by April Falcon Doss
Our community beach sits on a point of land in the northern reaches of Anne Arundel County, not far from the chemical plants and oil tanks lining Curtis Bay and the industrial shipping of the Patapsco. On a clear day, we can see across the shipping lane to the giant orange cranes of the Dundalk Marine Terminal.
Perhaps because of our location, all kinds of detritus washes up on our shores. I used to grit my teeth at this trash on our beach. I would wait in annoyance for an opportunity to complain to someone about the carelessness of litterers: about the far-flung litterbugs whose trash reached our shores and the careless or lazy neighbors who found the beachs trash can too far away to trouble themselves to use it.
Then, one day, with no apparent catalyst or provocation, something some voice, some perspective inside me changed.
Most days now my daughter and I go down to the beach equipped with a new game. We pack a small canvas totebag with a plastic sifter, an orange plastic shovel and a yellow plastic hoe from my daughters sand-toy set; two plastic grocery bags; stale bread or tortilla chips; and, when I remember them, paper towels.
The dog, my daughter and I proceed down the cobblestones between the houses that lead to the beach. There, she alternates between attempting to feed the bread to local birds, fending off the dogs advances and eating the bread herself. In the absence of birds or of stale food, she draws pictures in the sand with sticks, arranges her toys on the beach, looks for bugs.
I begin picking up trash.
Here are a few of the things I find: bottle caps, plastic and metal that screw on, pop off or require a can opener; cigarette butts, whose half-life is a marvel; junk food wrappers; plastic grocery bags like the one into which I place the trash I retrieve; empty condom wrappers; plastic cutlery; juice boxes; beer and soda bottles; a surprising number of plastic tampon applicators; endless aluminum cans; Styrofoam packing pieces; unmatched shoes; corroded matchbox cars, generally of a sporty variety; candy wrappers; plastic action figures. The variety is almost unimaginable.
My daughter is eager to help. She is to my delight at least as interested in grasses, bugs, waves and shells as she is in the trash. Still, when she stumbles across litter she exclaims, Look, Mommy, heres more trash! and drops it into our plastic bags.
We might as well do something useful while were there, Ive decided. After all, we want the beach to be clean, so it might as well be us who clean it. My daughter is happy with the arrangement, because my clean-up efforts extend my attention span considerably for the kind of simply being that comes so naturally to her. We spend more time at the beach because of it. If it sets her a good example, that cant be a bad thing.
And its become a meditative thing. For those moments, I am focused on a simple task. I pick up trash until one plastic grocery bag is filled. Then I stop and continue playing with my daughter. I feel no compulsion to clean the entire beach: There are too many tiny bits of weather-beaten trash to pick out of the grasses at the waters edge. Besides, the next tide will only bring more. Thus the effort is constantly renewing, a task that finds a perfect balance between goal and process.
I know that for as long as I have the breath, will and strength to continue, the creek will offer me new gifts.
Gifts of the patience that comes from repeated effort.
Gifts of acceptance balanced with the effort to make change.
Gifts of tolerance as I learn the utter pointlessness of wasting irritation on anonymous polluters whose detritus wound up, improbably, here from an origin that could have been anywhere in the 64,000 square miles of the Bays watershed.
Gifts in the small satisfaction of knowing that any trash I retrieve will not return to the Bay.
Gifts in the time spent, windswept in all weather, alongside the water with my dog and my daughter.
Gifts in the small accomplishment of the concrete result: This many pounds and cubic feet of spoilage we have removed from the land.
Gifts in experiencing the truth of words I have heard attributed to Mohandas Gandhi: Whatever you do will be insignificant. But it is important that you do it anyway.
I marvel at how badly we abuse our water, and still she offers us gifts.