© 2015 admin. All rights reserved. Agates

The Book of Agate

From Ninth Letter 11.2, Fall/Winter 2014-2015. Winner of the 2014 Ninth Letter Award in Creative Nonfiction and the 2015 John Burroughs Nature Essay Award. Excerpt below.


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. Curiosities.

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.

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