High Minded: Sea Glass

The line between trash and treasure isn’t always so clear.


In the early 1900s, the residents of Fort Bragg, a small coastal town in northern California, began dumping their waste along the coastline. They threw everything from food scraps to large metal appliances over cliffs at the end of Elm Street, down to the shore where dark sand ran up against outcroppings of large, weathered rocks. Every so often they would light the piles of trash on fire to burn them down, making beds of ash that would be covered by more broken bottles and car parts, a cycle that would repeat itself for the next 60 years.

It’s strange to think about what it does to a town to have everything it has discarded—all the bits of itself it has tried to slough off—sitting in piles only a couple hundred yards from its main street, solemnly sinking and swelling for decades, like a manufactured tide.

Fort Bragg outlawed dumping on the beaches in 1967, and over the next few decades there would be half-hearted cleanup efforts, until the state’s parks department acquired the land in the early 2000s. The site of the old dump was incorporated into the abutting MacKerricher State Park, which ran along the coast. Cleanup efforts were redoubled, and walking paths were built on the coastal cliffs to attract tourists.

Once the rotting wood and gnarled scraps of metal had been hauled away, what was left was not the same dark sand that blanketed the other beaches. In fact, it wasn’t sand at all, but jewel-toned shards of sea glass, smoothed by decades of waves and deposited all over the coves where residents used to throw old bottles and windows.

Tourists began coming to Fort Bragg in droves. There are now sea glass–themed inns, stores that sell sea glass jewelry, and a sea glass museum—an entire industry built around another generation’s trash. There are residents who have lived in the town long enough to have seen tourists walk off the beach carrying bags filled with shards of glass from bottles akin to those they once carelessly tossed into the dump, treasures that may now travel farther from home than the person who threw them away ever has.

A few years ago, I convinced a friend from San Francisco to drive up to Fort Bragg with me soon after my birthday. I had spent the year drifting from one state to the next, homesick for a place that didn’t exist anymore. While living on the opposite side of the country for a few months, I had become obsessed with the idea of visiting the sea glass beach and would look up pictures of it on my phone before I went to bed at night.

I don’t really know what I was looking for in Fort Bragg, but when we went down to the beach and ran our hands through the sea glass on an early January afternoon, I didn’t think about where the glass came from. It felt natural for it to be there, like a small glimpse into another world where all beaches are made of glass and my obsession with a small coastal town wouldn’t worry a friend so much that she would agree to come with me.

Of course, the sea glass didn’t get there naturally; each shard holds the remnants of the person who left it there, the ghost of a time that’s hard to imagine. Even today, the glass doesn’t really belong on the beach so much as it still belongs to people, only now tourists haul it away in bags as something to be treasured. There used to be chunks of blue and purple, but by the time my friend and I visited, it was mainly green and brown pebbles, the most common and therefore least desirable colors.

On the way out of town, we stopped at the International Sea Glass Museum, where we looked at multicolored sea glass under protective coverings. The museum has a one-room gift shop, where they sell bags of heavy cut glass with sharp edges. The man at the counter explained that this glass was meant to be thrown back into the coves, to be smoothed by the waves and one day replenish the sea glass that’s been taken away. The state opposes the practice for environmental reasons, and my friend dissuaded me from buying a bag to toss myself.

At the current rate, in a few decades there may be no more sea glass in Fort Bragg, and by then everyone who remembers the dumps will be gone. In some ways, it will be the end of a long cycle: a coastal town finally rid of its trash. And yet, I secretly like the idea of replenishing the glass. There is a comfort in that coastline, in the hope that the things we discard may come back to us one day, and that both they and we may have changed enough for them to be of value again.

Art by Julia et Vincent