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 recently updated my artist statement -- that challenge of fitting in every idea you have about your work into about 1000 characters -- a small piece of writing, but one that refines the point of why you're compelled to do what you do.
Or at least kicks your ass in the process.
It's a version of the first artist statement I wrote in 2014. Not much has changed. But it still kicks my ass.
I should probably whittle it further.
But I'm not a poet.
And although I'm in my head most of the time, I'm not that smart.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
But I'm a really good seamstress. And maybe a little mysterious.
I'm shuffling through images, grouping themes to spread on the table as I move forward with this work, honing edges and abrading excess, waiting for the surprises that shouldn't be surprises at all. (Related theme-based posts are Ice. and Fire. and Bone.)
One thing that is a surprise, is that this blog was recently listed in the Top 60 Textile Blogs on the Planet. Yup. This one is #29. Huh. This, despite the description of, "Frequency - about 1 post per month."
Hey, go easy. I'm a busy woman.
I'm sorting through process photographs from the last 2 or 3 years, revisiting images and objects that have inspired me, or forced me to pause, or served as jumping off points. It's been a good exercise and I realize how bombarded I've been with current imagery and noise; I'd jettisoned my own thoughts to make room for it all. It's been good to reclaim moments that still feel pure.
Yesterday someone referred to her need to constantly listen to the news as having the same effect as coming upon a car accident: "You want to look away, but you can't stop staring."
"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."
“I hold with those who favor fire.
I'm going through photographs, sorting them into themes -- Fire, Ice, Blood & Bone. These images and words pull me into contemplation for the work that lies ahead. Some of it is literal, but the deeper work is personal. This far North, at this time of year, I descend into myself. Every time.
It's a seizing, clamping rhythm.
But it's seriously productive.
Most of these images are somewhere in my Instagram feed. Follow if you're hanging out there, too.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.