Sand dollar found in the Pacific low tide on Gearhart beach in Oregon.

Beyond the violent surf and breaking waves of the Oregon coast is a secret sea garden. A ribbon of wine-colored creatures. Wildflower-stamped. Drifts of sand dollars sway together in peaceful silence.

Sand dollars appeared to be mere figments/fragments of my imagination. I would comb the beaches broken-hearted over the broken bits. Never – in fifty years – had I found a complete fossil.

My luck changed on March 16, 2023. As the sun was setting on my husband’s fiftieth birthday. The low tide swept out and left behind treasure on Gearhart Beach. 

The rush of delight. The little girl in me bubbled up. Un-adult-erated joy. A rare and precious feeling of wonder at this mid-century time of life. 

I happy danced for the first sand dollar. And for the second. And for the third. There was a lot of dancing. Mermaid coins were everywhere. I held up a handful and beamed. Brian said, “You’re rich!” And I did indeed feel fortune was smiling on me.

I held my new prize possessions like water in my hands. Perfect sea shells from the sea shore. Rosie was less delicate. She helped mom collect the ocean blossoms with claws and teeth. Harvesting clams may be a better fit for a dog.

Take note. Beachcombers in Oregon may take one gallon of pebbles and nonliving shells per day. Not more than three gallons in a year. Obey the rules, but also do better. Harvest with gratitude and care. Even in death, the sand dollar has a role to play as she returns to the land and sea.

The Honorable Harvest: Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need. Take only that which is given. Never take more than half. Leave some for others.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Living sand dollars are colorful shades of chestnut brown to plum red. Tiny hairlike spines cover their shells. If you find a live sand dollar don’t delay. Return her to the ocean. She cannot live on land for more than a few minutes. Thousands more may be waiting for her at sea. Up to 625 sand dollars fit in a square yard off the shores of Gearhart and Seaside.

With relentless curiosity for my bounty, I took a deep dive into sand dollar stories. I found fantastic tales of mermaid coins and the mythical Atlantis. References to ocean love letters. Religious symbolism. But the jackpot revelation? Sand dollars hold a secret. Five delicate dove-like gems hide inside.

I raced to my shell collection. Gently shook a few close to my ear. A heard the softest rattle. The doves are inside. I thought of the mural at Loch Fyne Oyster Bar in Scotland.

Nach Urramach an Cuan

How worthy of honour is the sea.

The agony though. To release the doves meant cracking open the exquisite cage that holds them. The horror of snapping the perfect flower in half. It felt like asking for bad luck. Like flushing a four-leaf clover. Still I set aside the two sand dollars with the clearest click-clack of pieces inside. 

Two hands firm. Thumbs on top. Like the motion of breaking a cookie in equal halves. The shell resisted more than I expected. Then it popped. Delight returned. White-winged jewels were now in the palm of my hand.  

As a token of appreciation, I wrote a poem-love-letter to the universe for the gift of sand dollars.

Ocean Love Letters

A heart submerged by the weight of the sea.
She grows strong.
Builds a fortress to
resist the breaking waves.
She swallows the sands of time
to stay steady in the current.
Her inner peace protected by
armor etched with a flower.
Each petal a delicate reminder.

A heart now released to the warmth of shore.
She rests.
Her color fades.
No longer tidal tossed,
her guard is down.
A knowing flutters deep inside.
To be free she must first break open.
A final test.
With a crack, illumination dawns.
The sand dollar releases her beloved secrets.
Doves take flight.

Ocean love letters – a poem for the sand dollars – by angie windheim
Writer. Photographer. Future Master Gardener. Artsy miid-life mama planting seeds for the second half.

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