Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski
Our world is a memory
I was twelve, almost thirteen when I traveled to the crystal-clear waters of the south Pacific for the first time. I remember standing knee deep in the ocean as tiny waves lapped against my skin and invisible fish bumped against my shins. I recall dipping my snorkel-clad face just beneath the surface of the water and staring in amazement at the life thriving below.
I took my eldest son back to these waters a couple of years ago. Old enough to understand, we discussed in great anticipation what magic these waters would behold. The colors. The life.
“Where are all the fish?” My son asked me when we finally arrived. Truth be told, I didn’t know and though the answer is obvious, I did not immediately make the connection.
I had expected the same wonders to appear before my son as the ones that had so captured my imagination two decades prior.
My son will never know or experience those reefs and their enchantment. They exist, for all intents and purposes, only in my mind and in my memory.
What my sons do know for certain is simple. They know trash.
It’s not that hard
I suppose I am more fortunate than most. I had the opportunity to see many of the wonders of the world before they were completely destroyed. I had expected to share these wonders with my children but they have inherited a whole different kind of legacy.
I am a native Oregonian and like most of Oregon’s native sons and daughters, was raised with an earth-conscious perspective. Yeah, the rumors are true. If you’re really from Oregon you really are “that granola” and care “that much about the planet.” Red or blue, nature and preservation are at the forefront of our activities.
I also spent a great deal of my youth living in Europe where sustainability and a commitment to the environment have been in vogue for decades. In Germany, sorting your trash, recycling, repurposing is just second nature. And, if you don’t, your trash either won’t be picked up or you’ll be faced with a fine.
In the idyllic town in southern Oregon where I went to college and gave birth to my eldest son, plastic bags had been non-existent since 2011. This past summer, the greater Portland metro area was making the transition and it seemed that every grocery store clerk or sales person issued an apology without cue about the new, “bag policy.” I really don’t mind; I’ve got quite an extensive and pretty reusable bag collection. Plus, this sh*t plastic bag is just going to clutter up the space underneath my kitchen sink anyway.
In Germany, there aren’t even paper bag options. You forget your bag, you’re walking home with full arms or a cardboard box the store hasn’t recycled yet (think Costco).
All the world is a receptacle
Trash. My sons and I walk, bike, or hike roughly two miles everyday. It’s good exercise for all of us and I like to be outside. Instead of pristine nature, we are met daily with trash.
Instead of filling my pockets with rocks, stones, pinecones, and wildflowers, I find myself collecting a menagerie of confiscated bottle caps, plastics, wrappers, deflated balloons, and the like.
And I am tired. I am tired of swatting cigarette butts and pieces of plastic picked up like treasure by my toddler before he ritually places them in his mouth. You know. Just to try them on for size.
And I am sad. I am sad that when we stand in the ocean, tiny and not so insignificant pieces of human debris brush against us in the waves rather than minuscule fish.
Children are great recyclers and my eldest son will always find a new purpose for the trash he has discovered. But, what I really wish, is that he didn’t “discover” it in the first place.
I think, as a society, we have a conviction that someone else, anyone else, will pick up after us. Fix the mess. The truth is, no one comes to fix it. The truth is, it’s my son that “picks up” your trash. He helps me to carry his found treasures to the nearest recycling or waste receptacle. We talk about littering and the importance of caring for the planet. We also talk about accountability.
Clean up your own mess
And one day, not too long ago, we stumbled on the remains of a “party” in the park. My eldest son found a piece of rubbish and carried it to the nearby trash bin (merely feet away).
I proceeded to keep walking but then my son, in a frenzied state, called out, “wait, there’s more, it’s everywhere.” I watched him hurriedly try to pick up the balloon bits, ribbon and confetti. We stopped and I helped. It took about ten minutes.
The whole time I kept thinking: “I wonder how the adults who neglected to clean up their mess would feel knowing a four-year-old picked it up for them?”
I suppose that is the message. We are too busy to look. Too busy to help. And too busy to care. And if you don’t believe me, travel, or go outside. This wondrous world is simply filled with trash and no one is coming to clean up our mess (except maybe my four-year-old).