Instead of Sea Shells and Agates, I Find . . . Plastic

It was getting late, but it was the first dry day on the Oregon coast after weeks of hard rain and king tides, and the beach was calling.

A dead sea lion lay at the bottom of the steep ramp from Don Davis Park to Nye Beach. It was already starting to disintegrate, its face gone, guts exposed, tufts of brown fur here and there. Sad.

But I was more upset by the litter. I had been reading a long essay about plastic waste titled “Moby-Duck.” First published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007 and in the Best Creative Nonfiction in 2008, it was later expanded into a book, also titled Moby-Duck.

Author Donovan Hohn’s story begins with a 1992 spill of bath toys from a container ship traveling from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. Little plastic ducks, beavers, turtles, and frogs started turning up on beaches far from the spill. The author became fascinated and met with experts who study the things that drift up onto the beach.  He researched the evolution of plastic products, particularly toy ducks, and the effects of plastic breaking down in the sea. He explored the working conditions in Chinese factories where workers were expected to turn out thousands of these things an hour for less than $4 a day.

What starts as an amusing story about toys quickly becomes alarming. Our ocean is so full of plastic we will never get rid of it. It breaks down over time into pieces, then shards, then dust, but it never disappears. Sea animals are eating it, and we’re eating the sea animals. It’s getting inside of everything, including us, and the ingredients are toxic.

Plastic was considered a godsend when it was invented in 1907. Now, that innocent toy bobbing in your child’s bathtub could be a death bomb for your great-grandchildren.

I was reading this essay at the hospital while waiting for my annual exam, getting more and more steamed about long waits and Medicare limitations. I flashed on those plastic gloves that hospital workers wear. Sitting at my father’s bedside when he was dying, I watched the nurses put on a new pair and throw them away every time they changed patients. How many thousands of pairs of gloves did they use in just one day? Where would we put all this waste?

Back to the beach. Instead of shells and rocks, I found trash. Just past the sea lion carcass, where the waves had washed up near the cliffs, blue, white, red, and green plastic litter sparkled in the sun. Embedded in grass and seaweed, most of it was too small to pick up.

The beach wasn’t crowded, but most of the people walking the wave-compacted sand brought their dogs. Those dogs would surely be drawn to the trash. I know mine would. I have caught her eating pens, rubber balls, Frisbees, and paper clips. I find the brightly colored pieces in her feces. I try to keep such things away from her, but people toss them along the roadsides where we walk, and sometimes she swallows the plastic before I can stop her. I worry that one of these thingswill kill her.

In his essay, Hohn tells of albatrosses who eat plastic items and shit them out. Dead birds have been found with cigarette lighters, bottle caps, toys, and other plastic items in their guts. He writes, “Albatross chicks have been known to starve to death on the plastic their parents regurgitate into their mouths, and the intestines of the adult birds can handle only so much before a fatal case of indigestion sets in.”

In the future, will we be able to find water or food that doesn’t sparkle with bits of plastic? Will this invention destroy its creators in the end?

The sky and the ocean were gorgeous, beautiful shades of pale blue. The sand, rocks, and Easter egg-colored buildings along the shore were beautiful. It felt good to get out on the beach and walk, to hear the seagulls laugh and watch a young father run toward the surf with his two-year-old son. But what about all that plastic?

I want to discard every piece of plastic in my house, but I use so much of it, including this computer, every day. Besides, we can’t get rid of it. It will not biodegrade, and most of it is not recyclable.

The plastics industry stresses the usefulness of its products AND their recyclability. Yes, there are those numbers stamped on the bottom which in theory mean they can be recycled. But where I live, the garbage company says no to plastic bags, styrofoam, plastic cutlery, toys, large plastic items, and anything stamped numbers 3 through 7 because they have nowhere to take them. We are instructed to throw them in the regular trash. I’m sure the same is true in many places.

Even with the plastic that can be recycled—mostly bottles—the quantity being discarded far outpaces the ability to remake them into something else. All we can do is try not to buy any more plastic. What we need is a magic wand to make it disappear. It would probably be made of plastic.

More reading:  (pro-plastic) (anti-plastic)

“What are Plastics and Rubbers?”

“Plastic Pollution: Facts and Figures”

“Tops Items from Beach Cleanups: Plastics, Plastics, and More Plastics”

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Tourists Invade the Oregon Coast

It’s Labor Day weekend, time for the Oregon coasties to hide while tourists take over the town. Most of us moved here to get away from crowds, to escape stop-and-go traffic, cities full of strangers, and long lines at restaurants, stores and gas stations. We like our small-town setting where we can move around freely, never wait in line, and always run into someone we know.

So does everyone else. The Oregon Coast is one of those places people go for recreation. As a result, from around Memorial Day to sometime after Labor Day, the place is packed with visitors. Every other vehicle crawling down the highway is from somewhere else. Lots of those vehicles are slow-moving RVs and big trucks towing boats, but even the little cars slow us down as the drivers gawk at the sights. I’m thinking okay, it’s the ocean, it’s a bridge, it’s a lighthouse, take your picture and move along.

At the grocery stores, travelers fill the aisles, not knowing where anything is and having to confer on every purchase. Shall we have corn with that? What kind of cereal do you like? Me, I’ve got my list, and I’m still in my church clothes. Let me get my food and go home. 

I drove through Nye Beach yesterday to take pictures and found nowhere to park. Visitors wearing shorts, leading children and dogs, and snapping pictures with their cell phones, clogged the sidewalks and spilled out of the eateries. Great sweating masses of visitors stared at the ocean. I surprised a couple kissing on the stairs by the Visual Arts Center.

I want them all to go home, but like everyone who lives here, I know our economy depends on folks from out of town coming here to spend their money. They stay in our motels and RV parks, eat our food, fill their vehicles with our gas, and buy our glass floats, thereby enabling the local kids to have school clothes and me to buy groceries. I get it.

Like a large portion of Oregon Coast residents, I moved from a place people leave for vacation to a place where people come. My husband and I were tourists here, too. We walked on the beaches, visited the lighthouses and aquariums, shopped in the gift shops, and ate in the restaurants. We fell in love with the place and resolved to move here someday. And then, like so many Californians who first came as visitors, we sold our house and drove the big rental truck north.

Now I have the nerve to resent all those tourists. Twenty years ago, I was one of them with my California license plate, slowing down traffic to take pictures. I must try to embrace these wide-eyed tourists as just like me. So come, let me show you my beautiful home. Then, either learn to drive the speed limit or go back to wherever you came. And by the way, put away the cell phone. Why drive hundreds or thousands of miles if all you’re going to see is your iPhone?

Tomorrow, the local kids are going back to school. Soon the weather will turn, the tourists will trickle away, and we will reclaim our town. But today, I’m staying home in my little piece of paradise.

The Secret Path

I have lived in the Newport, Oregon area for 13 years. I drive down Nye Street to Sacred Heart Church several times a week, but I had never noticed the path before. I suppose it blended in with the houses and driveways and I was always too busy trying not to hit kids, cars or dogs with my Honda. Yesterday on foot, I found a magical place.

I had taken Annie with me to the church, having forgotten to turn in my time sheet again (I forget every month; maybe they should go electronic). My restless dog hadn’t been away from home for a whole 48 hours, and she was delighted to jump into the car, coating the seats with her yellow fur again. She sat up tall, staring out the window, watching the world go by. At church, time sheet turned in, she leaped out and we started our walk.

First we slipped behind the church and down the steps to the baseball field next door, where three people were tossing a chartreuse tennis ball around. Annie froze, staring at the flying ball. I explained that sometimes balls are actually not being thrown for the dog. She found this puzzling.

We went on, beginning on Nye Street, then taking a series of right turns that led us down streets I had never noticed before. We passed salt-water-taffy-colored cottages with ceramic seagulls and stained-glass peace signs in the windows and turned into a tree-covered gravel road that took us to another street and another. I started to wonder how long this walk would turn out to be. I was beginning to sweat despite the foggy weather.

At last I saw Nye Street and turned back toward the church, but two blocks before the ball field, I noticed an opening on the west side of the road. A paved path. Trees. The trickle of a creek. “Annie, come on,” I said.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. In the middle of Newport, I had found a beautiful nature trail. Lined with conifers, alders and wild blackberries, it was a wonderful place to get away from the tourist traffic. Annie dashed from one alluring smell to another as I wondered how I could have missed this trail.

We walked and walked, finally coming out at a children’s play area and a roller skate park. A sign said it was Sam Moore Park. I had heard the name but thought it was somewhere else.

We were a long way from the car now, closer to the beach than the church. We slogged uphill, at least one of us feeling tired and thirsty and noting the complaints of aging knees that had gone too far. But we will go back another time. What a gift.

Two lessons learned: Sometimes a forgotten errand can lead to nice surprises, and you can see a lot more if you get out of your car.

Snow? But It’s the Beach!

I have never seen so much snow falling in my life. We live on the Oregon coast, near the beach, at sea level. Before we moved here, we came up in February for the annual Seafood and Wine Festival. It was snowing then, but lightly, and everyone said, “Oh, that never happens.” Wrong. It seems to snow more each year. The above picture was taken Sunday morning, before the heavy snow came. The dogs had a great time sliding around and eating chunks of ice. Now everything is solid white, it’s about 25 degrees, and the dogs are huddled together on the big green chair in the living room.

Thank God I did my singing in Nye Beach on Saturday when it was merely cold. I woke up Sunday to the so-called “Winter Wonderland.” I have learned over the years that it’s only a wonderland for skiers and characters in fairy tales. Those of us who need to work in it, drive on it or who have broken heaters don’t enjoy it so much.

Yesterday I made it to church during a lull in the storm, zipped to Fred Meyer’s to buy a few last Christmas gifts and made it home just as the snow started to fall. I spent hours looking out the window, amazed. So much snow, so thick. So beautiful. But this California kid keeps thinking, All right, I got my photos. Enough already. There’s some blue in the sky, and it is absolutely gorgeous out my window, but we’re afraid to go anywhere because everything is turning to ice and expected to stay that way for several days.

Now I know you folks who live in real snow country are thinking, big deal, a couple inches for a few days, but we Silicon Valley expatriates are not wired for snow. I don’t have chains for the new car, and I forgot to wrap the pipes. Mostly I worried about the dogs turning into pupsicles in the laundry room where they sleep.

Up in Portland, where the weather is worse, our son Michael rode his bike to the store. He only crashed once, he said. Unfortunately, he was carrying his groceries and watched his milk trickle one way and his hot chocolate the other. Oh well. He’s young. He sent photos of snow angels.

Singing to the Salami

Scene: Nye Beach, the frou-frou section of Newport, 4:15 p.m. Saturday

I walk into the Nye Beach Market and notice a boy and two girls sitting around a gingerbread structure. It isn’t a house. It looks like a pile of squares. Gingerbread condos? I am weary, having roamed from shop to shop seeking willing merchants with actual customers since 3:00.

“Would you like some music?” I ask, spreading my gear on the cushy red chairs. “Why not?” says the young woman behind the counter. “It might just be us though.” Whatever. I whip through “Feliz Navidad” for the third time today, followed by “The Marvelous Toy” and “Mary Did You Know?” As I sing, struggling to be heard over the refrigerators, I realize those are two-foot-long salamis hanging above a counter full of sweets, including three-quarters of a chocolate cheesecake. Two women come in and browse shelves of chocolates and fancy olives while the boy leans over the cake, carefully frosting the edges. Next time I look, all the kids are licking the leftover frosting out of a bowl.

I decide to move on.

I have already been to Coastal Breezes, a knick-knack shop where Mr. and Mrs. Santa waved at me coming and going while I sang to patio chairs occupied by stuffed Santa figurines. Every time a truck came by, I lost audio contact.

Next I walked up the hill to the wine shop, where I expected to find our old friend Wendy behind the counter. Who were these strangers surrounded by wine-tasters talking the language of color, nose and provenance? “Would you like some music?” I asked. The two men behind the bar shrugged. “I guess we’ll turn the jazz off,” the older man said. The other man just kept talking. And talking and talking. As I squeezed between the wine racks and sang, my voice cracked. “You need some wine,” someone suggested. “No,” I said. “It would coat my throat.” Besides, I knew I was just unnerved by the haughty attitude of the audience. Wine did sound good.

I swigged my water and went on. A middle-aged couple, possibly Hispanic, came in, loudly proclaiming, “Sue Fagalde Lick,” my full name. “Who are you?” I asked the woman, but I guess she didn’t hear me over the wine clamor. Her husband followed. “Hi Sue,” he said, clearing knowing me from somewhere. “I love your books,” the woman went on. “I didn’t know you were such a beautiful singer, too.” “Oh, thank you,” I said. I had no idea who they were, but I did an extra song for their benefit.

On to the Dapper Frog gallery, where my friend Nancy works amid glass art priced at thousands of dollars. At least it was warm and pretty in there. I sang to $100 candle holders, $4,000 masks and swirly chandeliers that cost almost as much as my car. Oh, and don’t forget the lime green Buddha. I think he was only $1,500.

I was lucky to get out of there without breaking something. Nancy was the one who sent me to the market. She meant well.

Business was slow everywhere because of the weather. It was in the low 40s and the weather forecasters had bee predicting snow for tonight and tomorrow. Yes, snow on the beach. I wore so many layers I felt like one of those kids so bundled up they can’t walk. Last weekend, the weather was comfortable and dry. I played outside, and the stores were jammed, but this time, merchants twiddled their thumbs, watching their holiday profits disappear. . .

From the market, I head west. I stop at the tea shop and this old woman with hair, face and coat all the same pale yellow informs me that the tiny gift shop is open but the tea room is closed. She clearly doesn’t want company. “I’ll move on,” I say. She suggests “next door.” Uh, the Sandbar, one of the roughest bars in town? I don’t think so. Not the lingerie shop either. I consider the Chowder Bowl restaurant, but upon opening the door, I am deafened by the roar of a vacuum cleaner. Again, no.

It begins to rain hard nuggets of water that drive me to the shelter of Illingworth’s, one of the oldest gift shops in the area. As I park myself in a corner between the salt water taffy, chocolate truffles and a Christmas tree decorated all in silver, the page-boy-haired manager and her few customers welcome me and laugh when I say it’s starting to rain “or something.” “It’s that ‘something’ that worries me,” someone says. “Rain, I can handle.” Amen. By then I have set up and taken down my music stand and guitar and changed eyeglasses about 10 times. The acoustics are good, the audience complimentary. I’m staying here for the rest of my tour.

Finally it’s 5:00. Darkness has fallen, but the rain has stopped. I pack up and head past the lighted shops to my Honda.

Across from my car sits Café Mundo, sort of like a restaurant in a treehouse. I’ll have to describe it in a future column, but the light glows red from the windows and I think about how I’d like to slide into a chair, take off my coat and order something intensely alcoholic. Lacking that, I would settle for going home and throwing myself on the floor in the corpse pose for a day or two, but it’s time for real life, dogs at the door, everybody needing dinner, chores to finish, and one more chance to practice my piano music for tomorrow morning’s Mass.

Feliz Navidad, already.

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