When I was nine, I thought I’d become an archeologist when I grew up. We lived in Rome, and so the evidence that such a job existed was all around me. One of my friends had her birthday party in the Forum. The school bus took us to the Overseas School of Rome via the Appian Way, a road built in 300 BC. Our third-grade field trip was to the Etruscan ruins about an hour out of the city.
Archeology was also a family hobby. My parents, sister and I spent a couple of Sundays each year digging for pottery shards on Monte Cattini, a 2000 year-old garbage dump covered in a millennia of dirt and grass. The half-dozen amphorae handles that we unearthed decorated the bookcases in our Roman apartment. When we moved to Bogotá, they took up residence on the fireplace mantle, and they lay on the hearth of the Maryland family room when we moved to the States. Before we exited back overseas, my mother buried a couple of the pieces in the back yard sandbox: “That’ll make someone wonder!” Indeed.
My romance with archeology and the ancient Romans faded when we left Italy. In Colombia, we attended the English School, where history focussed on such things as “when we lost the colonies,” a topic my sister and discussed at the dinner table without irony. My mother said, “Honey, we ARE the colonies,” and we discovered that for ourselves when Dad was next assigned to work at the USIA headquarters in Washington, DC. My passion for figuring out the past through discarded artifacts was extinguished as I tried hard to blend in to the American present.
I found myself regaining my interest in archeology – albeit of a different sort – when my husband and I recently enjoyed some down time in Juno Beach, a small town about 45 minutes north of our home in South Florida.
Juno and its neighboring town of Jupiter share a nine and a half-mile stretch of sea front that includes Dog Beach, so named for its permitting canines off leash year-round. Our dog, Django, was a huge fan, and we released his ashes to mingle with the salt and sand when he died after Thanksgiving last year.
We donated on Django’s behalf to Friends of Jupiter Beach, a non-profit tasked with maintaining the nine and a half-miles free of garbage. The organic stuff is not the problem: dog owners are shamed into picking up after their pets, and there are plenty of poop bag stands.
The much more challenging clean-up is plastic, the insidious eternal material that clogs the seas. Each month, Friends of Jupiter Beach organizes a pick-up event during which hundreds of volunteers fan out along the shore with gloves and pails to collect whatever mankind has left behind: since 2006, they’ve removed 65,000 pounds of garbage.
I do my part whenever I’m on the beach, and archeology accompanies my forays. Here are the remnants I found during our recent visit, and what it told me about us.
We eat and drink on-the-go: plastic baggies remnants, a Gatorade bottle, a plastic spoon, a plastic lid to a disposable coffee cup, pieces of styrofoam coffee cup, a plastic lid and straw for a large soda cup, various pieces of cellophane, and piece of gum the color of lapis lazuli that, in another setting, could have been an Roman mosaic.
We fish here: a tangle of fishing line, hard plastic pieces of a bait box.
Children play here: a plastic sand pail handle.
Duct tape fixes everything: a weathered strip of duct tape.
Mice sunbathe: I have other no explanation for a fluid-filled tiny plastic cushion.
None of this should have been left on the beach. Any of this can kill.
And there’s a reason to be concerned with plastics on this particular stretch of beach along Florida’s east coast: it sees the second largest number of nesting sea turtles in the world each year.
The Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach patrols the beach during nesting season, rehabilitates injured sea turtles in a unique hospital that is on the leading edge of marine medical science, and reaches hundreds of thousands of people every year with education programs that reaches hundreds of thousands of people each year.
My husband and I are now part of those thousands, having participated in an LMC Turtle Walk. By the light of a full moon and a strategically positioned turtle-neutral red flashlight, we silently witnessed a huge Loggerhead female leave the sea, dig a two-foot hole, deposit a hundred eggs, and walk back down to the sea, never to see the hatchlings when they emerge in three months to begin a long, unlikely battle to live. One in 1,000 will make it to adulthood. The females will return to the same beach in 25 years and repeat the cycle.
But the odds are against them. Predators and the elements are a perpetual risk, but plastic is now as well. According to the Center for Biological Diversity not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution, and sea turtles are particularly vulnerable. Loggerheads, like the turtle we saw, eat plastic bags, Styrofoam and fishing lines, which block, ulcerate and perforate their internal organs, leading to illness and even death.
The Loggerhead Marinelife Center has treated, rehabilitated and released hundreds of sea turtles. In March, they took in an anemic, starving Loggerhead and successfully treated him with antibiotics, vitamins and minerals, and rich nutrition.
He was nicknamed Guy Harvey in honor of the artist, scientist, diver, angler, conservationist and explorer.
More than 1,000 people turned out for his public release back to the ocean last week, and, thanks to a well-timed walk, I was one more witness.
Awesome happens all around us. We just need to stay out of the way. The LMC’s Blue Table Restaurant Program supports restaurants that no longer use Styrofoam or plastic bags in take-out, and that provide straws and plastic utensils only upon request. Its cafe sells boxed water. Its gift shop offers guests reusable bags.
Amsterdam, which we visited in May, is also working to eliminate plastic garbage. Some shops charge for plastic bags and others don’t bag at all: Marqt, a cool Whole Foods on steroids, sold me this bag which folds into the size of a deck of cards, unfolds to sturdily hold a cannonball watermelon, a big papaya, and five cans of beans, and is made from two plastic water bottles!
The take-out pancakes we got at the The Happy Pig Pancake Shop came in a recyclable paper container with recyclable utensils.
Delicious and sustainable living is one reason that we’ll be going back to Amsterdam next year. In the meantime, we’ll aim for fewer plastic bottles in our recycling bin and a lot more walks on the beach.