Late last August, my sisters and I decided that if we were careful…lots of ventilation, masks, and social distancing…we could safely travel north together to an out-of-the-way beach on Lake Michigan that would be perfect for hunting Petoskey stones…the state stone of Michigan.
Once at the beach, the three of us trekked down the embankment toward the water carrying sunscreen, sunglasses, and containers for our finds. It was a gorgeous Michigan summer day and although we brought our swimsuits with us we left them in the car. We’d be fine in our shorts.
As we moved along the beach our goal was to get as far away from any people as possible.
We were seeking solitude and safety but most importantly we hoped to find a stretch of the lake where no one had yet picked over the rocks that had been churned up by the waves and left near the shore for us to find.
We clamber over tree trunks that had fallen into the water, large stones that jutted out from the shore, and piles of assorted slippery rocks and pebbles that acted like ball bearings pulling us toward the drink in our quest for the perfect spot. Presently, we reached the place, that by consensus, we agreed looked like the best place to begin our exploration. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were going to get wet…very wet, Wouldn’t it be nice if we had those suits? Since Penny is the most in shape we agreed that she should make the trek in reverse and go get our bathing attire. In the meantime, Kelly and I would scour the rock-strewn beach and shoreline for treasures.
I had, of course, seen Petoskey stones, but I’d never found one. They aren’t impossible to find in central Michigan where I grew up…but…I don’t remember it ever happening. As kids, we found lots of fossils, but never the coveted Petoskey.
These distinctive stones are the fossilized exoskeleton of a coral that lived about 350 million years ago in the warm waters of what was then an ancient sea. At that time, geographically, Michigan was near the equator and covered with waters that were perfect for clams, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, trilobites, fish, and many other life forms.
The living part of the coral was called a polyp. The dark spot in the center of the hexagonally shaped chamber was the polyp’s mouth. The animal had tentacles like most modern corals, that grabbed plankton as it drifted by then fed this food into its mouth. Like most things, knowing what you’re looking for makes it easier to find. Even so, Petoskey stones often remain hidden until their distinctive pattern is revealed by water. That’s one reason so many people hunt for them along the shores of the Great Lakes.
When Penny returned we snaked off our shorts and t-shirts and in the seclusion of our bit of beach we wriggled into our garments of nylon and spandex. In truth, for me at least, it was more like the gyrations of a geriatric contortionist, but eventually, I had all my bits covered and was ready for the water. Lake Michigan is like a smaller, tidier version of the Atlantic without the briny scent or the dependable tides. When hunting for seashells at the ocean one merely has to wait for the water to recede with the tide and collect the bounty the waves have deposited on the shore. Along the lake, you may find treasures in the sand, but hunting for gifts of the current in freshwater often requires looking beneath the waves.
Yards from the shore Penny hollered, “Come on, you two. If I knew you weren’t going to get out any deeper in the water than that I’d have never gone for the suits.”
She’s right, I thought, but before I could go more than a few feet out into the water I slipped on a hidden rock and went in face first. Surprised and gulping for air, I got to my feet only to be kissed right on the lips by a huge wave. Down again. Spitting water and making my way to the shore, I rose once again, but…those rhythmic waves just kept coming and I was down once more. This time I held my head above water and swam-crawled to the sand only to discover my dear, sweet sisters laughing hysterically.
“Are you OK?” Kelly asked between fits of laughter. Such sympathy and concern.
Climbing from the water I made my way to one of the fallen logs to take a break. Just as I did, the water that I was dripping, revealed the Holy Grail. My first Petoskey! It had all been worth it. She was a beauty.
“There’s a flame of magic inside every stone & every flower, every bird that sings & every frog that croaks. There’s magic in the trees & the hills & the river & the rocks, in the sea & the stars & the wind, a deep, wild magic that’s as old as the world itself. It’s in you too, my darling girl, and in me, and in every living creature, be it ever so small. Even the dirt I’m sweeping up now is stardust. In fact, all of us are made from the stuff of stars”.Kate Forsyth
“Listen to the rocks and mountains,” instructed my Native American friend. “They have great wisdom.”
At the time, I dismissed this thought out of hand. What could a non-living thing teach me? Over the years my sensibilities and understanding have undergone an awakening. I have begun to recognize that there is a deep connection that exists between and within all inhabitants of the natural world. The same elements…the same atoms…the same stardust that is in me is present in all that surrounds me. Life is too complicated to leave all the lessons to sentient beings. Perhaps, if we listen closely we’ll understand the tutorials of the quaking Aspen and the rhythmic crash of the ocean as it kisses the shore, or the lessons taught by the intertwining roots of the Giant Redwoods and the Sunflower always keeping her eyes on the prize.
“Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.”Morihei Ushiba
As a novice collector, I soon learned that many tedious hours of hand-sanding…with water and increasingly finer grit sandpaper… is the most common way to bring out the hidden pattern of Petoskey stones. I’ll admit, after hours spent together, I developed a friendly relationship with this once-living creature as I worked and like any good friend, she taught me a great number of lessons. Oh, there was the obvious lesson of patience, perseverance, and purpose, but there was also the unexpected message of rebirth and redemption.
Imagine it. For a time beyond my comprehension, this piece of calcified coral has been on a journey to find me. It traveled north with the movement of tectonic plates, was buried during the ice age, was scraped up by the glaciers, and buffeted about beneath the waves of Lake Michigan until it came to rest on the beach where it waited for me to recognize it, pick it up, and joyfully carry it home to be sanded, polished, and treasured.
She is a determined instructor and her lessons are still being taught when I focus and listen, but for now, it’s enough just to know that the universe is full of unimaginable adventures still awaiting me and that I really have no way of knowing upon which rock-strewn stretch of beach I’ll be found.