Lifting plastic, it's fantastic
... but human nature has a way of complicating even the most noble of pursuits
I was walking Hout Bay beach the other day. Whenever I visit Hout Bay I walk very precisely from one end of the beach to the other and back again.
There is a rock that I kick on the left to begin the walk, and a rock that I kick on the other side, and then I have to walk back and kick the first rock again. That is my ritual, and I like to pretend that every time I’m there I kick the same rocks, but truthfully all rocks look very similar to me and in a brain that needs to daily remember passwords that are at least seven digits with one of them being a number and another one a special symbol, who has space for memorising rocks?
As I walked along I took in the usual sights of the seaside: little boys chasing little girls with pieces of wet kelp; elderly couples walking hand in hand at the water’s edge with their trouser cuffs rolled up like a Cialis commercial; a teenaged girl sitting cross-legged on the sand with her head in her hands.I was looking out for the onion. Hout Bay beach always has precisely one onion washed up on the littoral. I don’t know from where these onions come nor why there is only ever one of them.
Is there a desert island off the coast with a shipwrecked sailor with no bottles but a consignment of onions? Does he scrawl his plaintive messages and stuff them inside one onion at a time and throw them out to catch the tide?
“Read the onion,” he begs each time. “For the love of God, will someone please just read the onion?”
As I walked along I noticed a woman carrying a shopping packet. Whenever she passed a piece of plastic – a chip packet, say, or a plastic straw, or some scrap of cellophane – she would casually bend down and scoop it up and deposit it in the packet. She wasn’t doing this with any degree of agitation or obsession: she wasn’t a lunatic, which shamefully seems to be my first l thought when I see someone doing something decent. She was just a woman enjoying an afternoon stroll, picking up bits of plastic that caught her eye.
It did me good to see her, and I looked around and noticed – the way you suddenly notice a colour when you start consciously looking for it – how much plastic there was, flitting about or half-buried in the sand.
I found a plastic frozen yoghurt spoon and dropped it into her packet as I passed and she looked a little startled but smiled. I suppose it’s hard to know what to say when a stranger puts a piece of trash in your trash-packet. “Thank you” doesn’t seem appropriate; it’s not really a gift.
As I strolled on, feeling very virtuous about the spoon, I noticed a teenaged couple mooching along with a packet of their own, also picking up plastic.
The girl was long-legged like a fly and the boy was the size of a small building, the way teenaged boys are these days. They were giggling and jostling and at one point he chased her with a piece of wet bubblewrap.
This couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? I loitered a little and when the woman caught up again I pointed out the kids. Oh, she said, that’s her daughter. Picking up plastic is a habit her daughter picked up from her. That fellow is her boyfriend. Whenever they walk the beach they bring a packet and make a game of filling it up. She used to walk the beach with a previous boyfriend and they did the same thing before they broke up.
I liked to think of the practice rippling out from this woman: her daughter and all her daughter’s boyfriends and future husbands and their children and grandchildren, a widening wave of people casually doing something that makes the world even the tiniest bit better. I thought about that plastic frozen yoghurt spoon and felt pleased to be a part of it. People, I thought, smiling happily, really are something.
And then I noticed, coming down the beach from the opposite direction, another teenaged couple. They were being less playful than the first couple, taking their stroll altogether more seriously, but astonishingly they also had a shopping packet, and were scooping up the bits of plastic that they passed.
The two sets of teenagers saw each other at much the same time, and all came to an awkward halt.
“What are you doing here?” demanded the first girl, the daughter.
“I can come here,” said the boy from the second couple defiantly. He didn’t say so, but I felt he was implying the words, “This is a public beach.” And also, maybe “You’re not the boss of me.”
“I come here,” said the first girl. “You know I come here.” She shook the plastic packet. “This is my thing.”
“It’s also my thing!” said the second boy, shaking his plastic packet.
“It’s only your thing because it was my thing!” said the first girl.
The new partners frowned uncomfortably, apparently each having been under the impression that this was their thing too.
I wanted to step forward and smooth this over. “Guys!” I wanted to say. “This is a just a blip in your lives! Be happy for each other. There is so much space on the beach, coming and going – in time you’ll be only too glad to see a familiar face. There’s plenty of trash for everyone!”
But I didn’t. I walked on, toward my rock. People, I thought, shaking my head, really are something.