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Trash and Treasure

By Heather Shirley I March 02, 2021


Garden and planter objects for decoration, featuring mini mouse, barbie and more

Regular readers of my column know that I continually exhort everyone to get outside and enjoy nature. I truly believe—and science backs me up on this—that it’s good for mental as well as physical health. A fuller confession is that I hope if I can encourage more people to spend time enjoying and admiring nature, then more people will be compelled to want to protect and take care of the environment. A girl can dream, right?


Since moving to Florida a couple years ago, I start most mornings with a trifecta of health and positivity. I head to my closest slice of the natural world, which for me is a stretch of beach. I walk for a few miles (positivity score number one: cardio health), admire the beauty of the waves as the morning sun glimmers on them (score number two: mental health) and I usually fill a bag with trash that I pick up along the way (score number three: environmental/community health.)


The cornucopia of junk I pick up on the beach never fails to amaze me. One recent morning I picked up four (non-matching) shoes. Plastic, plastic, plastic. Food wrappers, utensils, syringes, vape pens, buckets, swim masks, sunglasses.


Oddly, the garbage seems to sort itself into couplings. I find empty detergent bottles and clothespins. Hair rollers and barrettes. Toothbrushes and wrinkled, empty tubes of toothpaste. Baseball hats and balls. I’ve started a menagerie of forgotten and washed up plastic animals. An abandoned Barbie doll maintains this small zoo, monitoring the welfare of the sun-faded creatures I’ve collected.


A menagerie of items, including the sprouted coconut, found by the author while strolling the beach near her home in Florida.


What amazes me more than the variety of stuff I’ve dragged off the beach is the number of other beach cleaners I’ve come across. In the past couple years, I’ve logged thousands of hours walking the beach. What’s your guess—how many other people do you think I have come across who are likewise trying to make some small contribution to cleaning up our world? The answer: exactly one woman, seen just one time. That’s it.


Lots of people have a morning routine on the beach. There’s a couple who (illegally) walks their dog on the beach before the lifeguards start patrolling. Another woman records a video of herself every morning. I recognize a habitual cast of joggers, fishermen, swimmers and walkers. I never see them pick up any garbage. They probably recognize me as the woman who picks up garbage. I can’t fathom why it doesn’t occur to them that they also have the power to contribute to a cleaner world; they probably can’t fathom why I bother cleaning the beach of other people’s trash.


I bother because it’s the right thing to do. A sea turtle’s favorite food is jellyfish. A plastic bag undulating in the water looks exactly like a jellyfish, so a turtle sucks one down. The bag doesn’t decompose and doesn’t pass, so the turtle feels full because the bag stays in its belly. It stops bothering to hunt for actual food, and thus it slowly starves to death. The same happens to other sea life.


Necropsies have revealed that the stomach contents of sea birds are devoid of food, but instead full of plastic cigarette lighters, chunks of Styrofoam, etc. Maybe one fewer bag floating in the ocean means one fewer chance that a turtle or bird suffers. I’ll take those odds. Since I like to keep this column, and my general outlook on life, as positive as possible, I’ll close on a happier note.


I love to collect fossilized shark teeth from beaches. Over the past 20 years, I’ve found hundreds, from multiple species of sharks, ranging from 5 to 20 million years old. Fossils absorb and take on the coloration of minerals from the sediment in which they’re buried. Around here, ancient shark teeth are dark reddish-brown or glossy black. One morning, as I was cleaning up the beach, I found a particularly unusual tooth. A good-sized one, about an inch long and bright white. Never had I found a white tooth! Thrilled, I put my prized find into the bag I carry my phone and car keys in and walked on. After a couple hours, at the end of my walk, I properly disposed of the garbage I’d collected, dug out my car keys—and discovered a hole at the bottom of the bag. Needless to say, my white shark tooth treasure was lost. I was supremely disappointed and thought about looking for it…but it was hot, I was tired and both high tide and a storm were rolling in. I gave up and headed home, convinced there was no way I’d find that inch-long tooth on the three miles of beach I’d covered.


The next morning dawned clear and bright, and I greeted the day in my habitual way, trudging along the beach, garbage-picking as usual. A mile or so into my walk, I found my lost white shark tooth. Karma, baby. Some say it’s a bitch. I say it knows exactly what it’s doing.

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