Guilt can be a powerful force for change, and right now I'm feeling especially guilty.
On Saturday, September 17th, 2011, I took part in a global event - well I tried to take part. September 17th was the annual Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup. People gathered on shorelines all over the world to remove the long-lasting marks of human existence.
I tried to sign up at my local beach for this trash-removal uber-event, but was turned away. O.K., so I procrastinated and waited too long to sign up - I've been busy... I tried to sign up for another nearby beach - same story. Now, I know this sounds silly: How could you possibly have too many people sign up to gather trash?
Well, part of the cleanup activity involved logging and categorizing the trash on special forms that the Ocean Conservancy would later use for research. Apparently the coordinators had only so many forms, and all the volunteers they needed to fill them out. Too many volunteers. Crazy, right?
My local beach had over 160 people representing 11 different organizations. Scout troops, banks, and church groups all turned out to do their part, and they descended upon our beach in one big colorful wave of volunteerism. It was nice to see.
I attended anyway and took some pictures. I have joined beach-cleanups in the past, and yes, I could have easily brought a bag and taken part this time, but that's not the point here. I wanted to get the bigger picture, and every picture I got had a little bit of me in it, too.
As the volunteers donned their latex gloves and got sandy, I wandered through the crowd, clicking away with my camera. And that is when the guilt started.
First stop: a small red plastic bottle cap surrounded by bird footprints. Harmless enough, right? No. One little cap, if not picked up, will remain in the sand for the next thousand years. In a way, it then becomes a big, big plastic cap.
I focused my camera on the matted and tangled piles of dried seaweed and plastic fragments, and I began to ask myself some questions about my own consumer choices. Am I doing my part to reducemy environmental impact? How much unnecessary plastic is in my life?
By now, we should all know that plastic is forever. It never biodegrades. UV radiation only breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces, and then, too often, it is ingested by the creatures that live in the water and on the shoreline— a slow poisoning.
A woman showed me her growing trash-trove. She was carefully sifting through the bits of mylar and latex balloons and ribbons and plastic shards to show me the hypodermic needle she had found. I'm not a needle user, but I asked myself: How many birthday parties have I thrown for my kids that included balloons? How many times have I helplessly watched one drift off into the sky? Where did they go? They landed here, on my own beach.
Our little human habits always leave some kind of big residue behind that someone else has to deal with.
I walked up to a group of kids. Beach cleanup wasn't work to them, the kids were having fun, and even if some of the debris they found was really driftwood, they were learning good lessons and developing good habits. Their moms lined them up and kindly allowed me to photograph them as they proudly displayed their finds.
I found some flowers strewn across the wet sand. A floral arrangement had been placed on the shoreline, perhaps at sunrise, and now the Atlantic was doing its best to claim it as her own. The flowers belonged to the memory of some lost soul, but not for long.
Later, as I reviewed the photographs I had taken, I began to see those flowers as a metaphor for mortality in general. Our collective human time on earth is as limited as our individual time. What we choose to do affects the futures of the people around us, and so, this little memorial could be my own. Or yours.
It could be, if we don't take the bigger steps needed to reduce the size of our own footprints. It doesn't have to be an annual event, but you still have to be willing to sign up.
September 20th, 2011