A Drifting World, or the Bottle That Was a Message
Dawid Juraszek90210? 90102? 20912? No way to know anymore. The answer is buried in the sand—or in a rubbish dump—underneath the blazing blue skies of Hainan.
Above, a dozen or so white birds in a V-formation flew east across the pale clouds. Below, a short wooden plank, lost among all the flotsam and jetsam on the beach, moved. A crab digging a hole underneath? No. These were clams, 20 or 30 of them, black shells with orange edges covered in sand, moving slowly, deliberately, as if to lift the plank.
In truth, they clung to it.
A minute later, back in the sea, the clams kept minding their own business even as they took in a fresh burst of water. The sand that had covered them dissolved into nothing, leaving the plank naked and slimy.
It wasn’t wood, but hard, coarse plastic foam. Dirty and battered, it had a number imprinted on it (92010? 90120? 29012?) that used to mean something to somebody.
Back in their element, the clams reflected the shimmering light, dancing in slow motion, their soft inner bodies reaching in and out of the shells like tongues from between thin lips. Everything was good again.
It must have been good for days, weeks, months, since they first attached themselves to this piece of discarded fishing gear—or whatever it was—somewhere in the South China Sea, perhaps all the way down in the Strait of Malacca, if not further in the vastness of the Pacific. Floating unnoticed between container ships and oil tankers, their little community multiplied and grew, surrounded by the oceanic silence broken only by the ship horns and gusts of wind, in scorching sunlight and pouring rain, perhaps in a typhoon or two, dragged by the omnipotent currents towards something beyond their capacity to comprehend: The Land.
I waded deep into the water and threw the piece of foam as far as I could, towards the oil rig that squatted on the horizon. It left an evanescent trail of droplets and fell without a splash.
How much time did I buy those oblivious creatures before their drifting world would reach the shore again, their shells to be crushed by bare feet, flip-flops, or motorcycle tyres, their bodies to be desiccated by the sun, the message imprinted in the foam (10290? 09120? 20219?) indecipherable and forgotten?
Hours, at most.
Above, a dozen or so white birds in a V-formation flew west across the pale clouds, returning from their search of a destination that was no longer there.
* * *
The impeccable surface left by the receding tide was soon to be scarred by the quad tyres. But not here, not yet. The smooth patch of sand was protected on three sides: by a sparkling lagoon, where fish darted at approaching human shadows against the rising sun, by the rough layers of volcanic rock, and by the sea itself.
But all around the Weizhou Island the coastline was littered with anything and everything the sea was made to gulp down and now threw back up. Right at the edge of the surf, I saw a glass bottle of the kind that in old pirate novels might carry a message from a desperate castaway, or a map to a treasure island.
This one was empty, but the message and the map were there all right.
“Premium Wall Street Blended Spirit” the label proclaimed, along with the reassurance that Scotch whisky and Vietnamese spirit in it were expertly blended. Most of everything else on the label was in Vietnamese, which must have meant that this particular bottle was not for export. The coast of Vietnam was well over a hundred kilometres—eighty miles or so—away across the Gulf of Tonkin. There’s your map.
The bottle was slimy and covered in clams, 10 or 20 of them, their soft inner bodies reaching in and out of their white shells with orange edges like tongues licking pale lips. Did they really come from the Vietnamese territorial waters? They well might have. About to die on a Chinese island, they delivered a message. A message that we are sending to ourselves, yet refuse to read.
The waste that ends up on beaches worldwide is a symptom of a self-inflicted disease that we have convinced ourselves is part of our identity, an ailment that we need to manage, the logic goes, but that we shouldn’t try to heal, because we wouldn’t be ourselves if we did. The civilisation that we have devised is putting us on course towards something beyond our capacity to comprehend: The End, and sooner than we realise. But without it, we think we would no longer be who we are. And so we persist: A community that thrives on plastic (and fossil fuels, and pesticides, and inequalities) while drifting towards a hostile shore.
* * *
It would be all too easy to end this piece on a positive note. After all, some people are doing something, from cleaning up beaches to reducing waste to writing essays. Alarmist articles in magazines take pains to offer a spark of hope by the last paragraph. We don’t want humanity to think the challenge is too great to meet, the responsibility too heavy to bear, do we? All the negativity needs to be balanced with at least some positivity, surely.
But ending an essay on a positive note is the only easy thing we can count on. We offer each other shallow comfort even as we are drifting like a bunch of clams on a slimy piece of trash, enjoying the moment, with a hostile shore looming ever larger on the horizon. The currents will take us elsewhere, we say. Someone will fish us out in time. And the shore is not even that close.
Yet all the while we are drifting towards it. And there will be no one there to even try deciphering whatever message we leave when at last we get washed up.
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