It happens in a flash: A bolt of lightning burning 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit slices through the air and hits the beach.
It pierces the ground, splintering as it lances the sand.
In an instant, no more than one second, the white-hot thunderbolt melts and fuses the sand around it and creates an object, a rock, a hardened mass of matter in the shape that the lightning took when it entered the earth.
It makes a jagged, plaster-looking cast of itself.
Granules of sand cling to these lightning rocks — geologists know them as fulgurite — giving them the appearance of a crusty, crystalline mass.
On the outside, they’re not much to look at. The exterior is a mess. Gnarled and knobby.
In fact, most people who comb Outer Banks beaches in search of treasure don’t even know what they’re seeing when they happen upon fulgurite. Just another rock embedded in the sand. A piece of coastal refuse, no better than broken driftwood, kicked aside in favor of pearly coquina clams or creamy white cockles.
And so it just lies there, untouched, partially submerged beneath the sand in Corolla and Nags Head. It is both fragile and sturdy, which is what happens when you are the product of an intensely violent act.
There’s no way to date fulgurite. Pieces of it can stay where they formed for years.
Maybe for thousands of years.
Maybe for millions of years.
And still, few people ever notice they’re there.
Phil Greene, though, notices. He sees what most people overlook. He is a fulgurite collector. He knows, in fact, that these rocks are not rocks at all, but rather petrified pieces of lightning, remnants of energy from the sky that he can scoop up and hold in his hand.
Fulgurite is damaged earth. But on the inside, the part you can’t see, it’s pristine. Smooth. Sleek and polished. Molten glass solidified.
To Greene, each piece of fulgurite is lightning sculpture.
He thinks they’re beautiful.
Phil Greene, 61, lives in a two-story, cedar-shake cottage in Nags Head with his wife, Fran, and their three dogs, Henry, Alfie, and Otis.
The couple — and their dogs — retired to Nags Head in 2005 from their home in Florida, drawn to this familiar beach town of their childhoods, its air still coated with saltwater memories of days past. As a kid growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, Greene spent his summer vacations here. He remembers browsing for hours in Newman’s Sea Shell Shop. He remembers standing in line to get into the Nags Head Casino on weekends, ready to tear up the dance floor to Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts.
Nags Head is changing.
“It liked to killed me when they tore the Casino down,” Greene says, his eyes drifting toward the window. “I’ll never get over seeing it gone.”
He believes development threatens to ruin the town he loves. Many of the old flattop houses have been demolished. He and Fran followed closely a recent controversy involving an oceanfront tract of land in Currituck County owned by the Audubon society, which wanted to sell it to developers rather than hold it in a protective easement. He is worried that a nearby building, a tropical turquoise cottage so reflective of the color and character of the laid-back beach town, will give way to an AutoZone.
“We’re dune huggers,” he says.
Before his retirement, before he moved to the beach and began collecting rocks made from lightning, Greene was an aircraft structural mechanic for the federal government in Florida. It was a job he liked. He fixed things on the ground, then he sent them back into the sky.
Once, Greene had to repair two planes: an F-18 Hornet, piloted by the Blue Angels, to get it ready for display in a museum in Pensacola; and a TBF Avenger, a World War II torpedo bomber. The Avenger was going to get a new home, in the Smithsonian, and Greene needed to put an external scab patch on it to ready it for its last voyage in the sky, a flying trip from Norfolk, Virginia, to Washington, D.C.
It was a simple repair, he says. The inner workings of the aircraft were fine, but its exterior needed mending before it could fly and before it could be displayed to the public.
Greene specialized in plasma spraying, a precise technique involving a high-temperature torch filled with a gas heated to 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit. His job was to recoat and reshape an aircraft’s surface.
Wearing dark glasses to shield him from the UV rays and protective ear gear — plasma spray is as loud as a jet engine — he’d fire up his plasma gun and blast the plane’s exterior with the molten alloy. As Greene directed the stream of plasma toward the plane’s surface, he watched as it hit the metal and, in an instant, solidified on contact. It was satisfying work, to transform something that had been damaged.
Of the four states of matter — the other three being solid, liquid, and gas — plasma is complex, a high-energy state. It can conduct electricity.
Stars exist in a plasma state.
So does lightning.
• • •
At the end of Persimmon Road, a public beach access in Corolla, Greene parks his car, a low-to-the-ground Pontiac Solstice, and heads for the beach. He doesn’t give any thought to the fact that he drives a car named for an astronomical event. He drives it because it’s a convertible, something he always wanted. He waited until retirement, and now he likes driving with the top down, knowing there’s nothing between him and the sky.
On the beach, Greene sets off like an arrow, moving with purpose, scanning the ground. He carries a blue canvas bag with the Food Lion logo draped across his shoulder. Here in Corolla, there’s a plastic bag ban, and grocery stores offer discounts for shoppers who carry their own bags. Greene — a dune hugger — has several of these bags, and he uses them to tote everything. Right now, his bag is empty.
Behind him, his shoes leave erratic, zigzag tracks in the sand as he canvasses the width of the beach. He knows that near this access point is a good spot. It takes a long time to learn an area, Greene says, but fulgurite is often found in pockets. Usually where there’s one, there are a whole lot more.
Greene first developed an interest in fulgurite collecting in the 1970s, when he lived in Florida, the lightning capital of the United States. A friend and coworker was into it and brought Greene an article from National Geographic explaining how a rock-like mass is formed when lightning strikes the beach. As Greene remembers it, the story proclaimed Fort Myers, Florida, and Corolla, North Carolina, prime hunting ground for the unusual treasure.
Interesting, Greene thought. Anybody can spot seashells. But this was something different. It gave him something to do when he came to the beach.
“I can’t just sit on a beach all day and cook,” he says. “I have to get up and do something.”
So he started looking for fulgurite. It was something to do. When he’d spot a piece, he’d pick it up and hold on to it, and turn it over and over in his hand.
And he began to notice things that few other people saw.
He started seeing shapes, the way some people see shapes in clouds.
He saw a side view of a skeleton. He saw the profile of an old man. He saw a boot. A frog. One of his favorite finds looked like a castle. Once, he saw a Concorde airplane.
“When I saw faces in them, that’s when I got excited,” he says.
Greene stops to pick up the first find of the day, a piece of fulgurite that looks like a corkscrew, evidence of the pattern the lightning took when it hit the ground. He adds it to his bag.
And then he hits pay dirt. “Found another one,” he says, bending down to scoop up a small piece of what looks like coagulated sand to deposit in his bag. He finds another. And another.
Greene picks up speed on the beach. He darts from one spot to another, skittering across the sand like a piping plover, plucking his finds from the tidal flat. His waterproof track pants cling to his legs. His Food Lion bag begins to sag on his shoulder as he picks up pieces and examines them. Some he keeps. Those go in the bag. Some he discards. “We’ll save that one for the rookies,” he says, tossing one back onto the beach. Over the years, he’s developed a more discerning eye.
“I used to get excited about the real plain-Jane ones,” he says.
Some people would argue that all fulgurite is plain-Jane.
Al Roker, the Weather Channel meteorologist, might be one of those people.
Last year, when Greene found out Roker was in the area covering a hurricane, he rushed to the beach, waited for Roker to finish his broadcast, and then approached him with his hands full of fulgurite.
Roker was not the least bit interested.
“He’s a meteorologist,” Greene says, hints of incredulousness seeping into his voice. “I mean, he makes his living studying things that come from the sky. If anyone should be interested, he should be.”
So Greene walked away that day, his pockets weighted down by lightning fragments.
“People say I’ve been looking at rocks too long,” he says. “They say, ‘That’s nothing but a plain ol’ stinking rock.’ But they don’t see what I see, I guess. It’s more than that to me.”
• • •
Henry, an energetic beagle, wants attention. He’s frisky, darting back and forth between Greene and his wife, Fran. The couple is in the middle of a massive home renovation, and they’ve moved a mattress into their living room, so they have a place to sleep. “With the dogs, we have to stay here and just live through the renovation,” Greene says. They don’t even think of boarding them.
Greene sits on the edge of the mattress and box spring. The sofa belongs to Otis, a Boston terrier who is asleep on his back, legs splayed in the air. He’s snoring loudly. Otis is 8 years old. He was rescued from a puppy mill in Florida, one of about 300 dogs who lived in deplorable conditions.
For the first six years of his life, Otis lived in a tiny box.
“We got the next to the last one to be claimed,” Greene says. “He was older, and he needed a little more care than the other, younger dogs. We’re retired. We’ve got the time.”
Henry, the beagle, is 9 ½. He was found tied to a cinder block with no food or water.
And Alfie — it’s a nickname for Alfalfa because of the way his hair sticks up — is 15 years old. He lost an eye to glaucoma. Fran bends over the chair where Alfie is curled, his nose tucked under his tail, and kisses the top of his head. Alfie turns his head to look at her with his good eye.
They see each other.
“People are so snooty sometimes when it comes to dogs,” Phil Greene says. “They have to have this breed, not that breed.
“When I was coming up, people didn’t take care of dogs the way they do now. As a child, I saw my neighbors tie up a dog. The attitude was, ‘It’s nothing but a damned ol’ stinking dog.’”
Greene never thought it was right, never got used to the sight of a dog tied up or neglected.
So he and Fran started looking for the unwanted ones.
They found that usually where there’s one, there are a whole lot more.
Over the years, they’ve rescued nine dogs, bringing each back to their home, tucking each one into their life.
Greene bends over and scratches Henry behind the ears. Henry goes crazy, tail wagging, licking the air, and Greene forgets that there’s anyone else around. All his attention is focused downward, on this happy little dog who stands barely two feet tall, moving in excited circles around his feet.
And anyone watching Henry sees that something that had been damaged is transformed.
• • •
Back on the beach, the blue Food Lion bag weighs down Greene’s shoulder as he walks the beach access road back to his car.
“I just can’t get over what a good day it was,” he says, beaming over the fulgurite windfall.
At home, he’ll add these latest pieces to his flowerbeds. His collection numbers in the 400s — he’s got about 200 pieces from Outer Banks beaches, the other half from Florida. Aside from a few pieces he keeps in the house — the Concorde, the frog — his collection stays outside, connected to the place from where it came.
From his second-floor screen porch, Greene can look out onto the landscape of his next-door neighbor, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, home to the tallest sand dune on the east coast. There is plenty of fulgurite on Jockey’s Ridge, but Greene has never collected there. He half-jokingly says that the park ranger is a snob about the beach rocks. As if he thinks the fulgurite found at Jockey’s Ridge is somehow purer, somehow more refined.
Greene is content to stick to the territory he knows, to keep searching around the edges of the beach, in the spots where people don’t linger, in the spots where litter gathers, in the spots people overlook in their hurry to reach the shoreline.
On the beach in Corolla, the redbrick Currituck lighthouse stands in the background, overlooking a wide ocean and an endless horizon. Greene has walked this beach hundreds of times, and as beautiful as he finds the setting, he rarely looks outward. He keeps his gaze focused, instead, downward, scanning the ground for something else he thinks is beautiful, something that no one else notices, something that he can take home and call his own.