If you've followed this blog for a little while, you know my family spends summer weekends in Prince William Sound, Alaska. This is our 7th season boating -- by Alaskan standards this is green -- and there is no amount of preparedness that makes me feel totally safe on the water. Last weekend, for example, we awoke at 2 am when a 22-foot KingFisher aluminum boat dragged anchor and T-boned our bow (no harm done, unless you count their ego and our good night's sleep). Not only this, but we are lousy fishermen, spending a lot more time picking up marine debris from remote beaches than catching anywhere near what one might call a limit. Last year at anchor, the silver salmon my husband reeled in off the swim step was met with much squealing, petting and naming, until it was bonked on the head. After this, the children burst into tears and refused to speak to my husband for the rest of the afternoon, still glaring at him with red-rimmed stink eyes at dinner, all hiccup-y as they scarfed heaping plates of grilled salmon. We are nurturing these soft hearts while gently redirecting their intensity because, hey, we all like eating wild salmon and recognize the importance of understanding where one's food comes from. At the same time, it's the insistent, curious heart that saves lives of all kinds.
And while it's important to know where your food comes from, it's also damned important to know where your garbage goes, because, people, it's all connected. And in the words of my wise younger sister: "You say you're throwing something away, but there is ... no ... away."
On a trip to the Grand Canyon a few months ago, we stopped for breakfast in Flagstaff, and before we'd even finished our sit-down meal, I was complaining to the manager about the 4 plastic kiddie cups with lids and straws the staff had produced (unasked for) as well as all the other wrappers and disposables that came with our non-fast-food breakfasts. While my husband squirmed and my kids thought we were about to be escorted outside, I explained our sensitivity to garbage, how completely unnecessary this waste was (FOUR straws that no one wanted?) and how we find this exact debris on our beaches in Alaska.
This, the manager's parting comment:
"I will definitely take your thoughts into consideration. Trust me, I don't like spending money on these cups and lids either, but kids always spill. And I personally GUARANTEE this trash won't end up on your Alaskan beaches! Heh, heh." (Feel free to insert the term "Little Lady" anywhere in here, adding a pat on the head, and you'd be right on tone).
Okay. First of all, teach children how to drink out of a cup, America. Cleaning up spilled water and milk is a vital part of raising small, capable humans -- right up there with wiping ass and actually speaking to one another at the table instead of staring at your electronic devices.
Secondly, Mr. Personal-Guarantee-Arizona, you have no freaking idea how far the crap on our beaches has traveled.
While the polar regions are experiencing massive shifts directly related to climate change (ever heard of a Pizzlie? How about a Grolar? If not, you should check out that link), there are other changes afoot that are unexplained. Along with finding a modest amount of trash last weekend, we discovered more seabird carcasses than we'd ever seen before. Biologists have been tracking a huge common murre die off that started this winter, and while I'm no bird expert, I can definitely identify a dead one. We easily counted 30 on one beach outside of Surprise Cove alone. Cause of death? Unknown.
I realize no one wants to see these images. I didn't either and I still don't. And I always thought the last thing I wanted to hear on a beach was my kids yelling, "More plastic!" but now I realize hearing, "Another dead bird!" is worse.
The whole point of this blog is to wrap my head around the things that inspire me, frighten me and force the living questions to the surface, which then begin to inform my work. I'm not on a soap box here, but it's easy to dismiss issues that feel incredibly far away ... I know this because I'm guilty of it, too. But if I show the world a problem that is part of my family's life, maybe small simple things will start happening, like folks might start requesting no straws. (Yes, the restaurant wait staff will look at you like you have a horn growing out of your head, but if everyone started to learn to drink out of a cup like we used to, maybe we'd all do some other things differently as well). Living in a world that so easily disposes of things, leads to the easy disposal of culture, places, wildlife and people. And while trash doesn't go "away," animals certainly do, places are and people will.
Do I dispose of things? Yes. Do we burn diesel to get to these remote beaches? Yes. I am not without conflicts of my own. But environmental conflict has partly shaped my decision to use old cloth. To purchase used clothing. To carry a dented metal water bottle. To darn wool socks. Mend holes. Gather other people's trash. These are small things, but some of my children's personal choices of the future will be made based on what they see me do now. Other choices we all take for granted may simply disappear.
I'm not looking forward to finding a strangled seal carcass, but it might be inevitable. If I thought my children's howling over the silver salmon was bad, I can only imagine the wobbly chins and before-bed discussions that will ensue based on a meaningless death, but at least they'll have seen these creatures alive in their lifetime. They've watched whales breaching, Dall's Porpoises chasing our wake, curious seals circling our anchorages, Stellar Sea Lions hauled out on rocks, black bear pawing the water's edge. They've sat in the dinghy at the mouth of streams filled with so many jostling salmon that the boat has lifted.
They have counted and petted and named all of those silvery, slippery insistent heads. They remember places based on what they've seen, picked, eaten or found. They will go forth in the world with pockets full of stories and stories and stories.
If you are curious about our Alaskan beach excursions (not all of them this rant-y, but hopefully still thought provoking), check out the following posts: