Jane and I enjoy looking for driftwood, especially the seasoned pieces we occasionally find in the shallows of a spring fed stream. The searches of many years have only resulted in a few items I consider exceptional. Each of them was intricately honed and well preserved by the constant flow of clear water.
My favorite piece is just over a foot long and sits on a shelf above my desk. It’s open on one end, gently hollowed over a long period of time. The opening is about four inches wide and gradually narrows into a small solid point, a perfect vase for the three hawk feathers it holds.
That driftwood is in good company. Squeezed between family photos on three shelves are a couple dozen assorted bottles. None of them have significant value. I doubt a collector would pay fifty dollars for the whole bunch, but it doesn’t matter because they’re not for sale.
Some came from our family farm, rescued mostly by my mother. Others were found during my walks with Jane while exploring in the woods. In the days before county landfills were established, bottles and cans were left beside forested trails. Maybe that wasn’t the best choice, but none of the options were ideal.
Most of the bottles we find now are broken, common, or generally unremarkable. Once in a blue moon, however, there’s something that rewards us enough we are inspired to keep looking.
I found a small ceramic vase last year when my brother, Jimmy, and I were cleaning up an old trash pile in the woods. We hauled out a pickup load of discarded jars and cans. Hidden in layers of mostly useless junk was a small ceramic vase my wife was delighted for me to bring home.
It’s not spectacular by any means, and a tiny chip renders it imperfect. But what it lacks in perfection it makes up for in character. I don’t understand why it was thrown away. I only know that once it was lost but now it’s found.
The shelves above my desk hold a dozen brown jars of various shapes. Some were originally bought empty, then repeatedly filled during long ago summers with vegetables from country gardens. Others came with snuff, vanilla extract, or assorted medicines.
One bottle, I believe, contained Merthiolate. That dreaded orange liquid, widely scorned by children, was liberally applied by mothers of old to burn away infections from serious wounds. Smaller lesions were treated with Mercurochrome, which had the same orange color without the scorching pain.
If a cut was too deep to hide, the only sane solution was to slip into the house and coat the wound heavily with Mercurochrome, while leaving the Merthiolate bottle by the sink. That plan works best if you blow on the wound and make grimacing sounds as you beg, “Please let me wash it off! It’s burning me up!”
I have some clear bottles of various description, plus three tiny green ones I heavily favor. They came from Joiner’s Store, a small country store that my grandfather opened in 1902. One has a label showing it’s “GENUINE HAARLEM OIL.” They each hold two fluid ounces of a turpentine-linseed oil mixture. A little bit apparently goes a long way, but I’ll never know for sure. Some bottles are best left unopened.
My plan was to write about collecting driftwood, but I got sidetracked while looking on my shelves. Finding mantle-worthy pieces of tree remnants brings me great satisfaction. I find comfort in knowing such artful beauty is created simply by man not interfering with nature. But old bottles can also be quite charming. While driftwood is slowly caressed and shaped, bottles are formed by the intentional melting of sand. One process is subtle while the other is overt.
It’s not so different with people, I suppose. Sometimes we’re gently polished by the cool flow of a stream. At other times we’re abruptly refined by a blistering furnace. One way is far more pleasant, but there’s purpose and value in both.
Hunting for driftwood on leisurely strolls with my wife is delightful, but it’s also rewarding to search for uncommon bottles and small lovely vases by digging through piles of rubbish. The walks are more pleasant than the digging, but there’s purpose and value in both.