The Grand Beachcomber

Perhaps no one in the world is more revered for her beach-combing practices than Dr. Deacon Ritterbush. We sat down with her to collect as many treasures as we could from the expert simply and affectionately known as Dr. Beachcomb

Interview by Jonathan Westman
Photography by Riley Herendeen

When did you start beachcombing, and what lured you back?
I can’t remember not beachcombing. It is a family tradition. My parents were beach people, as were my grandparents and great grandparents. For generations, we have lived near big water, where we sailed, swam, fished and crabbed, saved lives as lifeguards, and beachcombed.

Tell me about your time in our neck of the woods and combing the shores of the
Chesapeake Bay.
My earliest memories are of beachcombing for sea glass with my mother on our home beach fronting Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis. This was in the early 1950s. Lots of sea glass back then. Thick, ice-blue shards that I know now were probably from old soda bottles dumped during the heyday of the bay’s resort era in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We have pictures of me as a toddler sitting in the sand with my grandmother in Florida, looking at pretty shells we’d just collected. In fourth grade, when kids started to get cliquey and mean, beachcombing became my best friend. A salve to sooth my loneliness when I was left out because I wouldn’t join in their cruel games. I’d spend weekends by myself with a picnic lunch, exploring all the beaches, from the tip of Bay Ridge crossing the inlet over to Highland Beach and back. 

What’s the most unique/interesting treasure you discovered from the Chesapeake? Do you know its history?
I had cigar boxes filled with sea glass, shells, fossils, stones. Even some arrowheads and hotel china from the old Beach Ridge on the Chesapeake Resort.

In your first book, A Beachcomber’s Odyssey: Treasures from a Collected Past, you note that many of its pages contain a “beach log” of life lessons you’ve learned while combing different beaches around the world. What’s are a few of those lessons, and where are your favorite beaches to comb across the globe? 
I have lived most of my life on peninsulas or islands near big water, shifting back and forth between the East Coast, Hawaii and islands in the South Pacific. Every place I have lived, I’ve beachcombed. Even when I travel, it’s mostly to islands or areas by water. Scotland and the Orkneys. Northeast England. Canada’s Maritimes. The Oregon Coast. Washington’s San Juan islands. Italian islands in the Mediterranean. These are favorite combing areas, which I tend to return to again and again.

Dr. Deacon Ritterbush

You’ve stated previously that beachcombing has also provided you with a spiritual means to weather life’s challenges. How so?
The only period of time I did not beachcomb was for seven months, five years ago, when I was undergoing chemo treatments for ovarian cancer and was strongly advised by my doctor to stay out of the sun. I knew if I went to the beach, I would want to beachcomb, so I avoided it. That was hard. Because beachcombing to me is breathing. An active form of meditation that puts me in the right now. This is an important space for someone like me, with ADD, to be in because it calms my mind down, grounds me and helps me focus. 

It also fills me with gratitude. True beachcombers are a happy lot, for they have learned to be pleased with whatever the beach offers up. Just wandering a shoreline, breathing in the fresh air, wandering by moving water is a gift. No matter if the weather is crummy or the beach finds scant.

Your beachcombing practices have always been regarded as highly ethical, and you’ve always taken a strong stance concerning coastal conservation issues. What wisdom can you offer our readers about the importance of beachcombing “the right way”?
Nature, our first mother, is a gift — a gift we humans far too often take for granted. But for those of us who spend significant time outside — in the mountains, the desert, the shore, the forest — and who stay attuned to natures rhythms, currents and patterns, we are repaid tenfold by the miracles she offers up on daily basis.

Beachcombing is one way to enjoy this gift of nature. And beach treasures offer an incentive that gets many people outside who ordinarily couldn’t be bothered. And why is that good? Because the more you are out in the nature, the more you tend to fall in love with her. And when you love something or someone, you want to care for it. Treat it gently. Protect it. This is perhaps why beachcombers are some of the leading coastal conservationists in the world. No consummate beachcomber would trash a beach with plastic. Instead, they pick the plastic debris up as they beachcomb. They don’t gauge cliff sides hunting for fossils. Instead, they wander the shoreline hoping fossils will wash up. They don’t kill mollusks for their shells. No shell, however beautiful,
is worth destroying the life of its owner. Our marine scene is far too threatened to randomly kill
like that.

"It also fills me with gratitude. True beachcombers are a happy lot, for they have learned to be pleased with whatever the beach offers up. Just wandering a shoreline, breathing in the fresh air, wandering by moving water is a gift. No matter if the weather is crummy or the beach finds scant."

— Dr. Deacon Ritterbush

For those new to beachcombing, what advice and/or tips would you share with them as they embark upon this hobby?
I’ll let you in on some little secrets. The first: There is no best treasure. Sea glass and exotic shells are the sirens that probably first peak people’s interest, whet their appetites and entice them to explore a beach further. But all treasures are interesting. Stone tools and ancient fossils. Sea beans and glass fishing floats that drift for decades in the great seas only to finally beach somewhere, still intact. Pottery shards, especially those with designs, have stories few shards of sea glass can compete with.

The second secret is, no, we are not running out of sea glass. Stocks are thinning in some areas because of sea-level rise (like in the mid-Atlantic region) or because some shorelines are strained to overcapacity due to their popularity. But there are tons of other beaches across the globe just waiting to be discovered. Learn to use Google maps to identify hidden beaches. Learn to research the history of coastal settlement areas, and there you may also find beach treasure.

And the third secret: There is no best beach. Yes, some are more productive than others. Thinking here Sanibel Island for shells; Sunderland, England, region for sea glass; Pacific Northwest beaches for driftwood and agates; Nova Scotia for stones; the British Thames for mudlarking; Chesapeake Bay for fossils. But really, all beaches have their own special treasures. Take time to understand why particular treasures are turning up on the beaches you always comb. That research could keep you busy for weeks. And that’s when the real fun begins.

Editor’s note:
Deacon Ritterbush is one of the world’s most respected beachcombing experts. Affectionately nicknamed Dr. Beachcomb many years ago, by a young student who forgot her name, she is also an award-winning author, lecturer, anthropologist and political economist, having worked as a sustainable development strategist for national and international agencies.

She will lecture at the International Beachcombing Conference, March 23-29, at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Center, outside of Annapolis. She will also be at The Beachcombing Center on Tilghman Island for the debut of its first exhibit, on April 3, and at the 9th Annual Eastern Shore Sea Glass and Coastal Arts Festival, at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, in St. Michaels, on April 4-5.

To learn more about Deacon Ritterbush and beachcombing, visit DrBeachcomb.com and TheBeachcombingConference.com.

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