I smell the water before I can see it. I hear it, too. Through the trees. Thick green trees that stand tall and proud. They line the edge of Washington’s northwestern coast separating the Pacific from the rest of the country. And as soon as I finally see what I can already hear and smell, my excitement builds. The blueness of it. The white waves that I catch between large standing cedars. It is rugged here. No roads or jetties or piers. No tracks lining the edge of land. The only way to get here is by walking.
And suddenly, there we are. Standing on sand and washed up trees. And Velella velellas.
And… trash. It’s everywhere. Plastic. Ropes. Nets. Ropes and nets tangled around large, dead trees resting on their sides. Bottles. Plastic and glass. Laundry baskets. Lots of them. Plastic crates and baskets from ships. Many things have markings of Japan. Most of this stuff is probably from the tsunami. I see a toothbrush in between seaweed strands. There is a large shipping container from a fish company in Canada. A gasoline jug. More ropes. And buoys, lots of them.
One part of me is disgusted. The other part of me is intrigued. The two mix together to form some kind of twisted obsession. I check each bottle, hoping to find a message from a far away land from a long ago time. Treasures. I search for evidence of someone else’s existence in a place I came to in order to escape evidence of people. To see things more clearly in the natural world. For the stars to remind me of the vastness and the ocean to make me feel hopeful and small. For the trees to stand above me with their wisdom and guide me back to center. Yet here I am surrounded, and also intrigued, by remnants of our humanity that only speak to our impact on this planet we call home. And I feel curious.
This romantic excitement over treasures belonging to another time and place is strange. I feel it in antique shops or in old attics or even in cemeteries, but here?
A few miles from where we slept under the stars are petroglyphs, etchings of art or story from three to five hundred years ago, or so they say. It is evidence of the past’s people. And now the evidence of our people is here, too. On this beach. It doesn’t seem like it will let up. More and more trash will collect here as the tides move in and out, back and forth, the heartbeat of our planet. The pulse of our earth. And these are our petroglyphs. This is what we leave behind.
I want to clean up. I start to collect plastic bottles from the jumbled stacks of petrified wood. Skeletons of trees. It doesn’t take more than ten minutes to have a good collection of about eight bottles. The caps are still on, and in many, there is water inside. These bottles of water were not even fully consumed, and then they were disposed of somewhere, and then somehow… somehow they ended up here. Was it worth it? All that plastic for a sip or two of some water. I see this at parties or barbecues or events. Hell, I’ve done this at parties or barbecues or events. Small little plastic bottles that we take for granted. We take drinks and then leave them behind, forgetting which was ours and which was someone else’s and it’s easier to just get a new one. A fresh one.
And here some have come. Lots of them. There are other things I collect. The gas container. The rope I think would make a good dog leash with tape still wrapped around one end. The evidence of someone else’s hands and work and time. Somewhere in the world at an unknown moment, there was a person tying tape around the end of this rope so that it wouldn’t fray when they cut it. Was it the sixties or the eighties, or maybe just last year? I don’t know why that idea entices me. That way of thinking never grows old for me. The connection between past and present and place and space and people.
How can these artifacts of existence disgust me and entice me at the same time?
When it’s time to leave, I want to take the things I have collected, but we have miles of coast to hike and a headland to climb and more miles of forest to walk before we reach any road. These things are too heavy. And I can’t help but wonder if it would even matter. I believe in the power of one person. I believe we can collectively make a difference by individually choosing to. But here, on this beach, with these unnatural objects, I feel defeated in a way. Hopeless. Worried. Sad. Scared.
The plastic will just keep coming, so could I ever really make a difference? Still, I take a water bottle to make myself feel better, along with a cool glass bottle from Taiwan and a Coca Cola crate that I think will look cool in my house. And the rest of what was collected I pile into a bin. I wonder if I should disburse it back into the logs to appear “natural.” Mix it in with the rest of the man-made objects and natural beach elements so no one can tell that I was here. Am I ruining someone else’s beachcombing experience? Would they rather come across evidence of people cleaning up the mess of other people or come across the mess of other people that was carried there by the sea? By collecting the traces of other humans that have built up on this beach, I am essentially leaving my own trace. And this all interferes with my idea of leave no trace.
I don’t think anything is forever. Empires rise only to fall. Life starts and then it ends. Species survive and then they die off. I feel like the earth is stronger than us, and if we come to a point when we are fighting with her too much, she will assert herself. She just doesn’t want to be taken advantage of. Who does? Why would we ever exploit anyone or anything? I don’t understand it. I never will. Yet, still, I am a product of all of this. I am just as much a part of the problem as I am the solution. And I feel guilt.
I leave the beach, but it stays with me. In all ways. The sand in my ears, in my hair, on my feet and in my underwear. The salt sits on my skin. The memory of the sound and the smell. The cool air on my cheeks. And now the glass bottle from Taiwan rests on an old dresser in my dining room, coated in salt and sand and the dried remnants of stranded velella velellas, reminding me of what is happening to our sweet mother earth, even when I don’t know what to do or how to feel about it.