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«The Book of Agate Here, on my desk, lies a handful of beach agates, catching the winter light. They are charms I’ve given myself to play with. ...»

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Contest Winner, Nonfiction Nick Neely

The Book of Agate

Here, on my desk, lies a handful of beach agates, catching the winter

light. They are charms I’ve given myself to play with. Comforts, pacifiers.


Some are smooth, buttery, worn round by water and time; others are angular

and rough, perhaps removed too soon from their wash cycle.

But even these, I find, are easy on the fingers.

Recently these stones—mostly small, translucent pebbles—were lodged in the silt of a river delta, but now they are clean and dry, preserved for a spell.

They’ve found a home.

Once an object joins a collection, it tends to become more than itself. Not just symbolic, but sacred. It is retired from all former use, if there was any in its previous incarnation.

Then even a stone snatched from the multitudes—one that’s caromed for thousands of years without much consequence—can no longer be handled so lightly.

Dropping one to the floor, I can’t help but wince a little.

Something collected recalls its many origins all at once: Layers of association difficult to distinguish, let alone describe, amid that warm feeling of general owner’s satisfaction.

Holding up this milky pebble to look within, I seem to confront an immeasurable history compressed into an object.

Not just the white lines barreling in on the beach where this rock was discovered—waves that crash down even now, thousands of miles away—but also the eroded pocket in the hills from which it came and every scouring riffle in between.

Agates gather in darkness, in lava rock, where silica gradually precipitates from groundwater. In ancient bubbles and faults, a gel forms, and as it dehydrates, the incipient crystal separates into discrete but fused bands.

Eventually, the emptiness of the cavity is filled with a seamless quartz known as chalcedony.

If a small cave is left at the center, then your agate is in fact a geode, a word that means “earthy,” though those glittering innards may seem more like ice or air.

Agate nodules come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and degrees of translucence:

from granule to boulder, vermillion to cerulean, clear to opaque. Depends on their original mold, the mineral content of their natal waters, and other mysteries.

So it was that, millions of year ago, these agates began to come into my life.

But I remember, also, that June day when my love and I drove west from Eugene on a misty road, past pastures and barns, and clear cuts on the Douglas fir hillsides.

How we hung a right on Highway 101, curving through dunes and over headlands, until from the precipitous heights of

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that, when the grinding is over and all is quiet, each stone shines like water itself.

Below the surface of our backyard, however, I found only crumbly sandstone, too soft to polish. So I had to look elsewhere for gems: In wildflowers. Flitting through oaks.

Spotted salamanders, glistening under pots.


Collections, I’ve read, often begin with a gift or serendipity. Rarely are they planned. But once that first item is in hand, others accrue as if by their own volition.

John Dewey: “No unprejudiced observer will lightly deny the existence of an original tendency to assimilate objects and events to the self, to make them part of the ‘me.’ We may even admit that the ‘me’ cannot exist without the ‘mine.’ The self gets solidity and form through an appropriation of things which identifies them with whatever we call myself... I own therefore I am.” Solidity and form: A collection is the silica that gradually fills some part of the psyche.

Usually my Yachats agates rest in a glass bowl, but sometimes I find them scattered across my desk, among my papers and receipts. Lately they sit in clusters on stacks of unread books as if to prevent me from working.

“I am unpacking my library,” wrote Walter Benjamin. “Yes, I am.” Suddenly emboldened, I sweep them into the cup of my hand, let them go clinking back into their dish. There, I can keep an eye on them.

Such are the gentle tides of a rare day.

“Guard well your spare moments,” wrote Emerson. “They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” The truth is diamonds are a dull choice: They serve as currency because none can be told apart. Nor are they actually rare: The market is only carefully controlled, and advertised.

No two agates are alike in design, and each has a chemical fingerprint, sometimes plainly visible, that an expert can trace to within fifty miles of its source.

The philosopher Theophrastrus (372-287 B.C.), a disciple of Aristotle, was the first to write of agates in his treatise On Stones. “The achates is also a beautiful stone,” he wrote, “it comes from the river Achates in Sicily and is sold at a high price.” Fidus Achates, friend of Aeneas.

–  –  –

When cut or polished, an agate’s surface has striations that resemble tree rings, as if one could count back the years to see when drought occurred and civilizations fell.

|5 Petrified wood is also agatized, each fibrous cell replaced by silica. In my bowl are several old growth stones, which are common along the Oregon Coast.

Each is a piece of tanbark from a lost playground.

Inside the chamber of a developing agate, gravity sometimes pulls the chalcedony to the floor, forming a pool of horizontal layers called onyx, which means “fingernail.” Expose these glassy interiors, and one can see entire landscapes: Anvil head clouds hanging over desert buttes. Whitecaps to the horizon.

Turning my index finger in the window’s light, the fine keratinous ridges of my fingernail remind me of breakers as seen from a headland.

Pliny the Elder also wrote at length of agate in his Natural History, describing many varieties: “The Indian agate... on them you will find represented rivers, woods, and farm horses; and one can see in them coaches, small chariots, and horse litters and in addition the fittings and trappings of horses.... Those found in Thrace and near the mountain Oeta, upon Mount Parnassus, on the isle of Lesbos and in Messene, have the image of flowers, such as grow in the highways and paths in the fields.” I’m new at agate-gazing, but so far haven’t encountered any equines.

As we drove along the Oregon Coast, we were absorbed by the bands of the landscape: The blue and white waves. The slick and dry stretches of sand.

The quiet back pools reflecting the fast clouds off the Pacific.

Swaths of tidal marsh. Bluffs and chasms. The pavement the thinnest of lines.

Wreathes of beach cobble, too many stones to fathom. Mountains.

Holding this one, I remember how islands rose out the sea, and how lava flowed into the ocean in a hissing swirl of steam, leaving hills of lumpish pillow basalt.

How the Juan de Fuca plate offshore collided with the North American plate, lifting the entire smoldering mass between 66 million and 36 million years ago, forming the Coast Range and this gorgeous drive.

This layer of continent is now disappearing: Sea stacks stand as pillars to a former coastline, and the basalt of the shore is riddled with coves and inlets that funnel waves furiously into blowholes, as if in homage to a volcanic past and the humpbacks offshore.

–  –  –

Monstrous in heavy surf.

“Listen! you hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand, / Begin, and cease, and then again begin …” You can identify beach agates by the myriad crescents, indentations, on their surfaces, as if imprinted in clay by a fingernail. These are the strike marks they leave on one another.

“Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god,” Carl Jung laments in Man and His Symbols, “nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree is the life principle of a man, no snake the embodiment of wisdom, no mountain cave the home of a great demon. No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear.” Once it was thought that the Thunder Spirits threw agates raucously among the snowy peaks of Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, where they lived. Now these “thundereggs” are the state rock of Oregon. Their surfaces look pimply, but once cracked, their centers reveal brilliant patterns: star shapes, imagined galaxies. They are mainly found inland, in the sagebrush ocean beyond the Cascades, in rhyolitic lava.

I don’t talk to my rocks, but I have sometimes tossed them in my hand or let them rattle musically among the loose change in my pocket.

My back began to ache as I stooped at low tide in the Yachats Bay for more hours than I’d like to admit. My pale neck burned in the sun. It seemed the right price to pay.

Looking for agates, I’ve found, is as much an exercise of the mind as of the eyes. You must block out most of the world and let in only a particular glint.

By ignoring everything, at least we can see something.

This one is tinted orange and has a ruddy skin-like layer that’s almost gone, as if another rub or two of the thumb would separate the stone from its chaff.

It is sculpted smooth, but pocked here and there, revealing the mold of the ventricle in which it was formed.

I’ve learned that the small cavities in the lava of the Oregon Coast, those in which agates coalesce, are known as “amygdaloidal” from the Latin for almond.

Which explains why I have a strange desire to place this stone on my tongue.

“It is believed that to look upon the agate is to rest the eyes,” wrote Pliny the Elder. “If held in the mouth agate quenches the thirst.” Not surprisingly, the amygdalae are those lumps of brain matter, one buried in each hemisphere, responsible for long-term memory consolidation and the sense of smell, among other things. They let us remember the ocean air.

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I’ve read somewhere that a person’s true appreciation or understanding of a work of art is revealed by how carefully, how purposefully, he holds it.

The heart forms in the cavity of the chest and waits for its collector.

Just north of town, we visited a small cove along a well-traveled beach trail.

On a crescent of sand, one family stood by the waves and then raced upslope, laughing, just ahead of the tumbling froth. In the evening light, we found bits of agate even on the pathway, gems stepped on and worn down by passing flip-flops.

One of them, the pebble I now pinch between my thumb and forefinger, is scarlet through and through. A mouse’s heart, no larger. It has a network of veins.

Carnelian, I’ve learned, is a type of orange to fiery red chalcedony. The name suggests “flesh,” but the word is actually a sixteenth century corruption of “cornelian,” after the bitter cornel cherry. The stone is supposedly healing, grounding, stimulating. As you might imagine, it’s said to enhance blood flow.

I remember the night I found her: It was late, but I could hardly tear my eyes away. We danced together in an old Victorian house, never imagining all these years to come.

Perhaps it was the way we caught the light. What if it had shone differently?

Collecting, I follow my instincts, but I look up, now and then, to take my bearings so as not to overlook any ground: Always the worry that the one plot you miss, the one niche you glance at too casually, will inevitably hold the greatest discovery.

Throughout history, agates have been carved into cameos: an oval broach or pendant with a delicate and detailed portrait, often of the beloved in profile.

This carving is done on the edge of two layers in an agate so that the background is one color, the relief another.

Large agates are sculpted into cups and figurines, or simply halved to serve as bookends. Others are cut so delicately that they look like a slice of smoked salmon.

In The Book of Agates, from which a few items of this collection have been mined, the author and rockhound Lelande Quick understands when he writes, “There are few thrills to equal the satisfaction of personally finding a beautiful agate or other quartz gem and then processing it yourself into a gem of great beauty.” Another memory: Out for agates one morning in Yachats, I spotted a bald eagle on the beach beside a rock. But I suspected it wasn’t a rock. Through my binoculars, I watched as the ivory-naped bird picked and tore at the mass with yellow talons as large as my hands. When it left, I walked across the sand and discovered a headless seal pup. Squatting down, I reached out to touch its fur and feel the skin of its flipper. I pinched a claw and its soft sheath slipped off in my grasp. Now it also rests in my bowl.

–  –  –

Or would it all grow tiresome? As the Chinese proverb goes, “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.” 10 | 11 One might choose to arrange these stones according to chemistry, the way some gather type specimens for a museum drawer. Or one might have an eye only for aesthetics.

A few of the names of agate, its myriad forms: Breciatted, Ruin, Calico, Dendritic, Ovoid-bearing, Faulted, Flame, Fortification, Eye, Iris, Rainbow, Jasp, Lace, Mocha, Moss, Plume, Sagenitic, Stalactitic, Tube, Landscape.

Those who collect for science often wish to complete their collections, which fulfills a sense of self. It is an accomplishment. But those who collect for the sake of collection, as art, cannot finish for long. Their self will seem to disintegrate.

Many will still believe that collections are a disguise for sheer acquisitiveness, or just misdirected energy. But I hope the activity need not be seen in such a light.

That people return to collecting especially in their retirement, when time begins to feel of essence, suggests that this gathering is a natural inclination. It triumphs over self-consciousness and often leads to its own discoveries.

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