Trash whale

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.]

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20 thoughts on “Trash whale

  1. wimbo

    Nicely put. For a trashy post. The whale and the trash will be available for traveling exhibit soon. The little leviathan (~20′) is visually striking and a tremendous example of a community collaboration.

  2. earthcaretaker

    I feel icky inside thinking about it…when hiking in the Florida scrub or by mangroves you can’t go but just a few steps without seeing floating, plastic, styrofoam or tin debris. I see it here too on my hikes. Foreign objects floating in the mountain streams. It is pretty much a part of the landscape everywhere.

    Speaking of golf balls, I learned that when mountain top removal is complete in an area, there is the commitment to “put the land to good use” which sometimes includes constructing golf courses. Now more golf balls can be added to the flattened mountain.

    I guess the answer for me is to look in my own home to start. Like you had expressed perfectly the other night, we need to look at ourselves and make changes as well. Soooo, maybe I can keep on saving my glass jars for storage use. Of course, the more cloth bags the better and I know I need to practice this full time. There is a fantastic documentary I just watched called Bag It and well worth a look at if you have time. Thanks for helping us all keep aware. :) Boy do we consume a lot in this world.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Wow. Golf balls on old mtntop removal sites. A perfect metaphor. Destroy the world and keep on playing! Plastic has its place, but that place is not in the guts of other animals.

      Thanks for the invitation to speak and for the *awesome* work you are doing.

      1. earthcaretaker

        Thank you. Just this morning I talked with a good friend about the great gathering and so glad community attended. Personally, I have been away from activism for awhile and I am grateful it has found its way into my life again. I am new to the issues of TN (coal and all that) but love to help and am learning so much. I knew you would be perfect to help us reach a deeper awareness of activism and so happy Dan shared his immense knowledge on the subject and Jane informing us all on what the students are accomplishing. Thank you so very much. Seriously!

        We will keep you informed of the future endeavors for sure :)

  3. Denise

    The eye is very striking. It reminds me of the recent photo in the news of the giant eyeball found on the Florida beach…apparently the discarded remains of a swordfisher’s haul. This is how we are living these days, using up what we want and throwing away the rest, whether it’s the remains of a living creature, or the plastic it was wrapped in. A great thing these art students did – thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Jennifer Scarlott

    Thank you for this post. I am in New England on a college trip with my daughter, and we have found ourselves, unavoidably, at a hotel full of plastic, along a strip containing every imaginable big and small chain store and restaurant, FULL to the brim with plastic. Even the “food” around here is plastic. As soon as we came into this area, I could feel my anxiety level rising. We are not, as the Quakers urge, in “right relationship” with our planet. Thank you again, David.

  5. Martha

    It would be a small step, but maybe someone can invent a golf ball that degrades if it is left out in the environment. …might make more idiots practice at the edge of the sea though!

  6. fishingblues

    My hometown of Bellingham, Washington recently outlawed plastic bags. When we shop anywhere now we bring cloth bags or pay for a paper bag. Plastic shopping bags are one of the biggest polluters of our waters and I hope more cities adopt similar laws banning them.

  7. Susan Digby

    David .. thank you so much for your words on the whale; they have added to the production of meaning just as surely as the sound tape and the hanging bags of bags. We did the November clean-up in Dyes Inlet this past Saturday. Four large bags of assorted debris and a bin or recyclable bottles and cans. I should note that there must be some sad people in our debris-shed, people who are missing a toy dinosaur, a very bling-encrusted shoe, and a can of peas … although given the age of the peas … their sorrow has likely past.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Hi Susan, Thank *you* for this sharing this great project with us. And for continuing to run the clean up — what an amazing collection of cultural debris. I can see a book of poems: each one starting and ending with one of the objects…or something like that. The peas? I certainly *hope* that whoever lost them has been able to let go of that event in their lives. How does one lose a can of peas into the sea, I wonder?

      Again, thank you. I hope that the whale’s travels go smoothly and awaken more people to the ocean downstream of us all.


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