I had headed to the beach for a walk, a swim, to soak in sunshine. I had imagined I would find perfect sand and curling waves, a white and turquoise color palette, something to photograph and enjoy. Maybe some sea shells to put in a glass jar on the coffee table. I came looking for solitude, gratitude, and inspiration, and instead I found a broken hairbrush and a pen cap. Then a mustard lid, plastic straws, rubber slippers. A mylar balloon. All around, from the shoreline to the high tide line, an array of broken plastic, scattered in all sizes and colors; the remains from a war of convenience waged against the earth.
It was not what I had envisioned, and I wanted to turn around, leave, find a different beach. Walk past this mess until I couldn’t see it anymore. I wanted to cry, or scream, but I went back to the car for a cloth grocery bag. I filled it with trash, then I found a plastic tray, the kind used for washing dishes in a commercial kitchen. I shoved handfuls of the mess onto it, using it as sieve, smaller pieces of plastic falling through the holes with the sand. I loaded some more broken pieces into my shirt, and then my hands were full but there’s still more, always. How much is enough?
Then a toothbrush, and another, just like the one I had thrown in the trash yesterday morning, then purchased new from the store. Had I canceled out some debt by picking these up? Or is this not even a dent in what I owe? I asked for help from a teenage boy to carry an aluminum freezer door up to the trash cans. He looked at me strangely, who am I to be asking him to do anything? He agreed, but first threw a golf ball into the ocean, just because.
Further down the beach was giant styrofoam wheel, equivalent to the compressed actions of a year’s worth of styrofoam take-out containers. I rolled it up the beach, up the path, left it at the top. The pile grew. Back down to the shore, there was a mass of tangled fishing line, snapped loose, tangled up with bits of wood and seeds. I picked it up, shoved it in my pocket, while out in the ocean, miles and miles of this invisible filament still floats and wraps and strangles the creatures of the sea.
I saw a mother playing with her infant son in the sand by the water, and I thought of my own daughter at preschool. What is in her future: every beach this full of trash? Will there be any beaches left? How do I explain how it got this way? What is my excuse for doing so little in the face of so much?
Surfers and families and walkers and shell collectors passed me by without a hello. I don’t know how they all simply walked through the trash. Then a lady walked by as I wondered, and sighed, then asked, Why they don’t rake the beach? I didn’t respond. She set up a beach chair and sunbathed while I returned to digging and sifting and carrying; her eyes closed to the destruction of the beach around her. She was soaking in the sun, confident that it is all someone else’s responsibility.
I want to be a good example. I try to take on some degree of responsibility of caring for the places I love. I pick up trash and I certainly don’t litter. I recycle. I write stories. How much is enough? I have been taught since I was young that world is in danger, that we must protect the environment. But global temperatures and sea levels keep rising, and there is plastic in the stomach of the ‘iwa birds, bits they saw floating and looked like fish; fish that are themselves eating microplastics as the plastic pieces disintegrate, smaller and smaller, filling the full water column, requiring a microscope to see. I am complicit. I have not devoted my life to the earth, I throw away plastic, and I buy new things — but what is one life up against 7 billion? I acknowledge the weight of all that humanity as I watch as a tiny percentage of our shared debris wash ashore.
At last, I let myself sink down into the sand and trash. I could do no more, carry no more. My back ached, I wanted to scream and cry and I had become genuinely concerned I might try to punch the next person who walks by, so I stopped. I told myself enjoy the beauty, to remind myself of why I care so fiercely. To not give in to the cascade of anger and sadness. I should have swum in the ocean to wash myself clean of all of it. Instead, I sat. I watched the surfers. I squinted my eyes until I could see a shimmer of paradise, breathed the salt air; at least there is this much, here, for now.
A scurry of movement caught my attention — a small crab. I chased it, but it was quickly lost in the chaos of bits of plastic. I tried picking away the pieces, hoping to find it again, but one of the pieces I pulled was only the tip of a larger chunk lying buried under the sand. It seems like a metaphor, but when I looked around, it didn’t look like I’d been there at all.
I took a deep breath in, let it out. Then another. I began to feel comforted by the ocean, the vastness of the sky. These things will remain, despite our best efforts at destruction. The earth is enormously adaptable, and will survive. The question remains, to be answered within this decade: will we? Do we have the ability to continue to exist, or will the ocean swallow us, plastics and all?
In a month, it’s possible most of this trash will have washed back out to sea, or someone else will come to clean it up. I could return then, visit that dream of perfect sand and curling waves. Or I could commit my whole life to making a change, buy everything only in bulk, start a farm in my backyard. Go vegan, sell my car, move to Washington DC and lobby the government for stricter regulations. Instead I came home, turned on my computer powered by the sunshine, and I began to write.
It is so little, these handfuls of words, but it is all I know how to do. That, and keep some trash bags in my car for next time.