That's the lesson that I keep relearning the deeper I dig. If something seems obvious, question it. Look at it from a different angle. Don't get lazy. You don't get to the truth of the matter -- or at least the whole truth -- by accepting a whole list of things as "given."
Cases in point from the March 19 haul.
Case #1. Shredded toddler waistband
Should be a no-brainer. Instant image of a family at the beach, a ripped piece of clothing from a store at the Maine Mall, maybe a scolding or two. Same event can be played out every summer day at Ocean Park.
But take a second look. The kelp and seaweed aren't just lying on top of the fabric. They're interspersed, weaved inside. How could that happen? Kelp and seaweed don't grow on beach sand. And the Children's Place? They're everywhere. Check their Web site -- there are 16 retail stores within 100 miles of Ocean Park. Could this piece of flotsam have bobbed around the ocean for months, or years even? Whatever the final truth, there's probably something far more interesting going on than a shredded pair of shorts left at the beach by a local family last summer.
Which sucks. It would be nice to have a simple answer for everything. But now, there are just questions. Did the kelp truly grow within the fabric? If so, where in the ocean did this waistband probably live while the kelp was growing in it? Does the waistband sink or float in ocean water? And how long did it have to be out there for life to grow in it?
Case #2: Gatorade bottle
Again, first glance, easy story comes to mind. Just some litterer leaving behind a drink bottle instead of tossing it out, right? Well, maybe. Look at the thing. The orange cap band is badly faded. The bottle itself is abraded -- parts are even worn through. This didn't just happen last week.
Alright then. What does it take for a bottle to look like this? Would a bottle left buried in the sand end up looking this way -- and if so, how long would it take? Or would it have to be rolled around and sandblasted, churned around the ocean and shorelines for years? I don't know. But if I'm serious about wanting to learn where the debris is coming from, it's something I'm going to have to find out.
Last but not least.
Case #3: Aluminum
Yum. Sharp, jagged bits of metal. Just what you want at the beach, right?
But, this also suggests that aluminum cans don't last forever. They do disintegrate. Interesting. Time to learn the facts. Go to Google, type in "how long does it take a can to decompose". 6 million hits. But the first one looks promising! Click. Oh. 200-500 years? I'm thinking no. Serves me right for clicking the first thing I saw.
Dig deeper. Ah-hah. Finding many reports of aluminum rotting away quickly at the beach. Folks saying aluminum is corroded by salt water. Case closed?
Nope, afraid not. We all know there's a lot of bad information on the Web. But I'm finding some of the worst right now -- at this very moment, as I'm trying to research this simple question. ("Keyboard flotsam," that's my new term for it.)
OK. Facts gathered. Salt water didn't cause the corrosion above. But the salt water -does- act as an electrolyte in galvanic corrosion. Simply put, this means there had to be other metals nearby (steel, iron). And both metals had to be close enough to each other, and both immersed in salty seawater, to react and break down the aluminum cans and food tins.
So, you throw an aluminum can overboard in the ocean, it can last for decades, or centuries. That turns out to be true. But at the beach, in just the right circumstances, and with other metal flotsam nearby, you might get that beer can to recycle itself.
Comforting. And just more proof that oftentimes the obvious... isn't so obvious.