As Homo plasticus shambles its clumsy way through the world, pieces of junk slough off its body. Much of this exfoliated detritus finds its way to water. The sea is now comprised of water, plastic, and life, in that order.
A collaboration among scientists, artists, and engineers at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington, holds these facts before us in a striking way. A three-month-old gray whale hangs in the gallery, its body made from plastic bags woven into the surface of a welded armature. The baby whale swims through a room strewn with one month’s worth of rubbish collected from the shoreline along a small sampling area in Puget Sound. Toys, tags, wrappers, cups, pieces of Styrofoam, bits of houses, syringes, bottles: the downstream remnants of our appetite for indestructible plastic stuff.
The whale reminds us that many parts of our oceans contain as many bits of floating plastic as plankton. Seabird guts are choked with these fragments. Dissections of the stomachs of beached gray whales show that they also ingest large quantities of plastic. Because they feed, in part, by scooping at the sea floor, their guts get populated not just by the floating plastic, but by heavy sunken objects. And here we find a surprise: golf balls, sitting like modern Jonahs in the guts of whales. Immediately I was transported out of the gallery, away from the coast and across the continent: back to the Tennessee woods, gazing at plastic globes in a mountain forest in Sewanee.
There is no escape, it seems, from the products of our re-creation.
[Special thanks to Susan Digby, geography professor at Olympic College, one of the whale’s creators, for opening the gallery after hours to give me and my friend Peter Wimberger a tour. You can read more about the project on the gallery’s website.]