Monday January 14, 2013 | 04:40 PM
Posted by Harold Johnson

In March 2010, I took my then-toddler daughter to the beach at Ocean Park. It was the first warm-ish day after a fairly punishing winter. And I was looking forward to us stretching our legs and thinking of spring.

But as we came off the little boardwalk across the dunes, the sight laid out in the sand caught me off guard. February’s storms had cast up piles of seaweed and clam shells, sure. But it had cast up much more than that.

Looking around, I found sand-scoured bottles, mangled rope, someone’s glove, a broken pair of sunglasses. Further on, plastic forks and beach-umbrella bases. Shotgun shells, beer cans, architectural fragments. And hundreds of wide, thick rubber bands (which I learned were lobster claw bands).

So much garbage, brought in from the Gulf of Maine. And I had just scratched the surface, with maybe 20 minutes of picking up.

I had learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- the huge swirling mass of “plastic soup” out in the deep ocean a thousand miles from any mainland.

I’d seen photographs of dead albatross on Midway Atoll, heaps of plastic lying amid the bones where their bellies once were: 

USGS photo of dead Laysan Albatross, with the still-intact plastics it had ingested

But I was walking a quiet beach in Maine, barely four miles from my home. Could such a thing be happening here as well?

It seemed crazy. But there was the debris. Up and down the beach, for all to see.

I looked over at my daughter, smiling and happy with her pail and shovel. And I realized that the choices of my generation were impacting her generation’s future. That she and her friends were going to grow up into a world that was shaped for them by us. And that I was going to have to do better.

So I grabbed a trash bag and a camera, and haven’t looked back. Some 150 cleanups and 26,000 pieces of debris later, each visit to the beach still brings new questions: What is this? How did it get here? If it doesn’t belong, then what can be done to stop it? If it does belong, how does it fit into this incredible jigsaw of life amid ocean & coast?

And each question has led down strange and often sinuous paths. Those paths cross, branch out, meet up in unexpected ways. They shine lights on the incredible -- and sometimes not so obvious -- connections between what goes on in the natural world and what goes on in our daily lives. How the choices we make matter to the world around us. And how we are very much part of the world around us, not just onlookers from some other plane.

The story, then, of “Undercurrents” is the story of what happens when we stop, look down at the sand around our feet, and really see what’s there.

Let's hit the beach.

 

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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