The Perfect Pebble
I love to comb the beds of streams, the banks of rivers, the shores of lakes, and the beaches of oceans, in search of the perfect pebble. When I go into ‘pebble mode’, as my husband calls it, I tend to become obsessive. I enter a dreamy state, all my attention is focused at my feet, and my eyes scan the ground within a radius of a metre.
At first, any stone with a pleasing oval or round form would satisfy me. I loved to heft these in my hand, roll them between my fingers, or hold them in my pocket, until they seemed almost alive with my body heat. Their irresistible, sensuous shapes soothed me. I often wondered how old they were, how and where they were formed, how far they travelled before my gaze fell upon them.
Then I began to select for colour: nut brown, celadon, apricot, smoky pink, palest powder grey, dusty aubergine, glossy black...
As I got older, I became more discerning, more adventurous, choosing ones that looked like bird’s eggs, flecked, speckled, spotted, or marbled...
Or ones with contours and stripes and wavy lines in subtle shades or bold whites...
There are crystals from Namibia among my collection, even something that looks strikingly like a knapped arrow head (middle, top row, in the photo below), found in Zambia. Several have a chalky finish or a soapy sheen and texture, and one looks freshly varnished (bottom right). Others are pockmarked (middle row, right) or appear riddled with disease (centre). Some glitter with fool’s gold (bottom left) or pearlescent mica.
Occasionally I come across something truly fine; these often become invested with meaning, like the pebble I found on Brimstone Island, off the coast of Maine (middle, right, in the image below). I remember my father, my mother and I, absorbed in our quest, surrounded by thousands of pitch black pebbles, each more lovely than the next and so fine-grained they were smooth as a baby's cheek.
Then there’s the one I spotted in Manu National Park, Peru, the colour of sand, another pebble trapped in its centre (top row, right).
My father once found a slate-grey stone (top row, left), criss-crossed by white lines and punctuated with a flawless star – his lucky stone, which he gave me.
A year or so ago, my husband returned from a trip to the Madre de Dios rainforest with a gift for me from the father of a good friend of ours; a large, pale, oval stone bisected by a single French-grey stripe. Another time, I found a river pebble with two parallel white lines; I like to keep these two together, yin and yang.
Now, after three decades of searching, I have come to the conclusion there is no such thing as the perfect pebble. Or rather, they are all perfect, unique. And lately I find myself wondering if I am wrong to bring these stones home, these bits of country that I travel in. Does my deep pleasure in them justify removing them from where they belong? Or is this another example of appropriation of nature, my need for exclusive ownership?
Pebbles are not alive, nor ever were alive, unlike shells. They don’t provide shelter or food for living creatures, unlike driftwood. They are usually one amongst hundreds of thousands, only beautiful because my admiration makes them so.
Sometimes, though, this admiration is shared by others. There is a place in Peru, the Paracas Nature Reserve, where a harsh wind often blows. Here, stones of all sizes, from pebbles to boulders, have been carved by the wind and by stinging sand, to create stunning, otherworldly sculptures. Over the years, the most dramatic of these have been collected by local people and by hotels to display in elegant interiors. So much so, it is now impossible to find them ‘in the wild’. I know, because I have tried. And in trying to find one for myself, I began to consider that even the inanimate, the lifeless, belongs in nature, and when we take it away, we also rob that place of a tiny bit of its wildness, its soul.
They say you should ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints.’ The next time a pebble catches my roving eye, I will pick it up, fondle it... and think twice about pocketing it.