I went harvesting.
Harvesting beach plastic.
Not a bad job. In fact if you had to write yourself the perfect, anything goes, job description wouldn’t it go something like this?
“I’d like to work on a beach. A perfect soft, pink sand beach somewhere in the Caribbean, but Hawaii or Tahiti would be fine too. This would be a quiet beach, one untouched by development. The water would be perfect shades of turquoise, going from pale to dark, and long waves roll in from the reefs a few miles off the coast. They crash at my feet, their sounds become like my heart beat, regular and reassuring. A light wind blows off the water, carrying a salty smell that sticks in my nostrils, still there later when I lie in bed listening to the frogs singing in the hurricane shutters. I will sleep well, because I’ve been outside all day with the sun on my back, bent over, scanning for material in the sand at the water’s edge, the ridge further up the beach caused by waves from hurricane Igor a few weeks ago, then I look along the dune, and between the dune’s grasses. My professional dress code is a bikini and a hat, even on casual Fridays. Sunscreen is my only mandatory regulation. Occasionally, when I get too warm or just when I feel like it, I wade into a particularily pretty pool and float, the waves rocking me like I was back in my mother’s womb. Curious fish surround me, a barracuda comes at me fast, but then veers away, just letting me know that he’s keeping his eyes on me. I look at the island from the water, the curve of the cove, the palm trees and casuarina’s, the cliffs, the occasional vacation home painted pink or yellow or green. Maybe my office is in one of those cottages….”
A few years ago, when I first walked the beaches of Eleuthera I became mesmerized by the bits of colorful beach plastic along the surf line, scattered and stuck in the sand. I now wonder if, at that point (I certainly wasn’t thinking job description), fate took my hand and softly whispered, here, look down, these colored bits should not be there, they are pernicious, like poison, but you can do something, this pollution may be a future for you, a place where all you have learned and who you are can come together with creativity and purpose…
I listened and every day since then I have used towards repurposing more and more beach plastic.
But like in a romantic dream, reality has turned that corner where the above idyllic job description foreshadows a nightmare.
The melancholy I feel when I take my first steps in the sand this time, is not just the melancholy of my memories.
(Why can memories be so melancholy? A longing for our family time spent here, when the girls were too young to worry about what they might be missing, like Facebook, friends, and other artificial stimulation?)
It’s not just me, there’s melancholy in the air. I can feel it all over the island. Tourist season doesn’t start for another six weeks and there is hardly a car on the road. The small shops are deserted, their shelves half-empty. The locals ask me about the American economy.
” No jobs man, when America sneezes we catch a cold,” they tell me.
Sneezing as metaphor feels too exuberant to me, what they mean is that when America holds its breath in fear, they suffocate. But I don’t say this. I just nod and tell them I know what they mean. Times are hard everywhere, I say, but don’t tell them that maybe our golden age is gone forever.
My melancholy takes a turn towards despair, when I reach my favorite beach. The three mile long curving stretch of pink sand looks raw, windswept, covered in seaweed and caught in this seaweed is garbage. Plastic bottles, toothbrushes, crates, detergent containers, tops, cups, plates, knives, forks, spoons, barrettes, combs, beads, single sneakers, flip-flops and shoes in every size, pots, cones, hinges, signs, and I wonder, while the ancient Greeks, Romans, Incas, Indians, left us musea full of ancient pottery, jewelry and tools, will this legacy of our plastic culture, ever be displayed and admired in musea of the future?
I peel off my backpack, spread my towel and sit down. I’m surrounded by plastic. I pick what I can reach and make a pile. I feel like I’m on the edge, one step away from overwhelmed. Is it too late? Have we lost control? The way I felt when watching the BP oil spilling uncontrolled. I teeter on giving up. Whatever I do, however much of this I pick up, clean up, sort and take home, it won’t make any difference.
Still I get up.
Still I pick up.
Red. Blue. Green. Yellow. White. Black. Grey. Pink. Orange. Funny, there’s never much purple.
Within an hour I have three bags full. I’m only half way along the beach when I run into Bob and Kathy.
“Not enough plastic here for 900 tees, hey?” Bob jokes.
I’m disoriented, like I came out of deep meditation too fast. What does he mean?
“You should have seen it just after Igor,” he says, “Its all been swept away now!”
“I don’t want to know,” I say. “There’s plenty here.”
Sometimes I find messages in the plastic:
Ironic ones to make me laugh…
Encouraging ones to keep me going…
One that reminds me to check my messages…
One to make sure I will fly home…
I spent two full eight-hour days on the beaches.
I gathered plenty but I wonder, how much is enough for 900 tees?
When I get back to my house on the cliff I sort it and clean off the sand, seaweed and algae by putting the beach plastic in a colander and using the hose of the outdoor shower.
Then I let it dry in the sun.
I’m alone with my harvest.
It looks pretty all laid out by color.
I’m no longer sad.
I feel at home and I’m happy….
for more of my beach plastic work over the past few years: