and I stayed at cabin #13 for a week; we swam and walked the beach everyday. I looked for lake glass. So did the kids, but they were more interested in rocks — colorful ones with holes in them for necklaces or mobiles. There are maybe 10,000 interesting rocks for each piece of lake glass; rocks require less focus. But on our last day at the beach Tessa found a large, rare shard of blue-green glass — the most beautiful piece I’ve ever seen. Grinning widely, she offered to sell it to me.
Every time I asked “How much?” her price went up. Abby and Bennett found this hilarious (and now all of a sudden were both searching for lake glass, too). After an hour or so we all found some small, clear pieces, but nothing like Tessa’s. She finally loaned it to me for “writing purposes.”
That night we marveled over Tessa’s find and wondered how old it was. Twenty years? Thirty? It looked like a piece of one of those old green Coke bottles. Could it be? I had to tell them the story at least, and pose the possibility. Had Tessa found a piece of the Coke bottle I threw in the lake as a child? No one believed it possible, except me.
“It’s a good story though,” Carol said. A bit hurt by this, I shifted to a defensive position: “Well we couldn’t prove it either way, could we? I mean it’s not like we can do carbon-14 testing.” “No, that’s my point,” she said, with her usual patience. “It’s a good story.”
A good story. But I wanted a factual story, a true story. I don’t want to leave readers on that narrow, shaky bridge between fact and truth, or between imagining and re-membering.
Or maybe I do. I’ve been wondering about this lately while rereading a book about another cabin by the water: Walden. I now understand more of Henry David Thoreau’s intentions, but when I first read it in college I expected factual reportage of what happened to him in real time on a given day during his stay at the pond. So I was surprised to learn the book took nine years to write, and that he had condensed his two years at the cabin into the illusion of one. It was not a “journal” as I expected, but a literary journey, a re-creation of his intellectual and spiritual saunters at Walden, and the years surrounding it.
“The imagination never forgets, it is a re-membering,” he wrote in a letter. “It is not foundationless, but most reasonable, and it alone uses all the knowledge of the intellect.”
Thoreau always left the hyphen in re-membering, a reminder for modern readers that the imagination is not a part of memory, but a means of memory, of art, of putting the pieces of the story back together, of constructing truth and beauty. He creates Walden from matters-of-fact and matters-of-mystery, from the measurable and immeasurable, the seen and unseen.
Perhaps the writer’s mind is like a piece of half-cured lake glass — partly transparent and partly opaque. If you hold the glass up to your eye and look back out at the world of the past, you can see some key details on the other side but not all of them. The past is often cloudy. Yet the whole piece of glass can let the powerful light of memory back through on me and this world, throwing the here and now, the present, into a surprising clarity. To discern how the light of the past illuminates the present is the work of the imagination.
I had never even considered the possibility of finding a piece of that 40-year-old Coke bottle until Tessa made her discovery. But I had imagined another true story — that most of that glass had re-turned to sand by now, had been re-membered by the lake, that we were all walking on the bottle I had tried to send to Paul, that my childhood physically converges with my children’s on that stretch of beach. For me, it is holy ground.
Perhaps that’s why I can so easily still see my parents on the same bit of shoreline — in their mid-40s, like Carol and me. And next to them is a chubby little boy with an odd, uneven haircut and large ears. I am slapping an overturned plastic bucket packed with wet sand, loosening the castle. It slides out on to the beach like a little cake, which I try to get my older brothers to notice. When they don’t, I start to cry. My mom hears it above the whoosh of wind and wave. She comes over and helps me build a little moat with a shovel. We pretend the sticks are people, the sand beetles little monsters.
No one loved that bit of lakeshore more than my mom. She is 85 now and has not been back to that beach for many years. Eighty-five years is a long time. More than twice as long as it took for that piece of Coke bottle to roll up on the surf and find my daughter. But the story doesn’t end.
I pick the lovely blue-green piece of glass out of my bowl. Rough and round and cool in my palm, it somehow still re-members my childhood and my children and my mother: in her floppy hat sunbathing on a long towel, or searching for rocks, or swimming out into the cool swell of the lake. I can see her treading in the shimmering green water with us on one of those blazing summer days so many years ago — laughing and talking and dreaming.
I wonder if she felt the same way that I do now when bobbing in the lake with our kids — relieved, reborn, thankful to surrender to the water and sunlight, part of both a timeless belonging and a slow wearing away.
Tom Montgomery-Fate is the author of Beyond the White Noise, a collection of essays, and Steady and Trembling, a memoir. His essays air on National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio, and have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, The Iowa Review and other publications. He is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.