I've been an unsuccessful amber hunter for years, always baffled by the motley shore. But this time I was determined.
My trips to Denmark are infrequent, but with a growing family there I've managed a number of walks on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Under that dark body of water is a petrified forest, a lost landscape that has been scattering its treasure – crystallized blood of trees – in the deep currents since prehistory. During storms the sea casts it ashore, where it can be found, rough and mingled with seaweed, by those who know how to look.
I don't care about the monetary value of amber. No one should whose livelihood doesn't depend on it. I can buy amber on the high street, or indeed coal – fossilized tree matter is very common. I only care about that lost forest and about connections in time and place. What I'm searching for is not an organic jewel, but a palm-full of ancient stuff, a hard-won pocket prize to warm and handle and look into, with maybe a fly trapped inside, or frozen bubbles of another world's air. But above all what I want is to find it myself, to make that personal connection. A piece of amber can be cut, polished and sold many times, but it can only be found once.
Denmark this autumn was picked out in amber colours. The window of the wood-burner, the birch leaves in the sodden forest, a candle flame seen through a chill glass of beer. Every golden flash a taunt -- a challenge to go down to the shore to try again.
But the weather was abysmal, even running to unseasonable snow, and not the nice kind either. The East wind was unstoppable and the sea boiled like a cauldron of lead. Perfect conditions for amber to be thrown ashore, but not for searching it out. Typically, I only had a light jacket and scarf with me, hardly proof against horizontal rain that felt like it came straight from Siberia (and it probably did).
I struggled down to the sea anyway, and spent an hour inclined against the gale, scanning the sand and seaweed through the spray. Somewhere nearby a grown man was foolish enough to try and fly a kite, but the scrap of blue at the end of his long line just raggled in the air, never more than a few feet off the ground. A whole family, wearing enormous padded tracksuits and muffled up to the eyes, arrived, staggered in the elements, and then hurried back to their car. It was as if the Baltic wanted to be left alone to count its treasure.
But I was having none of it. I staggered on and I blinked, and eventually I found something. A small, rough yellow-brown nugget, that even felt slightly warm to touch. Amber? Within seconds I knew.
It was just another stone.
By now it was time to leave. I couldn't stay on the edge of the world any longer. I had failed yet again. I made to throw the stone into the sea, but a glib thought came to me then. Something about every stone, even the humblest little pebble, having the potential to be polished up to bring out its best. And coming from such a place, and being immeasurably ancient itself, even my caramel-coloured imposter was a wonder in its humble way. And I was probably the first to have found it too, to have picked it out from the rest, to have looked closely at its tiny landscape. Then I remembered William Blake's grain of sand and these thoughts didn't seem so glib after all. I put the stone in my pocket and went home.
And what about the amber, that Viking fire-stone? Where was the charged sun-made miracle matter of the ancient Greeks? What of Baltic Gold? Well, it's still there. But I was having none of it.