In spring of 2018, I took a forty-day trip, traveling mostly by train, getting off to write and to visit my grown children. For two weeks I stayed among cypress trees in Northern California and walked each day to a shed where I wrote as quail bobbed by. There I was able to write the most painful stories from my students concerning climate trauma in their home countries.
Soon after I left that writing shack, my daughter took me to the California sea.
After trudging past scores of shops and squeezing through throngs of wonderfully diverse people, after crossing over a boardwalk (made of cement, I noticed, not boards), I stepped onto the sand. It moved—living, shifting sand that made my toes and arches work. The long beach eased pain out of my feet.
I walked right into the waves.
At first, the water felt cold. Soon my feet sensed only motion and rhythm.
Letting go of the climate troubles I had carried, I felt happy. The ocean spread before me. Gulls flew above. Children played nearby. Surfers pushed themselves out.
Except—a strip of white plastic folded over itself as it washed in and, half a minute later, as it rushed back out on a retreating wave. I grabbed to keep it from wrapping round the feet of an ocean dweller, maybe a pelican, but the strip of white eluded me. Red plastic tumbled past. I missed that too.
For a minute the waves came in and out pushing only one long strand of seaweed with its bulbous float sacks and dangling tendrils.
Then another piece of plastic, this one black, whipped by me. I snatched and failed.
Disgust at humankind rose up in me. How could That Which Made the Sea also make such a mess-up as us?
I ran and caught the yellow fragment of a candy wrapper. “For you,” I said to the ocean as I crumpled the plastic foil into my fist.
I began to dash after bits—a blue one here, part of a balloon there, a piece of Styrofoam cup beyond that, an energy bar wrapper. The water whipped them by me; I would grab, so close, and miss.
Wait. Hadn’t I had been writing about the practices that help me through this kind of eco-trauma?
When in distress, I had written, I should just stop. Look around. After that, breathe. After that settle into whatever place I’m at and become a native to it.
So I stopped. I waited. I became a person who lives by this beach.
I said, “Ocean, I will take the plastic pieces out if you will bring them to me.” I began to work more slowly, following the rhythm of the waves.
Soon I had two hands full of plastic bits—white and blue and yellow and some with words. I went to shore and piled them beyond the reach of the waves.
Back and forth I went. My mound of rescued plastic grew. I didn’t notice the people any longer. I was alone with the surf and the waves on my legs and the blue of the sky above.
Then, when I turned back, I couldn’t see my pile. I examined the place it had been as well as many, many places along the beach where it had not been. I was certain I had piled it too far up the shore for the waves to have reached it yet.
Maybe someone else had carried that pile to the trash bin further up toward the parking lot. Could that be? Could someone be helping me?
Pausing to consider that, I noticed plastic on the shore, above the waterline. With the tide coming in, all that trash would soon be washing back and forth, but for now, it was motionless. I altered my intention and began walking along the shallowest edge.
Moving along the margin of the surf became a meditation. The waves sounded of forever, from beyond the beginning of time.
One piece turned out to be a shell so I’d put it back into the water. Something shone, almost covered by sand.
I picked it up. A quarter. I laughed. The sea had rewarded me!
For two hours I walked. My anger toward people faded. I felt only love for the sea. I stopped fretting about turtles and whales swallowing plastic bags as I picked up straws that could, otherwise, have traveled out to tangle with them.
“Is that bottle yours?” I asked a woman about my age who sat near an empty pop container, “or should I throw it away?”
“Oh, I’ll throw it,” she said. “Thank you.”
I asked another woman, younger than me with children nearby who said, “That’s not mine,” in an annoyed tone. I understood. Having me, an aging white woman, a goody-no-shoes Euro-American in a hemp dress, bustling around when folks were just trying to enjoy a Saturday view at the beach must have been a bother.
A man smiled with me as we watched two children repairing a sand ocean liner each time a wave crushed part of it. The children fired suggestions at one another in German as they tried, futily, to save that ship. There was no trash near them, so I moved on.
“It’s nice of you to pick up the junk,” said the first woman when I came near her again. “Why do you do it?”
“I love the ocean and its creatures,” I said.
“The beach looks nicer without trash,” she said.
“When it washes into the sea, the animals sometimes eat it,” I said. “Whales have been found with their stomachs full of plastic. I am trying to protect them.”
“Really? They eat it!” A look of shock spread over her face. “No lo sabía. I didn’t know that.”
She looked out over the waves.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Thank you for telling me. I will pick it up too. I will do my part.”
So, then, I thanked her.
She turned to the man next to her and said, “No lo sabía.”
An African-American man playing catch with his friend stopped for me, “You picking up the trash? That’s good of you. You do that often?”
“Only today,” I said. “This is my one day at the sea so it’s the only day I can show it that I care.”
“Not from here?”
“From Minnesota,” I said.
“Timberwolves!” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “You from here.”
“Pennsylvania,” he said. “Thanks for doin’ that.” He tossed his football high to the other guy.
A couple sat on a blanket. I asked if the plastic cups near them were theirs or if I could take and throw them.
“Not ours,” said the woman. She looked at me curiously.
“I’m just picking up plastic as a way to show my gratitude for the ocean,” I said.
“Really good of you!” she said. “Do you do this often?”
“No,” I said, “today is my only chance. I live in Minnesota.”
“Minnesota!” she said. “You must be enjoying the warmth.”
“Yes,” I replied. “There is a blizzard coming today back home. The weather is a bit confused. April is too late for a blizzard. I’m here. I want to pay back for the privilege of being here. Do you live near?”
The woman, who seemed to be European American, smiled. “Yes,” she said. The man nodded, “We’re glad you can be here.”
“Take care of the beach for me when I’m gone?” I asked.
“We will,” she said.
After some hours, the sun went down. I stopped for the last sunlit moments and stood in the surf.
I walked into the warm waves, watching the red sun settle. As it dipped down, flocks of birds skimmed just above the waves, other large birds rose up solitary, then many, many birds overhead and far out at the ends of eye-reach, all responding to this moment of change from light-time to dark-time.
As night settled, I turned to leave. A young Black guy stopped me. “You enjoying that sight?” he asked. The friend with him looked to be Hmong.
“Very much,” I said, bending to pick up an empty plastic bottle on my path. “Also picking this up so it doesn’t wash out.”
“You do that?” he asked. “Often?”
“Here only today,” I said. “At home in Minnesota, I try to pick street plastic up before it goes down the storm sewers so it can’t get to the ocean. Here, nothing stands in its way; this trash goes right in.”
He said. “I take care of the earth too.
“Awhile ago,” he said, “I noticed people dropping their trash on the sidewalk. Just dropping it. I thought, ‘What slobs they are!’ And I decided that I wasn’t going to litter anymore. So I stopped. Haven’t littered since then. Oh, I do throw apple cores and stuff like that, stuff that is part of the earth.
“And, here’s the thing. My luck changed after that. Not joshing you. I didn’t notice at first, but my life got better. I was homeless then. And now I live in a mansion. A mansion! After a bit I realized that my luck started changing after I stopped dropping trash. So now, I don’t let anyone throw trash from my car either. I say, ‘You just leave it here. I’ll take care of it.’
“But the most important thing,” he said, “is that I felt different.” He touched right over his heart. “I changed. And I’ve never gone back.”
“Me too,” I said. “I used to see the trash and kind of hate the people who dropped it. But today I didn’t think of the people who tossed it. I only thought about how much I love the sea.”
“I saw you,” he said, “how you were standing watching the sun go down into the sea. You took some time to enjoy it today too.”
“I did,” I said, “And I got rewarded like you did.” I pulled the quarter out of my pocket. “See. The ocean gave this to me today.”
He laughed and lifted up his hand. “You too!” he said. And he smacked my hand up high, twice.
As he walked away, he called back over his shoulder, “Keep working like that for God.” Then he turned around and faced me, “Keep working for the Earth.”
That night an email told me that, back in Minnesota, the blizzard had already surrounded my house with snow. Wind was tangling a pirate flag into the bare branches of my backyard catalpa.
Another message came through. Earthday.org asked me to calculate my plastic use and then sign a pledge to reduce my plastic consumption. I did it.
You could too. Like my young friend at the beach, you might begin to feel differently in your heart. Together we can do the work of Life. Together we can love the sea.
Art by Renae Bonde
I mention the ethnicity of people as they appeared to me because, in honesty, I notice these human varieties. To acknowledge what I notice may help me release the color-based biases I carry.
This was first spoken as a message for Minneapolis Friends Meeting (Quaker) on April 22, 2018. Now, in the COVID-era, the need to pick up trash is more vital than ever. People are dropping their masks and the ocean is filling with them. Wear gloves and dispose of them safely, but, please, do pick them up.