Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Re-Education, Part 1

Context. Another archaeology term. It means that an artefact's true value comes from understanding how, when, and why it ended up where it did. The same is true of flotsam. Finding a piece of trash is great. But only by knowing the how, when, and why will it tell you its whole story.

My initial plan was simple: pick an area of a beach I love, walk up and down the high-tide mark for a couple blocks, collect whatever trash I notice, catalog it, report it. And then -- most important -- learn something from it.

I posted my March 8 & March 19 finds to this blog a month ago. To any who think I then quit, oh no. Below are results of my April 3 haul:

My half-hour two-block stroll on April 3 netted me: Several pounds of commercial fishing rope, an unidentified burlap scrap, 8 scraps of aluminum can, 24 lobster claw bands, a plastic cup, two cup lids, a plastic knife, two plastic forks, various scraps of cups & plates, a popped balloon enmeshed in kelp, a decayed rubber baseball, a shotgun shell, two beach umbrella bases, some newspaper, a 10-inch-tall oil filter, part of a "No Trespassing" sign, and a few bits of unidentified molded plastic.

I have more plastic bags of trash down in the shed waiting to be cataloged, from 4/14, 4/20, 5/11, 5/18, 6/2.

One problem: My initial plan? It kind of sucked. The story lacks context. Turns out, I didn't have very good controls at all. Instead, my plan let in too many holes -- too many variables -- to actually say much.*

Hole #1: Randomness -- Picking casually, instead of fully clearing an area, hamstrings me. Did that oil filter arrive between 3/19 and 4/3? Or was it there long before? No idea. Did it wash in by normal waves? By a storm? Get tossed intentionally? No clue.

Hole #2: Outside influence, small-scale -- There may be others collecting trash. And for sure there are others collecting kelp (with its debris) to use as compost. So even if I collected everything I found, does that mean I've collected everything that was there? No idea.

Hole #3: Outside influence, large-scale -- Tractors now hit the beach frequently, and they're drastically churning & changing the landscape. As of 6/8, most (not all) of the lobster traps have been hauled off. If I had started my hunt this week, there would be much less meeting my eye than there was in March. What else have they been hauling away or burying? No clue.

In the end, my first method was hopelessly lacking in controls. It left me unsure of when debris arrived, how it arrived, and how much of it arrived. It's time for a new approach, and I think I've found it. Stay tuned.


* Lest this seem all doom & gloom, the past couple of months have opened my eyes in -amazing- new ways. And the trash itself has at least spawned good questions, if not always good answers. The aluminum can scraps, for example. By studying them, I'm learning that the insides are mostly intact. They've been eaten away from the outside. Something besides seawater (which obviously sloshes around inside -and- outside a can) may be the culprit that's rotting these cans down. More to follow.

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