The Curious Journeys
of Flotsam and Jetsam
(Sasquatch Books, 227 pp, $16.95)
The last scene in this book recounts a conversation between the author and her psychiatrist. She’s explaining jubilantly that she has discovered her true calling: a self-confessed “flotsamist.” He tells her to “face her demons.” She ends the session with the all too familiar phrase, “time’s up,” adding, “I have twenty minutes to reach the beach before the tide turns. After that storm last night, I can’t wait to see what washes up.” The shrink says, “hold on, I’ll get my coat.”
I walked the beach this morning and here on the Gulf of Mexico, there is only one high and one low tide in 24 hours so I can sit at my computer until 10:00 tomorrow morning if necessary. Although Moody does a fine job of it, I didn’t need to be persuaded to “walk the wrack line” It is simply one of the most pleasurably engrossing human pastimes invented since life crawled out of the big puddle. We wrack line walkers may all just be hunting for the next step in evolution. In the meantime we marvel over shell fragments, fish bones or in Moody’s case, an Hawaiian apricot seed that she “scored…along a lonely stretch of Alki Beach on the shores of Puget Sound…”
Moody writes as if she were musing to a companion during a walk on the beach, casually and without any discernable pattern or order. In one chapter she discusses bits and snatches of the history of flotsam, defines flotsam, jetsam and lagan—an unfamiliar term to me. (It’s flotsam that sinks to the bottom and stays there until a diver discovers it.) In another she perkily profiles some of the most intensely devoted “flotsamists” and provides photographs, both portraits and pictorial proof of their prowess. It is an eccentric bunch but you’ve gotta love’em for their passion.
Another chapter deals with ocean currents and the west coast team of scientists who are “tracking flotsam as a way of understanding ocean currents, including the giant circular currents known as gyres” dubbed “the great garbage patch.” Every ocean has them. The North Pacific subtropical gyre is an area about the size of Africa. Its accompanying air current is about the same as “a baby’s breath.” The North Atlantic subtropical gyre includes the Sargasso Sea and the Horse Latitudes.
What’s significant about these currents for flotsamists (as opposed to sailors) is that they collect immense amounts of garbage—from jettisoned cargo, wreckage and refuse snatched from distant shores by wind and water. During a seven day crossing of the North Pacific gyre, one of the west coast scientists reported that he never saw clear water, “just a carpet of floating debris, bottles, bottle caps, plastic wrappers, beach balls, and fragments of plastic.” The weight of the gyre’s litter was calculated to be about three million tons.
The aesthetic consequence of loading the Earth’s oceans with human garbage, the vast majority of which is plastic is not the worst. As the material ever so slowly degrades it releases toxins which poison the water and all the individuals who breathe it. “Until the world decides to convert most of its petroleum based plastics to something biodegradable [like corn and soybean oil] the problem is just going to get worse,” says marine environmental researcher, Charles Moore.
One resonable reaction to this news is guilt and despair but not to the flotsamist. It’s reason to get to the beach early and often. Moody proceeds to recount the story of a huge container vessel on its way from Korea to the U. S. carrying, among other things, several containers full of Nike athletic shoes. A large wave washes twenty-one containers overboard, five of them full of Nikes. Of approximately eighty thousand shoes, beachcombers along the northwest coast of the U. S, and Canada have retrieved about thirteen hundred shoes.
Because the shoes all had serial numbers, scientists were able to calculate drift patterns (which were influenced by the toe curvature of right and left-footed shoes) and flotsamists up and down the west coast participated in a shoe swap to match pairs. An athletic shoe can stay afloat for about ten years. The shoe swapping network is active to this day. Are we a resourceful specie, or what?
Washed Up is a fun read and tantalizing in it’s “tip of the iceberg” treatment of a subject that is both an engrossing hobby and a serious environmental threat. An in depth examination of the consequences of water-born human garbage would be a very different book. Hope it’s been written, too.