Saturday, March 12, 2011


This week I visited Bay View beach at high-tide. The surf crashed loud & angrily against the shore's steep winter slope. Waves converged, criss-crossed, creating a foamy froth on the ocean's crests. It all felt so powerful.

And then I woke up yesterday morning, turned on the TV, and witnessed images of true power.
Original picture found at
Lives lost, possessions lost, foundations of entire communities, lost. Pulverized, and then swept out by a pitiless sea.

For much of the day, I reflected on my time at the ocean this past year. I felt small. I, and my trash bag, and my camera, and my little section of shore. Not threatened by any Ring of Fire -- or any other monumental force likely to utterly reshape my coastline.

I reflected on the scale of what I had witnessed. "My" flotsam comes from single events. Human-scale events. A beachgoer loses a plastic sauce-packet in the sand; it's dragged out to sea, colonized by marine life, and eventually tossed back up. A diner at a pier-side restaurant loses her grip on a menu, dropping it into the bay; it travels 100 miles and finally washes in on my shore.

What just happened to Japan isn't a human-scale event. The ocean has just claimed the better part of several towns and cities, first blasting them to bits, and then sucking much of the mass back out into the wild Pacific. People, memories, priceless cultural artefacts, plastic forks -- it doesn't care. It can't care.

Much of what washed away will melt, and rot, and end. Much will sink to the seafloor, slowly to be covered by sediment, maybe to create curious fossils in some future landscape. But much will persist, and float, and enter a wider world.
Pic from
Bobbing on the waves off Japan's east coast, much of this wreckage will travel a few miles southward or eastward, joining the Kuroshio Current. There it will cross the vast expanse of the Pacific. In about a year and a half, pieces of it will start appearing along the coast of Washington and Oregon.* Bits will break off to the north, following the Alaska Current up toward the Arctic. Most will curve southward, following the California Current, depositing bits and pieces along the coast of California and Baja California. From there it will follow the North Equatorial Current past the southern tip of Hawaii, leaving more of its mass there. Eventually, much of the wreckage will rediscover the Kuroshio Current. In about 6.5 years, Japanese fishermen may find pieces of 2011's destruction caught among their lines and nets.^

And on and on, until every last scrap of this tragedy ends up beached, buried, or utterly disintegrated back into its building blocks... however many centuries (millennia?) that will take.

We hear talk that recycling will end the pollution of the sea. But beyond the industry's questionable arguments, a larger fact looms. We are at the mercy of a merciless planet. As long as we fill our daily lives with material that can't return to the dust it came from, we will keep filling our oceans with its toxic legacy.

My heart and thoughts go out to everybody affected by the tsunami of 2011.

* Ebbesmeyer, C. and Scigliano, E. Flotsametrics and the Floating World. HarperCollins (New York, 2009): p. 143.
^ Ibid. p. 235.


  1. Very well said, Harry!

    Thank you so much for following my blog!

    It's a huge honor since I have deep respect for you and your research on this topic!

  2. Wow, what a nice thing to say! I'm humbled. I really enjoy your blog. The slices of life, the personalities -- like the angry guy from the library, yikes -- the tips, the insights. Plus, my dad's South Jersey born-and-raised, and he lived in Mt. Laurel for several years (down closer to Atlantic City now). I did a lot of exploring the area with him, growing up.

  3. Harry -

    You have done it again! Spoken/written what I feel so eloquently with the ease and precision of a truly compassionate person. I will echo Kate. It's an honor to know you. Thank you for this and I will head back to twitter now to eagerly RT.