This is our sixth year of boating in Prince William Sound, Alaska. For my youngest, this is all she's ever known. My son's Scandinavian name, Pelle, is our variation on the word "pelagic."
We are terrible fishermen and never catch a thing.
But we've found some things.
We found that when an eight-year-old boy stands at the terminus of a glacial stream surveying the styrofoam situation and tells you his "heart is breaking for all the animals," you'd better believe him.
And you'd better rise to the occasion -- as an adult with an industrial grade Hefty sack -- to help him do something about it.
Even though you didn't make that mess,
even though it isn't fair that you're cleaning it up,
we've found that somebody still needs to do the work.
And small hands count.
We found the insurmountable,
and reluctantly agreed to abandon it for someone else.
And found that there would be another seemingly insurmountable task yet to come,
and that the bigger stronger person was in fact, in our midst.
We found consensus in the term "seal killer"
and "poison meal."
And we're all in agreement that the styrofoam packing peanut is the worst thing ever invented. Ever.
Some of us sought and found risk,
We found new things, dammit, that we now have to be afraid of finding,
and things that weren't so interesting before, but suddenly are now.
We found that one could speculate all day,
but in the end,
it's best to just believe in the presence of fairies
and in aliens who need to be obliterated by laser beams.
We found that we can leave a place better than the way we discovered it.
And if we pour enough of our hearts into something, the most humble of gifts will feel like a great reward.
On this particular weekend, we hauled nearly 400 pounds of net, rope, garbage and beach-sorted recycling out of the Sound. If we did this every weekend for our entire lives, it still wouldn't make a dent in the thousands of miles of exposed Alaskan shoreline ... much of it remote and inaccessible. And it keeps coming -- the Pacific Gyre keeps spitting debris our way, Tsunami detritus is slowly entering these waters. But the thing that is changing is the way my children see the world -- I hear them screaming up and down the beach and into the shoreline woods: "Mama! Wait till you see what I FOUND!"
They are lookers, seekers, doers. Askers of the painful questions.
The living questions, like, "Wait ... don't we burn diesel to get out here?"
Crap. Yes, yes we do.
And while I don't have the solution to the larger problem, I do have a garbage sack ready for the one right in front of us.
* * *
I'm just going to preface this by saying: My Family Cleans Beaches. We do this in Alaska, but the Meissner Rule for enjoying any beach anywhere is "5 Pieces of Trash. Everybody."
We don't do this because we are better than other people. We don't do this because we're out to save the world. We do this because we love animals and hate the fact that they unknowingly and unfairly ingest plastics and die. We do this because we returned three times to an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum last year (Gyre: The Plastic Ocean) and it was a call to arms for our insistent otter-seal-whale-shore-bird-loving children. We do this because we are treasure hunters at heart and feel that if we can instill some sense of beauty and fairness in our children it will serve them well, because, frankly, all our children and our children's children and our children's children's children are destined to clean beaches forever.
If the act is ingrained in their bodies, in their will, maybe the living question will grow as they grow, until one of them/some of them/all of them finally demand the right answers or solve the right problems. Someday.
Also, I will come clean right now and admit that we are staying at a resort.
(insert sad trumpet sound here, or mariachi band, your choice)
And here's where I could also insert a squirmy excuse. Something about needing a break from Alaska and having the ability to tap into my husband's 75-Zillion-K-MVP-Gold-and-Ruby-Studded-Air-Mile status; then over-describe the deep fatigue involved in accumulating this kind of mileage and his migraine that never subsides; then explain even further how we nearly cancelled this muy bueno trip multiple times with finger hovering over the keyboard in that forget-it-forget-it-forget-it-just-forget-it kind of way ... but ...
I am aware/feeling guilty/feeling conflicted/feeling malo that this choice makes us part of The Problem.
Cleaning a Mexican beach is penance.
And on it we found:
- enough plastic utensils to feed everyone at the Last Supper.
- and enough straws for everyone there to enjoy two mojitos each.
- and enough bits of powdery degraded clamshell take-out containers as proof everyone must have had severe indigestion.
- and a pink plastic princess teeth flosser, for after dinner sharing.
- enough footwear to shoe a family of 6, one left foot at a time, including a very teeny pink Birkenstock baby sandal that set some Grandma back at least $50, a kid's black Croc, and an extremely large black sequined flip flop, like, perfect for a 6'4" drag queen. (Damn if her sweet waxed and manicured toes aren't missing this right about now).
- 50 + plastic bottle caps.
- 20 + straws
- 30 + plastic soda/water bottles (Do NOT, and I can't repeat this enough, DO NOT touch the capped bottles half filled with amber liquid. That's either chew spit or fisherman pee. I'm telling you, just leave it there).
- a syringe, no needle (Everyone! Flip flops back on!)
- 5 glass bottles (Again! Everyone! Flip flops back on!)
- another momentarily frightening-how-do-I-explain-this-freakish-anatomically-err-correct thing:
Pelle: Hey Mom, look what I found on the beach!"
-that people ignored the trash at their sunbathing feet.
-ignored that they were swimming in it.
-ignored that they were walking by it.
-ignored the family cleaning up the trash, except one lady:
One Lady: "Oh Mah Gawd, are y'all cleanin' up the beach? Look honey, they're cleanin' up the beach! That's so nice!" Thank y'all for doin' that! Have fun!
- travel sized deodorants, shampoos, lotion bottles, jugs.
- a rusted barrel with sealed lid (not for touching).
- the coveted Lego piece, in "Patina Blue," discovered only once before, 6,000 miles away. In "Patina Yellow."
- that the teeny rip-stop nylon bags we started out with on the first day were full after 14 minutes and required an upgrade to in-suite trash bag.
- that the sun is so intense that most plastics erupted into brittle shards the moment we disturbed them and that this made us feel like we were making The Problem worse.
- that biting ants live in crunchy seaweed.
- that when we did the math, if each person back there came out and followed the Meissner "5 Pieces of Trash. Everybody." Rule ... it still wouldn't make a difference.
- that no matter how beautiful something is on the outside, there is always an icky underbelly.
- and that no matter how ugly something is on the outside, it still contains moments of perfection.
"The eye has to travel."
The eye has to travel,
in order to observe how best to hold the things we love,
much the way nature does.
The eye has to travel,
in order to consider the wayward journey of things not of one's land.
Not to judge,
but to remember that there are forces more enormous, more powerful and further beyond our control than the minor acts of what are first assumed to be irresponsibility.
And to also remember that we are all guilty of these accumulations,
these small, yet mindless acts of discarding.
The eye has to travel, inward, in order to solve the challenge of preserving the things we love.
Not because of some need for nostalgia. Or sentimentality.
But because these objects deserve reverence.
The things we find deserve to be held.
Even if for a short time.
Even if they are ugly.
Even if the task involved with some of them feels insurmountable.
Because it is through this act of holding
that we learn and teach and discover
the most basic lessons of responsibility.
I spent 2 hours crawling around a beach on Applegate Island in Prince William Sound on Saturday, filling a Ziplock bag with Finger Stones -- finger-shaped, finger-sized, smooth-on-all-sides and not wedge-shaped or too heavy otherwise you can't do this:
I first found Finger Stones last summer and knew they were something special: Why are they nearly all the same size? Why only in this tidal zone? Why can't I stop picking these up? Why is everyone calling me back to the dinghy and I'm not coming? I loaded my pockets without a plan (other than The Must Have Plan) and I'm sure my husband had flashbacks of 1970's summer camp rocks with googly eyes when I first organized and admired them like my own little battalion back on the boat. ("And you're doing what with all these?") Later combined with felted wool they created this heavy, bendy, spine-like fabulousness that feels primal and raw. Applied as a surface treatment, they take on a shamanic, bone-like heft.
I keep returning to bone and spine forms in my work because they feel important. (Here's where anyone who knows me -- even remotely -- is thinking, "Oh no, she's going to start talking about her one-time 12 mm herniated disk on L5 again ... go now, run!" But I'm not mentioning it here because that would be boring). So no. You won't hear about my pain, but my work does explore pain. And this is partly the impetus. It's really personal. But isn't that the point? Because if you aren't creating art that is personal then it's Plop. You've seen it -- plopped -- no sense of place, no sense of space, no sense of self or the human condition. But if you can create art that pulls from the inner thread and binds it to the loose ends of others' lives, then you will move people. If you can, in this case, distill pain -- physical, emotional -- and create something beautiful, then people see elements of themselves in the work, whether or not they understand why right away, or ever. There's just that something that makes one want to know more, or look more, or ask why, or listen harder, or be disturbed, and ultimately remember.
Or just be distracted for a whole 2 hours. By rocks.
Which is why I didn't react immediately when my daughter slipped and fell into an enormous tide pool and started crying (then made me pinky promise not to tell her dad and brother. "They won't even notice, honey," I said, emptying her boot and wringing out her shirt). I couldn't react. Because I was the mom who'd been crawling around on a stony beach all afternoon and was now FROZEN in that position (see comment about L5) with a splitting bag of rocks and a screaming kid somewhere behind me. There was that grimacing moment of: "Use. Your. Core. Have. To. Stand. Up." But then there was the other luxury, the moment of beauty staring at the ground and practicing what around here we still call hypno-birthing breathing: "Oh, look, there's another Finger Stone," and, "There's one more," and "No, that one's not perfect, but, oh, wait, here's a really good one..."
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.