Do the beaches of my childhood all look like this? Or is it only here in the center of the Pacific that the sand is coated with chips of crumbling plastic like alien sea shells.
When I was young, and would visit the beach in Los Angeles, there would be soda straws, cup lids, occasional shards of glass, but never these hard plastic chips, bright blues and greens and pinks.
Now I could sit in one spot for an hour under this cloudy sky and pick them all out of the sand, each tiny bit, but there would still be so much beach to cover, and the plastic chips are not the only trash here. I find parts of rope, frayed squares of fish net, bottle caps, bottles, rubber tubing, pens, plastic flower pots, a broken part of a five-gallon bucket lid. An old toothbrush head makes me pause. It’s long, oval shape reminds me of the toothbrushes in a cup sat on the bathroom counter at my grandma’s house. The handle is snapped off and the bristles are worn down, and there’s brown slime growing on it. How long has this been in the sea?
I find a piece of white plastic with a few barnacles clinging to it. That I leave on the sand, not wanting to put something living in my trash bag with the other garbage.
“Mommy, I’m tired of holding the bag,” my son says.
“This is a service project,” I told him, “So we keep working even when we get a little tired. Here, I’ll hold the bag. You pick up ten things. We’ll count together.”
We don’t have to move from one spot. A plastic streamer with a soggy dead balloon tied to one end, a strand of blue-green plastic rope, tiny plastic chips, one piece of glass…
“You can leave that. It’s a seed shell. That’s natural. It can stay.”
Sometimes even I can’t tell what’s natural and what’s trash. I find a long, white thing that could be the bead for a window-shade pull, but I decide it’s the shell of some creature and leave it on the beach. I find the soggy remains of what might have been a nerf football, though at first I think it’s a dead fish.
Tired of scraping up the tiny pieces, I move along the beach now, looking for larger trash.
“Make footsteps, Mommy, and I’ll step in them!” My son says eagerly.
“All right,” I smile, and trudge across the beach, towing my bag, with him hopping behind.
What will his world look like, when he’s my age? Will he be able to follow my footsteps anymore, or will they be buried in strangeness, or washed away by some unbelievably high tide?
Together we move down the beach. I stop to show him the skull of a bird. There’s no mistaking this for something plastic. Even the density of the bone varies in the structure, I can tell from the way the clouded light comes through. Here is a masterwork of nature lying in among the detritus of the twentieth century. I almost overlooked it.
Is this the inheritance I leave to my children? A lifetime of cleaning the beach.