It’s Complicated


Resolved: On each and every beach walk, I will bring home the trash I can manage—without a wheelbarrow—and dispose of it properly!

When PBS News Hour runs its special on plastic pollution, I can’t bear to watch the entire segment.  It is too depressing and affirms what I know to be true. We are destroying faster than we can reclaim, and what we are destroying is our last frontier. There is a pattern of human behavior here, and it’s hard to face.

As a commenter for this year’s fall Student Blogging Challenge, I welcomed the Week 6 prompts focusing on science. The post features options at its end, and one of them suggests writing about two current terms: single-use and plogging. Even as I type “plogging” a red line appears. Spellcheck shares my ignorance. When I search, I discover that plogging is a Swedish fitness craze that has migrated and describes jogging and trash collecting. Tennesseans have already coined a word for this revolutionized exercise “trashercize.” It’s got a ring, right?

I’m no jogger.  A brisk walk with the sole intent of diffusing some of my wild and crazy, bird-chasing dog’s energy motivates me. When the sun is glistening off a panoramic Pacific, or dense Northwest fog shrouds the very same and the only clue to its existence is its incessant rumble, I’m a Oregon Coast rambler. But I am a “plocka upp-er,” it turns out, and my training began early.

A fellow student visited me here one summer from our college town in Pennsylvania. This was the early 70s, and we both were entertaining visions of a utopian collective existence. While I let those ideas percolate beneath the surface, Al sat down at our breakfast table one morning and shared his belief in a communal society, one eschewing private property and individual ownership, all for one, one for all.  My mom, generally reserved, listened thoughtfully and then responded. I have never forgotten.

“What you are saying sounds ideal, really, and assumes the best about us. Every Monday, though, after a weekend of tourists visiting our beaches, the sand is strewn with debris. I send the kids down with bags to pick up garbage. Why? Because this is my beach; I live here. I own property and that comes with responsibility. I care about it every day.”

This is not to debate socialism versus privatism—one could certainly argue that being concerned about one’s own interest, in this case, leads to a greater good for all, at least a cleaner beach. However, it does invite us to think about the kind of shift we need as humans to regard public space as truly “our” space and the inherent responsibility we have as planetary residents. We don’t own; we’re renting. And we’ve done some damage, but life is complicated.

The garbage pictured here has its own story as every object does, and picking it up and perusing it, led me in a compassionate direction, one that surprised me. Usually I’m frustrated, but this stunning Sunday morning, as I headed toward the dune topped with the unmistakable plastic bag, its mouth open and spilling trash, I noticed the white folded papers. I’d seen them before. They were the sheets a doctor provides, detailing a clinic visit, diagnosis, treatment. In short, this was proof positive of who the culprit was—undeniable evidence. Then I looked more closely at the diagnosis and the garbage it generated.

This young person, by virtue of printed birthdate, and his friends (I know no girls named Kevin, so I’m making a gender assumption here), must’ve come to the beach after their trip to the clinic.  He was SICK! Now on antibiotics for a severe respiratory infection, I can see him, them, hanging out, drinking coke, other beverages, and figuring out what they’d do next. There is nothing worse than feeling really sick. Maybe these kids were locals. Maybe they’d traveled all the way from Portland or Eugene for a long-awaited beach weekend. No matter—they were living a story, their own, and it included leaving traces behind for me to find.

My heart softened. The part of me that’s been sick with bronchitis, that’s had long-anticipated plans derailed, felt compassion and frankly virtuous that my resolution, born on my mother’s words, could help in some small way.