White Whale



After Kamilo, I thought I would need to travel to see every junk beach on the planet—places where spinning gyres, currents and geography coincide, and the ocean vomits up some portion of its vast cargo: in the Pacific, the Pitcairn Islands, Hawaii, Malorrimo; Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico; in the Atlantic, the Azores and Bermuda. [i]

Then I would need a submersible to take me down three thousand feet into sea canyons in the Mediterranean, where plastic bottles pile up in the sediment like strange cylindrical fossils. Then across the seabed and downward, darker, colder, eight thousand feet below ice floes in the Greenland Sea, my arc of light reflecting off a clear plastic bag floating past in the black.

Then smaller and smaller still until microscopic to slide inside the gut of a lugworm, Arenicola marina, burrowed beneath beige sand at Dovercourt beach on England’s east coast. A powerful suck from the worm’s mouth swirls me inside it, slick and dark, along with sand grains and tiny plastic particles.

The worm strips from the miniscule bits whatever its cells recognize as food, whatever is organic—bacteria, algae, protozoa, and the laboratory chemicals that saturate the plastic particles—polychlorinated biphenyls, dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene, nonylphenol, phenanthrene. A bar-tailed godwit catches sight of the worm’s dark tip, snatches with its narrow beak, swallows in two quick jerks; the worm and all it enfolds meld into bird cells. As for me, I am ejected, only imaginary, cast back on the beach in a tube of sandy worm excrement. [ii]

Ridiculous. I lay on the couch on a Friday, the 13th of January, thinking such thoughts. I’d failed. I felt incapable of writing this book, of expanding to the necessary scope. Of acquiring the time and money and breadth and depth of—what? I didn’t even know what I was missing. The Autobiography of Plastic, a title I announced to my friends on a whim and kept repeating because people liked it—enough to give me a few thousand dollars in grant money. Enough to interest a book agent, who asked for chapter summaries. But I had no idea what it meant.

January in Portland means evening all day. It had rained, and it was going to rain. But for a moment the sun burned almost all the way through the cloud layer and turned the sky silver. I decided to stop thinking, get off the couch and take the dog for a walk. I opened the front door and there in the dirt sat a white plastic ring, gleaming. I picked it up. It was deeply worn and weathered, hard to tell where it came from, the mouth of a pill bottle maybe. It had teeth marks in it, definite marks from some animal’s mouth.

It struck me: I am not lucky enough to be worm excrement. Imagining piloting around, an explorer peering out from my safe suit of self—that is wish fulfillment, a fantasy. I am inside the worm still, the worm inside me, sloshing molecules back and forth. A house forms its own coast, a body does—skin, blood, gills, lungs—awash in the currents and whatever they bring, seeping through cells respiring, tidal.

The teeth that chewed on this plastic probably belong to my dog. He chewed on it, and swallowed some tiny plastic particles, and some drifted down into dirt, where in about one month, I will poke a few holes and tuck in pale peas that will grow into plants, vining, building themselves out of sun, water, air, and nutrients pulled through roots from the soil. In May I’ll walk out and pinch off a sweet green pod, chew it up with my teeth, and swallow. Quincy the dog will do the same, he learned it from me, tugging pods with his mouth. I always plant too many, so I will fill bowls with peas and share them with neighbors, who will admire the sweet crunch in their teeth. In there, along with whatever molecules make a pea, there might be a few broken free from the plastic bits, and whatever else has washed this coast in its sixty years as suburban tract—particles of soot from car exhaust, bits of mercury fallen with rain drops, asbestos slivers from the house shingles. Here, let me feed you, neighbor, let me feed you, dog, let me feed you hungry body.

I put the ring in my pocket and walked out the gate. I felt a little whisper of that vertigo. My neighborhood that had been familiar—kind of weedy and worn but tidy—seemed awash suddenly. Everywhere I looked, plastic. I put every piece in my pocket. Then I couldn’t stop. Every day, on every dog walk, with disgust, boredom, sometimes delight, I kept on picking up plastic. Like at Kamilo, I started to make lists, recording each piece and taking a photo. I stored all the plastic in plastic garbage bags on the back porch.

In October the car part turned up. “That’s your white whale,” said Jen when I dragged it in. After several weeks she asked how long I planned to keep the car part in the living room. I moved it into the bedroom, on the floor near my side of the bed.

[i] Flotsametrics, 191

[ii] David K.A. Barnes, Francois Galgani, Richard C. Thompson and Morton Barlaz, “Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2009 364, 1985-1998.




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