Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Epiphany

I was at the beach again this morning. For a time I had the entire vista all to myself. And a thought struck me.

Earth is 4.54 billion years old.

The first oceans formed 3.8 billion years ago, as the planet cooled enough for liquid water to exist.

The earliest known life forms date back some 3.5 billion years.

Single-celled organisms floated in the primordial seas. They photosynthesized, pumped oxygen into the atmosphere, rusted the iron from the rocks so they could start breaking down into soil, paved the way for life as we know it. For our blue planet.

I stood, watching the gentle waves lap against the sand bar exposed by the low tide. And it occurred to me how, through all those vast ages, water has been the heart and soul of life. How every living thing that ever is or ever was has felt the nourishing flow of water coursing through it. How probably every molecule of water in that endless sea has -- at one time or another -- found itself coursing through a life form, somewhere.

In 3.8 billion years, one would think that the water of the oceans would have seen it all. Until just a couple generations ago, one would have been right.

Last week the ocean deposited this (among much else) at Bay View beach in Saco, Maine:
Photo Oct. 7, 2010
This recycling tub -- or half of a recycling tub, I should say -- is made of #2 plastic, HDPE (high-density polyethylene). HDPE was invented in 1951 by two scientists from Phillips Petroleum. 30 million tons of it are now made each year. In all the 3.8 billion years that water has flowed on our planet... in all the things it has flowed around, under, through... until the time of our parents/grandparents, it had never had to flow around #2 plastic.

Now it can't get away from the stuff.

When #2 plastic (and its siblings, cousins, and nephews) breaks up amid crashing waves and relentless sunlight, it doesn't go away. Eventually it becomes a soup, or slurry, sloshing around one of the many gyres in the deep ocean. Until a chance storm or rogue current deposits it on your beach. There is no technology to remove it, without also removing countless tons of life-giving plankton and killing the ocean. What's there... is there.

Today the beach was clean. (Clean by usual standards anyway, probably less than 100 pieces of plastic trash.) Listening to the rhythm of the waves, I felt small. Yet very large. For the briefest of moments, it was possible to envision what my endless chain of forebears could experience as they walked the sands and shores of their world.

What will my child's children see?

1 comment:

  1. Glad the beach was clean today.

    Harry...I so agree about litter and garbage. Why can't the world be more responsible? Grr. All I can do is teach my children to not drop litter and try to recycle stuff. It's not much but it's all I can do.