She is naked, walking barefoot on a tropical beach with crystal warm water soothing a crescent shore.
He stands barefoot at the opposite end.
Their eyes explore each other. She does not cover her dark tanned body but slowly walks in his direction, picking her footsteps carefully.
They meet halfway in the tide wash; eyes never leaving each other’s captivated stare.
They fall together in a tight embrace as if in a weightless dream find themselves prostrate on the wide deserted beach . . . covered with:
Plastic water bottles, rubber hoses, tires, rusty auto parts, crushed tin cans, Aluminum beer cans, waxpaper milk cartons, polyester commercial fish nets, flip-flop parts, smiling plastic dolly faces, arms and thighs . . .
. . . Now. Do I have your attention?
If I had plowed into this story with the description of a polluted beach you probably would never have read past the first two sentences.
This is a story about beaches. Beaches all over the world. Beaches that have become the great unseen trash heaps across thin lines of once beautiful untouched environs that are thousands of miles from the origin of the tragic trash machines. Trash that hides the once historic unprecedented beauty of our planet.
Yep, I can hear ya, ” What’s this guy going on about?”
You say, “Hey, our beaches are not that dirty?”
Yes, I agree. In Maine most beaches are not trash heaps. In fact beaches in North America, for the most part, are mostly debris free.
Now, we are at the point where I can explain why I want to get your attention in the first place: You see those starving kids in Africa on TV but never in real life. You’re concerned–but what can you do? The commercial comes on selling you a lotion that will make you 30 years younger– comes in a fancy production designed plastic bottle guaranteed to change your life . . . or your money back! So what are we producing? Production designed lotion bottles, plastic smiling dollies, flip-flops, styrene water bottles . . . that end up as Human Designed Beach Decoration . . . while the African kids starve.
Okay, if you held on this long, I’ll step down from the orange crate and finish off with how the above thoughts came to me the other day while walking the unblemished beaches of Roque Island– Down East, Maine:
In the winter my wife and I live aboard our cruising sailboat.
We particularly enjoy the Islas San Blas (Kuna Yala) those islands of clear, warm water near the impenetrable Darien Jungle and rivers just off Panama.
The native island people (Kuna) have survived on these reef strewn islands long before the Spanish conquistadors realized they were the only indigenous people impossible to kill with European diseases or enslave.
We became allured with the Kuna Indians and their realistic living customs along with the beauty of the hundreds of movie set islands. It also gave us a close up of the haunting problems that our industrial society is imposing over parts of the world that does not need nor wishes to embrace . . . non environmental trash.
The beaches of these paradisaical islands are covered with–you guessed it:
Plastic water bottles– black rubber hose, tires — rusty auto parts– crushed tin cans– aluminum beer cans– wax paper milk cartons– polyester fish nets– thousands of flip flop parts– smiling dolly faces– plastic arms legs and body parts . . .
There is no way to dispose of floating manufactured waste in this island nation. It washes into bays of white sandy beaches shadowed by overhanging palms. The Kuna’s are unarmed to comprehend the effect on their homeland. The only folks who do anything about this overflow of human manufactured excrement are the foreign sailors. Cruisers are tolerated only because they drift around on their own boats, spend viable currencies–make no demands–then sail away. They make a joint effort to dispose their personally made trash. Little of the beach trash spawn from local consumption.
This quandary became of prime interest to us because of the fact that we have the opportunity to observe two entirely different areas of the world. One in the north temperate, industrial zones, the other in the non-industrial tropical rain forest only 8 degrees above the equator. At first glance it seemed the floating trash problem should be the other way around. Why can’t something be done to save the non contributors? Some say it’s no finances for waste facilities or plain lack of concern.
I consulted my old friend, Kuna Juan one night in his restaurants on, Smithsonian Island. Juan worked most of his life for the Panama Canal Authority. He returned to his native island after retirement. Juan is one of those folks who was blessed (or cursed) with one foot in the industrialize world, the other in his ancient folk lore. He always looks at World problems with a different slant than what he observes on his black and white TV in the evening . . . before the generator shuts down. Juan has pondered the beach problem of his Kuna Yala Nation for many years.
One night we sat together at the bar on his dock while the warm Caribbean water lapped at the pilings. It sounded like soft tropical music coming from under our bare feet. Old Juan opened up to me as he had before (Whenever we become encouraged by a few luke-warm Balboa cervesa’s). He explained the beach trash problem to me, as plain as a sunny day. He points to the old stain-faded National Geographic wall chart of the World tacked to the bambo wall behind his bar; points to the finger smudged area where Islas San Blas are scattered along the eastern coast of Panama. His half tooth smile comes on and he says, squinting at me, “You’d know dis stuff better din me, capt. You knowd it be de currents.”
Better than a Scripps Oceanographer, Juan begins to explain the industrial flotsam and jetsam problem of the world in better detail than I had ever heard it before. He picks up a two liter plastic water bottle from behind the bar, “See dis?”
“Yeah, I see it.”
He studies the wall chart for a moment, then puts his stubby fore finger on the chart about where the Amazon River passes briefly through the most southern section of western Colombia. ” If’in I drop dis empty bottle in de river, here in de jungle at, Leticia de bottle could float 2000 miles down de river out into de Atlantic ocean. Once in the de ocean de Trade Winds could blow it along another 3000 miles along the South American coast.”
His finger now moves across the chart until it rested on the thin string of mountains known as the Isthmus of Panama, “De Trade Winds always blow from de East. As can be seen from de chart Panama is de farthest east de plastic can drift. So, everyting thrown into de sea from Cape San Roque along de South American coast could end up on our beaches here in Cuna Yala . . . and id’s not just dis one bottle mon–id’s tousands and tousands of bottles, garbage, debris, flotsam-jetsoms from de camps, towns, ships . . . well, clear across from Africa we find tings dat float across!”
My eye left the finger on the chart and could see that the winds and currents surely could direct anything floating to the cul-de-sac of the Central American coast.
I was mesmerized by the hard facts the wall chart revealed and that this Kuna Indian on a small tropical island had such an updated, scholarly grasp on modern world ecology. I couldn’t remove my eyes from the wall chart. The whole concept of floating trash had me envisioning the World in a whole new image–it made sense.
The thought came to me about our coast line in New England. We never see beach trash heaps as prolific as in the Caribbean. Why not?
Again, Juan’s finger went to the chart. This time it rested on the North Pole. The finger slid down between Greenland and Baffin Island, along the coast of Labrador on down around Newfoundland and into the Bay of Fundy.
” Highest tides in de World”, he pronounced.
He proceeded to educate me to the fact that the currents that dress the coast of Maine are from the Arctic, ” It’s called de ‘Labrador Current’,” he said. ” It come from one of de few trash-less areas on de planet. You’re lucky up dere . . . except for de coldness winters.”
” You ever experienced a cold winter, Juan?”, I asked.
“No . . . but it must be naughty cuz it bring all you folks to de islands.”
Juan, again, jarred my thoughts on a subject I thought I had an excuse for. I always assumed it was our European cultured concern for the environment that kept most of our beaches pristine. He pointed out the fact that, “Your industrial countries — by demand — have de money to spend on garbage disposal, clean–up and waste management of all descriptions.”
So I asked, “What can be done, Juan? What will clean up and save the rest of the World’s beaches?”
Juan finished his can of warm beer–his old tired eyes holding to me. He came around from behind the bar and walked to the edge of the deck and heaved the empty can out into the dark water. He turned, still holding my questioning gaze, and calmly said:
“De least of de World’s problems.”
The next summer while walking the mile stretch of the white, deserted beach of, Roque Island, my wife was a small dot far ahead. Our eyes met. She did not cover her dark tanned body but slowly began walking in my direction, picking her footsteps carefully across the deserted shore. We met halfway in the tide wash of the warm water, our eyes never leaving each other’s mesmerized stare. We fell together in a tight embrace as if in a weightless dream finding ourselves prostrate on the wide deserted beach . . . covered with:
At that moment it seemed the only place in the World that nothing was going wrong.
Could Juan be wrong?