Of flotsam and jetsam

by Melissa Hart

As poetry students at a California university, my friend Merie and I walked to class along the beach. We often paused to examine dead seagulls, whose glazed eyes and tar-matted feathers we described in our would-be avant-garde verse. Somehow we never questioned where the birds came from or even why they were dead. Twenty years later, naturalist Bonnie Hender-son also ponders dead seagulls and other detritus in her new book Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris. Henderson, however, has questions.

Every month for 14 years, Henderson has patrolled Mile 157 of the Oregon coast, charting the water bottles, tennis balls and plastic buoys that wash up on shore for the citizen monitoring program CoastWatch.

But Strand is more than a mere catalog of flotsam and jetsam; it recounts Henderson's own odyssey across continents and cultures as she speculates on the origin and demise of beach trash. The discovery of a glass float -- "the blue of a Bombay Sapphire gin bottle, but shot with fine bubbles and etched with pale pink diamonds" -- from a Japanese fishing vessel piques her interest in how such an artifact migrates, and she embarks on a trip to Japan to find the artist who crafted her float. In China, she researches the history of an unused running shoe that fell off a container ship en route to the States and ended up on Mile 157, festooned with barnacles.

Lately turned 50, Henderson considers mortality, both her own and that of others. Her description of 4,000 common murres killed by an oil spill is heartbreaking: "the slow, irregular flapping of hundreds of pairs of wings as murres that could neither fly nor swim, murres coated with thick, black fuel oil, moved toward the shore with a kind of awkward, halting butterfly stroke." 

Still, Strand offers moments of unexpected humor. It's impossible not to chuckle at Henderson's description of how experts resorted to dynamite to remove a dead sperm whale from an Oregon beach. Onlookers videotaped the scene, which humor columnist Dave Barry labeled "the single funniest thing I've ever seen." 

Strand will appeal to beachcombers and amateur archaeologists, as well as to anyone who is simply fascinated, as Merie and I were, by the strange things that wash up on the sand. Once again, I find myself pausing on my beach walks -- not only over decomposing seagulls, but at pieces of plastic and the glistening remnants of jellyfish -- to wonder where these objects came from and how they made their journey to the coast.

© High Country News