I've made bull kelp candles before, using the hollow bulb to fill with wax and a wick. But this time, as I was walking along the beach and saw some uprooted bull kelp, I noticed that the kelp still had their holdfasts attached, the part that anchors the kelp to submerged rocks.
The Scottish part of our family, on my mom's side, belongs to the MacLeod clan and their motto is: "Hold Fast." This phrase is also found as part of 1 Thessalonians 5:21, a favorite scripture. It always comes to mind when I'm writing letters to people who are going through a hard time.
I decided that I'd use a bull kelp holdfast to make a candleholder, to make a "Hold Fast Candle."
I chose a holdfast that was fairly large because it will shrink as it dries. I also looked for one that had attached itself to a flat rock so that it would provide a stable base. After unraveling the whip part of the kelp, I cut it several feet up, to where it began to thicken.
Back home I collected candles, super glue, and small, clear cannisters that I could stick the candles in. After glueing the cannister to the top of the holdfast I began winding the whip around it, glueing as I went. Fortunately, the kelp had been lying in the sun for a while so it was partly dried, which meant it was flexible and the glue would stick to it. My cat found this process particularly fascinating and kept slapping the end of the whip as I slowly wound it in place.
I was delighted with how the candleholder experiment turned out and can't wait to share them with family and friends as encouragement for them to "hold fast," no matter how tough things get.
"I like your sister's whimsical and intricate artwork," one person commented after ordering a copy of my sister's coloring book, In the Garden, off Amazon. "It is very happy."
I thought that was perceptive of her. My family has always been impressed with the way my sister, Megan, has a positive attitude and can laugh even when she's going through something difficult and painful.
And she can even turn a past unhappy experience into a bit of whimsy to delight other people. Take, for instance, the dragonfly she drew for her coloring book.
My oldest brother, Jamie, not to put too fine a point on it, was a beast when we were kids. For some reason his victim of choice was usually Megan. One day he decided to terrorize her by telling her that dragonflies had a poisonous bite. He described with scientific precision what the poison did to a person--I've blanked out the horrific details, but I remember it was graphic and nightmarish.
There was a method to his madness. He'd found a large, dead dragonfly, perfectly preserved, and his evil plan was, after filling her full of his bloodcurdling tales of death by dragonfly, to produce the preserved dragonfly, its wings frozen in flight, and chase her with it.
She ran screaming, with him and the dragonfly in hot pursuit, along the salmon spawning creek we grew up beside. I managed to catch up and tell her he was lying--though, to tell the truth, he was so convincing I wasnt entirely sure about that. Despite my reassurances, though, she was scared of dragonflies for a long time to come.
Yet, all these years later, she draws them with her characteristically joyful and quirky style.
While my sister visited us this year, from her home in Florida, she shared that she was going to do another coloring book, this one based on the Alaskan sights of our childhood.
As I watched her draw an orca (killer whale), I was suddenly reminded of the way she and I, as teens, used to draw dust jackets for imaginary books. We would draw and color a cover picture and then on the back, we'd summarize what the imaginary book was about.
These summaries were chock full of high adventure and romance. It cracks me up now, thinking about those outlandish tales. Growing up on the fringe of civilization, in the remote bush, gave us fairly extreme ideas of what "normal" life was all about.
My mom loved coloring long before the current craze for coloring books, and has perfected the art of it. We grew up watching her and wanting to be as good as she was. Her shading skills, in particular, made us despair of ever producing anything even remotely as fascinating. She'd always tell us, modestly and generously, that all it took was practice.
I've long since realized that no amount of practice will give someone the innate genius she has for capturing light, texture, and nuance with crayons, pencils, and pens. All the same, as children, we believed it and, as Megan wrote in her dedication to my mom on the first page of her coloring book, we spent many hours in our floathouse home in the wilderness lost for hours in stacks of coloring books.
My mom would play her books on tape (audible books) as we colored, exposing us to the classics. I still get images of the pages I colored when I think of those readings of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (read by Basil Rathbone) and the more typical children's fare of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London. And so many more.
It does not surprise me at all, with our many fond memories of coloring that my sister would one day create a coloring book of her own and have my mom color the pages that she'd put on the front and back of the book.
Color, in all its forms, has always been a big part of our life.
It may have slept at the bottom of the sea in a deteriorating hulk until rolled in a storm tide and set free to roam until it's tumbled and ground on a gravel or rock beach, to float again and travel to yet another shore. Its journey could last years, decades, even centuries, until finally someone strolling along a surf-washed beach catches a bit of color out of the corner of their eye and bends down to pick up a piece of worn glass.
We've always called these bits beach glass, but apparently the experts differentiate between glass found on freshwater shores and saltwater shores. The former is called beach glass, while the latter is sea glass.
The best times to look for sea glass are during spring tides and the first low tide after a storm.
Inside and outside my house I have jars, glasses, and vases filled with sea glass that I've put in my pockets after an amble along the shore. Everyone around here has their own stash. Some plan to make jewelry with their glass treasures, others just like to collect them. I know one woman who collected so much sea glass that she put it in a five gallon bucket.
The most common colors are green, brown, and white (clear). Uncommon colors are purple (amethys), citron, and opaque white. Extremely rare colors include gray, pink, teal, very dark olive green, yellow, turquoise, orange, red, and black.
Over the years, wandering remote Alaskan beaches, I've found almost all of these colors, from the common to the rare. And what I like to do is make sea glass candles with them.
Some people who make sea glass candles glue the glass to a jar. But because many of my pieces are rare, I prefer not to fix them permanently. Besides, I like a "floating" look that harkens back to where they originated. To acquire this look I put a smaller jar inside of a Mason canning jar and then fit the pieces of sea glass in between the jars.
As I assemble the candle holder I try to vary the colors and fit them as closely together as possible--it can take several tries, dumping them out and starting over. Using a pair of tweezers to maneuver the pieces of glass to different places is helpful.
Handling the glass, some of it frosted from years of journeying, others with edges barely rubbed down, I like to imagine where each piece might have come from and what it had originally been and how it acquired its color.
For instance, the uncommon purple (amethyst) sea glass was originally from clear glass that had manganese in it. The glass turns purple over time as the manganese is exposed to sunlight and sea action. This sort of glass saw its peak production during the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Red glass, extremely rare and highly prized by collectors (some consider it more valuable than diamonds), comes mainly from the Victorian to Depression years. One reason why it's considered so valuable, besides its beauty, is that the chemical process to make it is complicated and expensive so that the production of red glass has been limited in the last fifty years. Most red glass you'll find on the beach, therefore, is rare and antique.
Black glass can be even older, and was common aboard the ships of the early explorers, including Columbus. The thicker the black sea glass you find, the more likelihood that it could be from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. Black sea glass is actually a dark brown or dark green, which you can see when its held up to a strong light. Weathering and oxidation, along with UV light interacting with metallic oxides and chemicals in the glass, not to mention the effects of seawater on it, are all factors that turn the glass black. It can look like a beach rock and is easy to overlook.
So, the next time you're walking along the water's edge and see a fragment of glass, you may find yourself holding a piece of history, highly valued by collectors around the world. Or you may find a common piece that you can add to your sea glass candle holder. Whatever the case, enjoy your treasure from the sea.
The background in the above photo is a print of one of my sister's paintings. For more of her art see www.madartdesigns.com.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)