On March 24, 1989, the super tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef -- a charted location in well-traversed Alaskan waters, a known marine hazard -- spilling nearly 11,000 gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Accounts list wildlife fatalities as high as this: 580,000 sea birds, 5,500 sea otters, 200 harbor seals and 22 orca whales. Fishing families lost their livelihoods, many marriages didn't survive this environmental, financial and community devastation. Think about the long term effects of that last part.
At the time, I was about to graduate from high school thousands of miles away, on the cusp of my own self-centered life, with television images shaping the memory of this thing I never experienced. 6 months later, I would meet my husband. 28 years later, we are bringing our children to this place. Still wild. Still seemingly pristine. But probably a shadow of what it once was. We are not a part of that collective memory. Our experience is in its infancy, this, only our 8th season on these waters.
We have been cleaning beaches for 4 of those seasons. 2 adults, 2 kids (sometimes a few friends), a couple of double kayaks or a dingy, and a roll of contractor-weight trash bags ready for unfurling, snapping and often re-use. We've found everything from rubber gloves to Happy Meal toys, rusted wheels to cargo nets to balloons and syringes, and more exploding styrofoam buried in moss and seaweed than I care to recount.
We've also found dead animals.
We clean up trash because it's there and because we see it. Does it make a difference? Not really. This year was our season to leave much of it behind -- our shore vessels too small to safely transport large objects back to our boat. Our boat too small or too full to safely haul objects back to the Whittier harbor for recycling or disposal.
This area (above) used to be a neatly stacked detritus pile above the high tide line on the east coast of Perry Island (outside of Day Care Bay), but it's a jumble this summer -- animals, weather and perhaps other well-meaning beach goers to blame. Despite the sprawl, much of it is bagged and contained, waiting for pick up...but we don't know who intends to do this work, where the money or man/woman/kid power will come from. We've watched it grow for 3 seasons. We remove what we can, when we can.
At other locations this summer, we've been the ones to haul and stack items above the high tide line. These are hiked-to beaches, reached through bog and mosquito forest, spilling onto rocky shores or weather/tidal conditions too unsafe to land a dingy or kayak -- a description that fits so much of Alaska's 6,640 miles of coastline. We've left bright markers (like that green plastic container), but don't know who to share them with or who will see them.
We tell ourselves we'll go back for retrieval. When it's safe. When there are more of us, or better, less of us on the boat.
We've found human forms. Mythical and unreal.
We've found evidence of celebration. And fragile, intact reasons to celebrate.
I've read that the spilled oil is still there, black sludge just a few inches below the surface on various gravel beaches. Of course it is. It has to be. I haven't dug for it, but sometimes I'm convinced I smell it.
But how do you distinguish one smell when low tide is such a combination of the beautiful and terrible?
30 years from now, this place will have changed again. My children will return, or not, but theirs will be the voice of recollection -- so much louder and insistent than my own. They will describe salmon streams filled with enough wriggling bodies to bump and lift their kayaks, family hikes with so many piles of bear scat and obstacles back to the boat that by the time we return, it takes an hour for the hair on the backs of our necks to settle. They see more animals in one morning out here, than some children see in a year or more. Their earnest childhood conversations are peppered with words like "juvenile," "sign," "habitat," "species," "identification." I was still breast feeding Astrid when we began the first tentative journeys into Prince William Sound. Our children are now 11 and almost 9.
Their perception of abundance moves forward from this point in time. It breaks my heart to know they will recognize a difference some day.
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To view a NOAA timeline chart for post-spill recovering species and habitats, click here.
We aren't alone in this endeavor, here or elsewhere. There are a number of other people all over the world who also clean beaches. I follow some of them on Instagram. They are a mixture of scientists, biologists, wandering gypsy souls and artists:
@kittiekipper -- Ghostnet Goods
@joannaatherton -- UK coastline
@kellyalance -- Central California coast
@balloons_blow -- BalloonsBlow.org
To read more about our family commitment to clean beaches, check out the blog sidebar category
Beach Work, then scroll past this post, which will show up at the top.
One year ago on this blog:
Two years ago on this blog:
Anyone who has followed this blog for a while -- especially in the summers -- knows my family cleans beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. We don't do this in an organized manner. We aren't part of a fleet, or a crew. It's just the four of us and a 29' Ranger Tug, sorting what we can and hauling it back to shore to recycle or chuck. We've messed up the trash count data on monitoring beaches (sorry guys, the sites weren't marked, but we're eager to help in a way that's more beneficial to all parties) and we've annoyed weekend fisherman by adding jetsam to the the dumpsters in Whittier (maybe you could break down your beer boxes and haul empty cans back to Anchorage instead of getting pissed off at a couple of kids and a mom dragging 50+ lbs of net ... also, we got permission from the Harbor Master a long time ago).
So, because of this connection to remote Alaskan beaches/fragile northern ecosystems and their proximity to the North Pacific Gyre, we rarely hit a beach without a trash bag. Even a warm beach.
We spent spring break on the east side of Kauai where we found plastic every time we walked our little swath of beach, plus a few people mildly surprised someone was cleaning it up. Some visitors remarked they hadn't even noticed any trash, and others assumed we would leave our sorted assemblages behind to wash out to sea. Some strode toward us with authority, maybe to tell us not to collect the local coral or shells, but then sheepishly changed direction and averted eyes when they realized we fisted handfuls of plastic.
Don't get me wrong, this was a lovely clean beach. But we found we could perform this ritual every morning, on the same 50-foot stretch, and not run out of material. A sifter would have been helpful.
Among micro plastics, we found 6 golf balls, a tee, a pencil, the brim of a visor and the laundry basket.
We found 32 pieces of plastic tubing, all cut to the same dimensions, in black, grey and green.
We found a pair of men's size 13 tennis shoes near the hauled out monk seal.
We found red bits from gasoline jugs, pink from toys, a mess from styrofoam and rarity in purple.
We found the objects of work and domesticity and excess, objects of hard use and of uselessness.
We found a frying pan, handsome locals and half a green plastic easter egg.
We found other, more beautiful things people left on the beach.
We found handles of razors and toothbrushes, worn to fine picks. We found that not all beach glass is created equal and despite the million times I've asked my son not to, he still fills his pockets with hazards.
We found that my son will always build. My daughter will always embellish.
We found folks poking through sand, looking for kahelelani or Pupu O Ni'ihau -- tiny shells barely bigger than the ball-head of a pin -- which, when strung with monofilament line, are used to make fantastic jewelry. After tales of a necklace allegedly priced at $50,000, my family began looking as well, and now have a sandy ziplock bag with 5 or 10 kahelelani and grandiose plans that far outweigh such a meager haul. But we further understand the worth and importance of such an historic and culturally based undertaking.
We found that a $15 Hawaiian print dress can make a girl forget her sunburn and her sullen brother and their clashing ideas about the built form.
We found new ways to be brave.
And found that a begged-for $4 reef chart might turn out to be the catalyst for a lifetime of self motivation and discovery.
We found that the quest for perfection might eventually make a person sick.
We found that a few days away was enough for some of us to forget the North's pale rhythm, when one morning I commented I didn't think the kids had ever watched the sun actually pop up. My daughter looked at me, insulted, and said, "Of course I've seen the sun rise. I watch it rise over the mountains every morning on the way to school or from my classroom window."
I also found that I wasn't motivated to work much.
If you ever feel a call to arms you could always get in touch with a formal beach clean up crew in your area or in places you visit in the future. Surfrider has several chapters and one on Kauai (not in Alaska). Unfortunately, we missed one of their beach clean up events by a few days. There are other efforts, other organizations.
You could also follow the Meissner Beach Rule: "5 pieces of trash, NOW, everybody....here's the bag...now 5 more..." Be safe and watch for needles and broken glass. Also, don't touch the capped plastic bottles half filled with amber liquid unless you're wearing gloves.
For other posts on cleaning beaches, follow the sidebar category Beach Work and scroll past this post, which will show up there now, too.
Lastly, there are other things to do in Hawaii besides clean beaches. For a Top 100 List, you could check out what the folks at Your RV Lifestyle put together. We don't have an RV in Alaska, but I grew up with one. Our boat feels like one sometimes, but that's only because it's the only time our kids get to eat marshmallows and the kitchen table becomes a bed. Good stuff.
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One year ago: The 9th boxes of mystery.
Two years ago: The shortlist.
I've lived in Alaska for 16 years, almost half that time with children. I know how this place has shaped me, but I have no life comparison for them. The North is all they've ever known.
Earlier this summer, I got it in my head that my daughter and I needed to slog through some workbooks to bolster her reading and writing skills. One of the first worksheets -- a "which-one-of-these-items-doesn't-belong-in-this-list" affair -- featured an illustration of a bear rolling out his sleeping bag at the top of the page. A wilderness theme, logically.
So, which item doesn't belong?
fire, candle, radio, flashlight.
She chose "candle."
According to the test creators, my daughter's answer to question #1 would've been wrong.
But her logic was this: "I'd need the fire to stay warm, the flashlight to see in the dark, and the radio so I could call for help."
Ah yes. That kind of radio.
Hers was the answer that would keep her -- maybe even us -- alive.
This morning we hiked a mile downhill to a beached humpback whale lodged at the edge of Kincaid Park in Anchorage. I've written about finding things on beaches before, mostly in Prince William Sound and sometimes elsewhere, but we didn't stumble upon this morning's find; we traveled to the whale with intention.
My son, age 10, had a theory as to why the whale's side had split open, spilling guts into the silt.
"It's probably all the gases expanding. Like that one time when you put the red lid on the sourdough batter and it blew right off."
Their filter for the world is connected to their sense of place.
You are probably wondering what kind of olfactory experience that whale was, and the four of us can say, for the rest of our lives, with authority: "Smells like a long dead whale." Now we know.
There are times when I ask myself why we would ever choose to live here. Why, as an architect and an artist, my husband and I aren't willing to return to an urban hub, to a different kind of exposure or set of opportunities in some other place, one not so remote.
I wonder, why at one time we turned our backs on just such a place and walked so far away.
Without the naivety of the first lesson -- the false assuredness, the bumbling, the sliding -- the second lessons are different. After you've learned from something, you'll never experience it the same way twice.
Maybe the deeper lesson is knowing you don't want to.
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:
"(...) A 'romance with the fragment' begins when our childhood pockets fill with relics from the natural world -- in this case, objects found on the shores of Prince William Sound, Alaska -- and later, as adults, when we fill our most vacant spaces with the weight of the spiritual or the worry of the inevitable. The body is the ultimate reliquary for pain and loss; we are shaped and defined by what we cling to despite its apparent worthlessness."
A year ago, I finished "Reliquary #8: Scroll," which is currently exhibited at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center as part of the All-Alaska Biennial where it received a Juror's Merit Award. It has lived a short, full life as part of the Reliquary Series -- an on-going exploration of form, found object and reverence for the discarded.
The piece took 67.75 hours to complete, not including the work on the old metal dock bollards, which I took up again this fall, concerned about rust bloom and corrosive contact with fragile fabrics. When polishing by hand proved thankless, I burned through fine wire grinders, then white felt polishing wheels now permeated with rusty froth and beeswax.
These objects now have the luster and heft of cast bronze. The weight of hours. I love them.
Like the other components of this work, they were found in a heap, in some sense rescued.
In another sense, simply seen and considered and pocketed.
Artists submitting to the All-Alaska Biennial were asked to explore the theme of "the authentic North, its people, materials and landscapes, through a variety of interpretations." And while there could be a literalness to this -- all glaciers and arctic foxes and and the sharp sheen of ice -- I feel like I've been in Alaska long enough to present my own authentic relationship to this place.
I feel closest to it in Prince William Sound.
Picking up trash.
To be clear, I don't use garbage in my artwork, but I use the time handling and hauling it to observe and collect my thoughts on how I fit into this vastness, this depth and solitude, this never-ending work my young family has taken up, not because we are paid or want recognition, but because we love this place and its wildlife.
In our bumbling earnestness, we have been known to foul debris collection data on certain documented (yet, unmarked) beaches. That's been embarrassing to learn, but not enough of an excuse to stop.
We are just one small boat with children and some trash bags.
Besides, to stop this kind of work is to force oneself to stop seeing. Once your eyes are open to the potential of a thing or a place, how do you close them again?
I've been thrilled to see this piece, my thoughts, going out into the world.
And since the work doesn't look like much coiled in a cardboard box, I owe a lot of its showmanship to the willingness of my photographer, Brian Adams, who foremost shoots blow-your-mind contemporary portraits of people and place, not objects. But it's probably for this reason he's able to capture the soul of some thing.
In some place.
For as remote as I sometimes feel, it's this exact quality that grants me clarity.
I've been in Alaska 15 years, the longest I've lived anywhere.
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If you are curious about the work we sometimes do on Alaskan beaches, check out the post What we found, 2 and for work on other, warmer, beaches, there's always the first What we found post.
And, if you wonder about the impetus and/or influences behind my work, please visit the Histories category in the side bar where I share stories and process images.
The All-Alaska Biennial is on exhibit in Anchorage until April 10, 2016.
That Anchorage Press Article is here. Dawnell Smith is a talented writer and a good friend.
You can follow me on Instagram: @amymeissnerartist or on my Facebook Page Amy Meissner, Artist
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.