GYRE Expedition Day One – Afternoon (Saturday, June 8)

  A discussion: Why bother to clean beaches never visited by people? If it’s just an ugly mess, why not just leave it?

Answers vary, even among our group. “Seeing this offends my dignity,” says one colleague. “I am embarrassed as a human to see how much trash is here.” “We just don’t like it; that’s a good enough reason.” “We know it hurts and poisons and tangles some animals, even if we don’t know how to quantify the damage.”

The way I’ve been thinking of it recently is: we could have made a better deal with the world and with ourselves. We could have our civilization, with far less damage.

Containers for liquid soap carry lettering in English, in Korean, in Japanese.

We wouldn’t be discussing the rationale for cleanup if we happened to see a tangled seal today, or we were watching seabirds feeding plastic bits to chicks, many of whom will consequently die. I’ve seen those things. I quantify it this way: there’s too much of it.

Humans seldom come here. But there’s bear poop on the path.  And  tracks of a coyote or young wolf on the beach.  And  an eagle overhead. People seldom come here, but for all these non-humans, this is their home.

At the foot of the forest, among the drifted-in wood, Styrofoam is piled in little bits between the logs as if we’d had snow flurries.

Foam at Gore Point Photo: Carl Safina
Foam at Gore Point
Photo: Carl Safina

We stalk and pick along, beachcombers of common garbage. The artists regard the trash like discriminating consumers. Some prefer strongly defined objects such as small hard-plastic fishing floats and bottle caps; others like soft stuff like nets and rope. My artist companions carry trash back and forth like happy retriever pups, like satisfied packrats.

Like coals to Newcastle, they’ve brought plastic trash bags for picking up the plastic trash they fancy. Pallaster will be back in August to do a real cleanup; they do this annually. The first time they were here, a few years ago, the plastic trash was deep and driven far into the forest by high waters of winter storms. They hauled out many tons.

So why pick it up? It’s not human enough to just leave it. We’re better than this. That’s how I feel.

Bottle caps, spray can tops, cosmetics tubes, cigarette lighters. Mark has gathered several dozen of these. He lays them on the black sand grouped by color.

It strikes me as a bit odd that this counts as work for an adult. Any child could do this. But soon everyone has gathered around. We notice the writing on the caps, their products, country of origin. Concentrating these bits in this little pattern helps concentrate our attention on what’s here. He is helping all of us see, and the art is sparking ideas about using the Web to ask people internationally to help identify some of these products. That would draw more people into a much wider discussion. The scientists snap photos and note down some of the writing on the products. Mark is doing what artists should do; he’s getting our attention. Not everyone could do this.

Mark Dion Applies His Eyes Photo: Carl Safina
Mark Dion Applies His Eyes
Photo: Carl Safina

It’s actually hot, sunny, we all peel off layers. I remove my socks. Add sunblock to my arms. We’ve brought water. It’s all in little travel-bottles. The bottles are made of plastic. Mine advertizes an oil company.

I take a sip.



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Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.