January 24, 2010

Everyday Beauty

Normally we crop garbage out of our pictures, changing the angle, altering the perspective. Its always there though.

One of the most memorable moments of my life came while sailing off of Vancouver Island many years ago. We had become becalmed and floating beside our boat was a large, ungainly looking bird. We were, “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean" and were able to watch the bird closely. It seemed to like us and we passed the hours talking to it. Our friendly bird never strayed more than a few feet from our hull and when the wind finally rose we watched in awe as the bird spread its endless wings and lifted in breathtaking flight. It circled our boat a few times then glided away. We had seen a Black footed Albatross.

Albatross are a good omen for sailors. Seeing one at sea is akin to sighting the Greenflash or a Kermode bear. For me they bring to mind beauty and hope. I was reminded of our albatross a few months ago when I was confronted by a series of photos making their painful way across the Internet. Chris Jordan's beautifully composed and artfully rendered photographs were taken on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand in the North Pacific. The macabre subjects are dead albatross chicks. Their parents had sought food and were seduced by the plastic refuse floating in the Pacific Gyre, or The Great Garbage Patch. The tiny chicks starved, their bellies full of our trash.

This is one ecological disaster that won't let go of me. With each image, when I look at the tiny body that should have grown into one of the world's most magnificent birds, the deep part of me that is a mother howls in rage and shame. I am reminded of how many plastic bags I've filled with things I wanted but didn't need, and how many cheap and useless plastic trinkets I've given Maia – thinking I was nourishing her in some essential way. I am forced to realize that just like the Ancient Mariner my actions “killed the bird that made the breeze to blow.”

 We see plastic everywhere, it becomes overwhelming. Some of it can be recycled--the fishing line, the water bottles, the plastic bags. Mostly though it is with us forever.

I don’t know if Jordan’s pictures have made me more observant of what is happening to our oceans but I know we can’t sail more than a few miles without seeing garbage at sea. Lots of it. We find it tangled in rafts of kelp, floating as escaped balloons or discarded water bottles. We see it littering otherwise isolated and pristine beaches. This refuse is not washed clean with the next tide, where it disappears forever. Instead the bright bits are carried by the currents deep into the centre of the ocean where they swirl and beckon and look for all intents like something that can sustain life.

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