Monday June 24, 2013 | 10:09 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

As last night’s band of thunderstorms howled outside, I took a few moments to watch and appreciate. Trees bent sideways, rain came in sheets, the darkening sky exploded with white time after time. The gutters ran like torrents.

All of that water, from the sky, was hitting the ground and going... where? Well, where else, back to the low ground, the rivers & streams, and finally the ocean. To rebuild offshore and start the cycle again.

Storms of course don’t just carry water back to the ocean. They carry off tons of sediment too. Here is a picture of Chesapeake Bay in September 2011 after Hurricane Irene:

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

And beyond just soil & clay, storms will whisk away any bits of our daily lives they can. In a plastic age, that means more & more nondegradable garbage dumped into our oceans.

Which brings me to a curious item that is forever washing up at Curtis Cove. The plastic plant ID stake.

I’ve picked up dozens. Another one seems to come in every week. Some are clearly years old.

Why so many?

Well, when I was tilling the soil in our condo’s garden this spring, I found out. This is a sample of what I pulled up from just a few 6’ x 8’ plots:

Conscious though I try to be, some are even from my own plots.

When growing season’s done, and the weeds have taken over, it’s so easy just to walk away and forget what we put in the ground, wide-eyed & eager, a few months before. Plant stakes wiggle loose, and wash out with the next gully-washer.

Our condo’s garden lies just above a small stream that leads down to a storm drain, which leads to the Saco River, which empties into Saco Bay. Saco’s awesome Global Information System can help trace the exact path:

Here’s the outflow grate, emptying into the Saco River. A couple helpful cigarette butts (those are also plastic -- you knew that, right?) are floating out into the river in the photo.

Take gardens like ours all over the state -- all over the world -- and the scale becomes clear.

In 2013 we still use medieval tech for our storm drains. They’re tubes, where stuff goes in at one side, out the other. There are no baffles, no collection zones, no floatation/sink tanks to sort out any solid waste in the stormwater. Whatever the rains pick up, goes straight to the ocean.

I don’t know how many plant stakes (and other plastic bits) went from our garden into the ocean over the years. I’m not sure I want to know. But this year, I will make extra sure to pull them out when the season’s done.

We can’t do everything. But what we can do, we should do.

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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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