BAR HARBOR — It’s just a certain feeling that you get. When you’ve spent as much time scouring rocks and sand as Connor O’Brien has. Hoping to uncover the minuscule treasures hidden in the sediment, the beach will let you know when it’s given up all that it has.
“You go to the beach, and you can’t really leave until you find that piece that’s right,” O’Brien explained after about an hour of walking around one of his most frequented spots.
“You have to wait for a time that’s worthy of your leaving, I guess. Sometimes that comes quickly. And sometimes you find a few pieces that are really exceptional, but you still feel that there’s the potential of something even greater. So, you just don’t feel released yet. You’re like, ‘Geez, I found these amazing pieces, and this normally would be enough to release me, but there’s a feeling that like there’s more here.’ And it usually works out that there actually is and it’s worth staying for.”
While finding and collecting frosted sea glass, bits of old china and other pieces is seemingly the goal for many who walk along the shore with their eyes fixed on the ground, the art of beachcombing has a deeper meaning for devoted disciples such as O’Brien.
“It’s not just about collecting. I feel like one of the core aspects of beachcombing is beach time. A lot of beachcombers have a deep connection with the beach, and they go there for various reasons … You become part of the routine of the beach.”
O’Brien, who moved to Mount Desert Island in 2013 to attend the College of the Atlantic, where he now works as a baker, has felt a strong connection to the beach since his childhood in Massachusetts.
“My mom is a high school teacher who had summers off, and she pretty much would just go to the beach and read a book and let us free roam,” O’Brien explained. “And that was kind of where I learned. That was just where I grew up in a sense, like, in the sand.”
On the sandy shores of Ipswich, a young O’Brien honed his skills searching for sand dollars. He wasn’t exposed to sea glass, the staple crop of the beachcombing community, until he walked around the beach at Acadia Landing. From then on, he was hooked.
He did studies on sea glass and beachcombing while at the College of the Atlantic, attended conferences and continued to expand his personal collection. O’Brien also connected with artists such as the late Ashley Bryan and Jennifer Steen Booher, and experts including Deacon Ritterbush (a.k.a. Dr. Beachcomb) and Richard Lamont, who is considered the foremost authority on sea glass in the country.
Despite countless hours spent combing, researching and educating others, O’Brien declined to place himself in that pantheon before presenting at an hour-long webinar hosted by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust and the Island Heritage Trust in May.
“I’m definitely not an expert in that sense, there’s always more to learn,” O’Brien told the group. “I feel like the deeper I get the more I’m like ‘Oh geez, I don’t know much.’ I’ve had a lot of great mentors and friends who I get to bounce ideas off of and friends who I’ve introduced to sea glass who went on to create really amazing collections themselves, so to have people who are participating in it with me is definitely part of how I accumulated all this understanding.”
The breadth and depth of that accumulated understanding is staggering, combining scientific disciplines with rich historical knowledge and boundless creativity. O’Brien is part oceanographer, studying the tides to determine when and where he should seek. He’s also part chemist, able to explain the complex processes that turn our discarded waste into natural treasures.
“When glass is exposed to the ocean it degrades by pitting rather than flaking … Sodium is bonded with hydrogen from the water and this is a process called ‘hydration,’” O’Brien revealed.
“A lot of people think it’s just tumbling that creates that frosted appearance but it’s actually more significantly ‘hydration’ which leads to that frosted appearance. ‘Hydration’ is what allows sea glass to break soft and tumble and wear down.”
In order to gain a better understanding of what it is he’s finding, O’Brien studies the history of the area and uses clues he finds on various pieces of glass to trace its origin. His passion for historical research has been fueled by various pieces of pottery and fine china that he’s found on the beach.
“I was initially entranced by the beauty of sea glass, but the history of pottery is much more amazing in my opinion,” O’Brien explained.
Don’t be discouraged, though, you don’t need to be well-versed in several disciplines to give beachcombing a try. It’s an easily accessible hobby for anyone who is just looking for a little bit of quiet time outside.
“You don’t need a kayak or any special equipment to go beachcombing, you can just walk along the beach,” said O’Brien, who has some tips for rookie combers looking to start their own collections.
When going beachcombing, you should look for historically active waterfronts. They’ll have the best odds of debris being lost off piers or over the side of ships. To gauge whether an area has been historically active, use maps, photos, drawings, books or stories to uncover evidence of the past.
You should also follow the geological maxim ‘like sediment sorted with like sediment.’ If sea glass or other anthropogenic sediment (anything that comes from humans) has washed up in a place before, there’s a good chance more will come as similar items usually travel the same paths along the ocean’s currents. Gravel pockets and tidal banks are a good place to look as items tend to accumulate there.
O’Brien also says that it’s good to hit the beach right after a storm surge or some turbulent weather as that’s when beaches are most dramatically changed and you’re seeing it fresher than ever.
While there may be tips and tricks to help you find things while beachcombing, what you do with what you find is entirely up to you. For O’Brien, the typical process is to take everything home and dump it in a big bucket. Then, when he has some free time on the weekends, he’ll sort the items in A, B or C grade materials. And it’s often while going through this process that he is inspired to create.
“It’s rare that I’ll find something, and I’ll have this instantaneous like, ‘Oh, I should do this with that.’” O’Brien said of his artistic process. “It’s more, once I get it juxtaposed back home in certain aspects, or when I have time to think about it. It’s a cumulative thing, they just build off of each other in certain ways. So, I don’t really think of it too far ahead. It just snowballs into what it is.”
O’Brien is averse to creating anything permanent out of his materials as he wants his work to reflect his understanding of the beach. While he understands and appreciates those who glue pieces together to make mosaics or other works of art, O’Brien has a different method that he feels is more in line with the process.
“In a sense, the beach is so ephemeral, it’s always changing. Sometimes if you’re not [on the beach] on that day, you’re just not going to find a certain thing. Because it’s just, it’s swept away, and it was only exposed for that moment. So, I think just being there in the moment is part of the appreciation of beachcombing. And my creations, this beachcombing art, I don’t want them to be permanent. I try to have them be in a way that they can be disassembled, recreated in a way that’s entirely new. The exhibit that you see is not forever. The next time you see it, it will be altered in the same way that the beach is always changing. That’s part of the enchantment for me. It’s these timeless materials that are old and they’re just as they are.”