All of the amber in the world was born from wounds. Ancient trees, of species now extinct, produced antiseptic resin to heal gashes in their bark. Certain resins, under heat and pressure and vast amounts of time, fossilised rather than decaying as organic matter should. Tens of millions of years after they first bled from their trees, individual drops or lumps washed ashore or peeked from the soil as amber. Luminous in the cold, remindful of honey and sunshine, there was nobody around to inflict symbolism on them.
Amber exists in geological time. It was unaffected by hundreds of millions of years of evolutions and mass extinctions, rising and sinking tides of death and life. A meteor strike killed the dinosaurs. Mammals evolved, then hominids, and finally modern humans. We fanned out all over the earth, killed our cousins the Neanderthals and our predators the megafauna, developed cultures and languages and arts. Finally, about 13,000 years ago, someone in Northern Europe became the first to pick up a lump of amber and really think about it.
There was a lot to think about. People in Europe and Asia spent centuries trying to make sense of this liminal semi-jewel. It came from the sea, but when burned it smelled like pine trees. It came from underground, but seemed to glow with inner sunlight. One Chinese theory held that amber was formed from the tears of dying tigers. Lithuanian folklore said it was the tears of the sea goddess Jurate, shed for her murdered human lover. It wasn’t alive, but it wasn’t cold like stone or metal, either. Rubbing it awakened an invisible force that attracted small items like threads or pieces of straw. Most mysteriously, pieces of amber often contained once-living insects, forever intact, immune from decay.
In Book Two of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Apollo the Sun God rashly promises his son Phaethon anything he wants. What Phaethon wants is to pretend he’s Apollo for the day, and drive the gold-and-silver chariot of the Sun across the sky. Apollo tries to talk him out of it, knowing his son doesn’t have the skill or the strength for such a dangerous ride, but Phaethon insists. He quickly regrets it. Apollo’s four fire-breathing horses run wild with their fiery cargo, leaping so high that the stars overheat, then diving down close to the earth. The clouds boil, snowcaps melt, rivers and lakes evaporate. Libya becomes a desert. The hot ground cracks, people are scorched, swans and seals die. Finally, Earth raises her voice and complains to the gods:
Look at my scorched hair and the ashes in my eyes, the ashes over my face! Is this the honour and reward you give me for my fruitfulness and service, for carrying wounds from the curved plough and the hoe, for being worked throughout the year, providing herbage and tender grazing for the flocks, produce for the human race and incense to minister to you gods? 
Human ingenuity found an incredible array of uses for amber; not understanding something has rarely prevented us from using it. It was harvested from the sea by Germanic tribes, who used it to light fires, and crafted into exquisite jewellery by cultures that fancied themselves too civilised to burn treasure. Prehistoric Europeans traded it along a route that leads from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, which is how Baltic amber made it to Greece, Rome, Syria, Egypt, Mongolia. Amber was crafted into ceremonial vessels and amulets and incense and medicine and prayer beads and pipe stems and spindles that attracted the wool like magic.
Both lifelike and not, amber moved easily between the worlds of the living and the dead. It was raised to the surface by human hands, worked and then reburied, sometimes ritually, sometimes by chance. Grave goods tell us who was rich and what they valued, and they hint at the affection, or fear, or duty, that led the living to bury treasure with the dead. Amber beads lay for thousands of years in Bronze Age graves in Ireland, on Tutankhamun’s funerary breastplate, in the medieval-era joint tomb of Qindan Princess Chen and her consort. Within a house smothered under volcanic ash in Pompeii, archaeologists recently found ten skeletons and a hidden trove of magical amulets and amber charms.
In 1701, work began on a baroque chamber intended for Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. The walls were encrusted with amber, carved into elaborate panels and backed with gold leaf and mirrors. In 1716 the completed Amber Room was gifted to Peter the Great of Russia, and in 1755 it was moved again from St Petersburg to Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. With each move the Amber Room grew larger, until it contained over six tonnes of amber in 350 different shades. By candlelight, the walls would have glowed like hot embers.
Earth continues her complaint:
Look around you on either side: both the poles are steaming! If the fire should melt them, your own palace will fall! Atlas himself is suffering, and can barely hold up the white-hot sky on his shoulders! If the sea and the land and the kingdom of the heavens are destroyed, we are lost in ancient chaos! Save whatever is left from the flames, and think of our common interest!
Earth is right. So Jupiter hurls a lightning bolt at the runaway chariot, destroying it, and Phaethon, his hair afire, falls to earth like a shooting star. Nymphs bury his smoking body on the riverbank where he landed. His seven grieving sisters, the Heliads, cry at his tomb until they turn into poplar trees:
Their tears still flow, and hardened by the sun, fall as amber from the virgin branches, to be taken by the bright river and sent onwards to adorn Roman brides.
The New Zealand equivalent of amber is unromantically named kauri gum in English, and kāpia in Māori. Kāpia begins its life-that-isn’t-life as resin produced by the kauri, an exceedingly tall and straight tree that can survive for millennia if it’s fortunate enough not to meet fire, disease or humans. Its resin coheres into kāpia after around 100,000 years, and continues to harden over millions of years until it becomes true amber.
To pre-colonial Māori, kāpia was useful, but not especially valuable. A flaming piece of gum could be transported in a pumice bowl as a natural torch or firelighter. Its black soot was made into the tattoo ink for moko. When softened in water and mixed with the milk of the puha plant, it could be used like chewing gum. European settlers saw its value in equally prosaic terms. Kauri gum was hacked from the ground and converted into cans of varnish, which in turn were traded for pounds and pence. In less than a century, there was none left. Its parent trees were felled in enormous numbers, to be turned into ships’ masts and floorboards.
We have been warned, again and again, that the earth cannot sustain our minor thrill seeking. Now she’s speaking the language of heat and disorder, threatening our herbage and our flocks and our gods. We seem to have traded all of our taonga for floorboards and tins of varnish and plastic straws and shopping bags. Shouldn’t we at least have held out for a better deal, an amber room in every home, a set of bridal jewellery for every girl, a chariot ride through the skies for every boy?
The Amber Room was worth $142 million or maybe $500 million in 1941, when Nazis removed the entire room and transported it to Königsberg Castle. It disappeared in 1944, destroyed by Allied bombs or buried in a silver mine or a collapsed bunker or submerged in a lagoon or walled up in a tunnel or scuppered on a ship or hidden behind a false wall in a Polish castle or sold on the black market or taken apart for souvenirs. Or, it was burned in a misguided act of revenge by Soviet soldiers as they took the city of Kaliningrad. Amber burns beautifully, and not just metaphorically. It would have smelled divine.
There’s a word in Māori, taonga, and it’s usually translated as treasure. You can tell because of how pleasurable it feels on the tongue when you say it. Taonga. It feels like a mouthful of gold. But unlike treasure, taonga can be intangible or natural. Some taonga are abstract. Like a song, or a forest, or knowing that the world will continue beyond your lifetime, and will support your children, and their children, too.
This is still an essay about amber.
In 2015, a piece of amber mined in northern Myanmar ‘roughly the size and shape of a dried apricot was purchased from an amber market by a paleontologist. Inside the apricot was a gorgeously preserved 99-million-year-old dinosaur tail. It’s about three centimetres long, chestnut brown with a white underside, and within the solid amber its feathers appear to fan out gently as though being puffed by a breeze. Photographed in close-up, it looks as soft and as touchable as a kitten’s tail.
About 65% of the modern world’s amber comes from one vast and hideous open cast mine in Yantarny, Russia. It lies in Kaliningrad Oblast, the same administrative region where the Amber Room was last seen. In January 1945, Nazis massacred 3,000 Jewish women at Yantarny, forcing them into the freezing winter sea in small groups and shooting them with machine guns from the beach. The original plan had been to bury them alive in a tunnel at the amber mine.
I can’t stop wondering what is wrong with us.
This is still an essay about amber.
The Greek name for amber, elektron, shares a root with a word that means beaming sunshine. It later lent its name to electricity, which shares its mysterious attractive qualities. The word elektron is like a handshake between ancient and modern people, between the mesolithic and the anthropocene. Amber itself is a reminder from the earth that humans are small and time is large and nature has many ways of healing its wounds. Tell all the stories you want, she yawns. It’s all the same to me.
 Translation by A.S. Klein, 2000