How the village cleans a beach

I hate to get all hopeful and upbeat on you—it messes with my carefully cultivated image as a crank—but I attended a village event that could leave a careless person feeling good about life. At least briefly.

It was a beach cleanup, and this is how it came into being: For about a year (you know better than to think that number’s accurate, right?), J. and P. did spontaneous, two-minute beach cleans on their own, and as everyone who isn’t me does these days, they posted about it on social media. Which led to people wanting to join in. Some of them might even have done it. I went never got past the thinking stage.

Irrelevant photo: meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Irrelevant photo: Meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Eventually, they organized a weekly beach cleanup, making it easier for people to join them. And that led to some organization or other donating gloves and squeezy pickup thingy-sticks (sorry for the technical language here) and plastic rims to hold garbage bags open and it’s all gotten very organized. P. even gives a safety briefing, which he apologizes for but does anyway, because this is Britain and safety briefings run deep in the culture. You can’t pour tea without a safety briefing. At an indoor event, a safety briefing might be something like, “The fire exits are there and there. The tea’s very hot. Please don’t wear it. Please don’t throw knives. If you need a defibrillator, it’s across the road at the store. Thank you. Thank you very much, thank you.”

Thanking people is also very British. It may or may not be a safety issue. I’m not immersed enough in the culture yet to report on that reliably. Thank you for being patient with my limitations.

Really. Thanks.

Saying please is also very British. But enough of that. We were talking about the cleanup.

At the beach, P.’s safety briefing was something along the lines of, “This is a beach. It can be a dangerous place. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Since the beach cleaners drifted in one by one and two by six, P. had to give the safety briefing over and over before sending people out to work. I was the only one there for the rendition I heard, and since P. puts up with me unusually well I felt free to jump in and list the beach’s dangers—wild animals, unbridled sunburn, melted ice cream, all that sort of thing—and it threw him off his stride. Which is a way of saying that I don’t really remember what he said except that he had apologized before I started making jokes and might have even been relieved when I did. Who’s to say? He’s a good sport and if he finds me annoying he hides it well.

For which I should thank him but I haven’t. I’m just not British enough.

While P. waited for more people, J. and I took our plastic bags and wandered in different directions, looking for anything that wasn’t sand, stone, seaweed, or jellyfish. It doesn’t take long before the eye trains itself to spot the things that don’t belong—fishing line, bits of commercial fishing net, candy wrappers, broken styrofoam and plastic, nails from the wooden pallets people burn for bonfires.

More people drifted in—26 in all, a mix of residents and visitors—and we bumped around like those automatic vacuum cleaners I keep hearing about. You know about them? They travel through a house, changing direction when they bump into furniture and dogs and that missing TV remote you’ve been looking for all week. It seems random, but give them enough time and they clean the entire space.

As an aside, F. told me about a friend who had to lock hers in the garage. If she left the door open, it would escape and vacuum the yard (which she calls the garden). If she left the gate open, it would vacuum as much of Cornwall as it could reach before it ran out of power.

I don’t know if we covered the entire beach. It started out fairly clean that morning, P. had reported, so if we missed a part it wasn’t obvious. The amount of junk depends on the wind, the tides, the currents, how hard the sea monsters flap their terrible tails during the night, and of course human activity.

We worked for about an hour, stopping to trade news and greetings when we crossed paths with people we knew, then we pooled what we’d found and P. weighed it, which made what we’d done measurable and left us all feeling like we’d accomplished something. We had 11 kilos of trash and two dead and very stinky half fish. One of the kids found a Lego figure and took it home with her. I found three bits of sea glass and did the same with them.

The next morning, J. (that’s a different J.) left a note on Facebook saying that the beach was looking “a bit sorry for itself” when she looked, so she’d done her own cleanup. You can’t just clean the beach and expect it to stay that way. We throw our junk in the sea–or on the land, or in the rivers, and it ends up in the sea–and it comes back to us. Or it doesn’t. It gets eaten by fish instead, and they die with stomachs full of plastic. Or it does assorted other depressing damage, which I won’t go into because either you already know about it or you can google it and find someone who’s posted a far more competent summary than I could. Depressing as it is, it’s worth knowing about because it’s, you know, reality, and what we don’t know will bite us in the ass the first chance it gets.

A few days later, P. posted that he’d found and cleaned up the wreckage from a party, including cans, a vodka bottle, a disposable kite, and a collection of women’s clothes—outer and sexy under—that some partygoer must have decided were also disposable.

That leads me to ask why, at least in the straight world, it’s always the women who take off their clothes, not the men.

Okay, I don’t know for a fact that it works that way. It’s been a long time since I immersed myself deeply enough in that section of the straight world to know who takes what off when these days. But I’m reasonably sure I’ve got it right, so let’s explore this a bit: Does it work that way because men are shyer? Or have we been programmed by movies to believe women’s clothes drop away spontaneously while men’s are stuck to their bodies by some mysterious force no one’s bothered to study yet? Or when men start taking their clothes off, does everyone shout, “Put that back on. We don’t want to know what’s under there”?

Do, in fact, straight men ever take their clothes off in public? Do they take them off in private? Do they actually have bodies under their clothes or are they like Ken dolls, which can be undressed only as far as their bathing trunks. Or their underwear. Or whatever it is that Ken wears.

Oh hell, am I even right about Ken dolls? Do they undress down to an anatomically incorrect mound of plastic?

Yes, I do remember what’s anatomically incorrect. It’s been a long time, but it was still in this lifetime.

I’m not asking this out of prurient curiosity but because the different strands of our culture need to understand each other if we’re to foster mutual respect. So I can hardly wait to find out what you-all are going to tell me. I’m sure we’ll all be wiser by the end of the discussion.

We had a topic, though, and I’ve wandered, so let’s go back to it: Cleaning the beach is a tiny gesture toward the serious work that needs to be done, but at least it gives us a chance to do something more than moan. And it makes us think about where all this junk is coming from and what, on a larger scale, we can do about that.

It also lets us gossip about the way other people behave on the beach, and boy did that underwear start some discussions. Isn’t that what life’s about?

There. I’ve returned to my usual cranky self. What a relief.

49 thoughts on “How the village cleans a beach

    • Well, my friend, not many of us of either sex could pass for Olympic athletes, even in clothes. When I was younger, keeping my clothes on tended to be about safety. Now it’s about not scaring the neighbors. So–I don’t know, I hate to interrupt a good cry. Could I join you?


  1. Thank you Ellen.
    On a day, in a week I feel exhausted and weepy under the weight of the world, unable to protect a 14 yr old child from deportation by a system designed not to care, you made me laugh at the silliness of our habits.
    A little bit of light in the dark.
    Thank you, please keep writing.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’m glad you got back on track. I worry when the cranky blogsters I follow get all philosophical and stuff on me. I’m good with you and everyone else cleaning the beach. I don’t live close enough to sign up for that kind of fun. I do think it’s interesting that our littering sins have come full circle and are washing up on the shore.

    For the record, straight guy, anatomically correct underneath all the clothes, but you aren’t going to see that at a beach…or a pool…or at all. Then again, “anatomically correct” seems to mean more than just those parts. These days, that phrase also seems to imply a flat stomach and few rungs of a washboard. You won’t being seeing that either…ever (even if I did undress). See, the thing is, most straight guys look better in clothes.

    Thanks for helping to make another Friday enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t realize please and thank you was a British thing – that certainly explains why I am driving my step kids crazy by insisting they use both. I expect it is all part of becoming my mother.
    I never really thought about the etiquette of clothing removal before but I imagine that it’s something to do with how two straight anatomically correct humans fit together. The men can just “drop trow” a bit where women really have to remove a layer at least, for access. I hope she left wrapped in a towel and isn’t just wandering Cornwall sans bottoms.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. In the world of biology, when you discover a gene, you have the right to name it.

    Frequently–particularly in the community of people who do research on drosophila–genes are named by what the fly looks like if that gene is mutated.

    There’s a gene such that if it’s mutated, the fly has no external genitalia.

    The discoverers of the gene named it “ken and barbie.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Health and Safety culture is relatively recent (on my timescale at any rate). It’s not really about health or about safety though; more to do with litigation culture, which we “imported” from the US sometime in the 1980s when injury lawyers started the no-win no-fee approach to suing people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That does make sense, although a friend of ours teaches health and safety courses and it drives her nuts the silly things that are done in the name of health and safety. She swears it’s an all-purpose excuse for I don’t want you to do that and can’t think of any better reason.


      • Yep, professional Health and Safety people pretty much deplore the nonsense that third rate administrators dish up as “you must do this” or “you can’t do this” for the spurious reason that some unspecified (and non-existent) health and safety legislation requires it. In other words, as your friend says, said administrators really mean “I don’t want you to do that and can’t think of any better reason“, to which you can add “and I like being able to use this as a means of exerting petty power over other people in a way that they can’t challenge“.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. To add to ‘britishkitchenwitch’ a bit… for the female it’s difficult to spread the legs unless the drawers are removed. The male generally doesn’t have that problem. That is, if it’s all just a quickie on the beach… TMI???

    Liked by 1 person

    • PS It all goes along with the Conservative Politician’s advice to use a dime as birth control. The gal is supposed to keep it between her knees. This is definitely not a verbatim quote. It might have been a quarter. A penny is certainly not worth the cost of creating it these days. Somehow a dollar bill just doesn’t have the same visual image in this particular scenario. Forgive any glaring booboos. I’m still pretty groggy this morning, but the laugh at your post helped to wake me up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When I started the discussion of anatomical correctness, I had no idea we’d end up here. I do love the comments section of this blog–it keeps me on my toes.

        When I was–oh, maybe 20 or so, which is to say a long,long time ago, it was a dime.


  7. I’ve had this post open in a tab for almost two days now and it was worth the wait. Thank you for the laughter. I laughed so much I can’t remember what all I laughed about, but not wearing tea and we don’t want to see what’s under there were very funny. Even funnier was the seemingly sentient vacuum roaming the lawn! Gah, so laughter, much snort.
    My own husband does not have an asexual non-specific plastic mound under his trousers, and I think that’s typical. Ken isn’t normal, just look at his hair, Ellen. BUT! There may be some differences with disrobing publicly, per my own experiences.
    I tend to undress with tequila. I don’t know why. It’s the only one that makes me strip. Perhaps because it makes me hot? I do hate to be hot. I have undressed to an inappropriate level in inappropriate places because of tequila and hot.
    My husband, in contrast, wore head to boot uniforms AND underclothes, including tall, thick socks in places over 120F. No one even offered him tequila once over there. He didn’t complain, either.
    I miss snow. Do you think it will snow soon? :P

    Liked by 1 person

    • To start from the bottom (that’s of your comment–we’re not discussing clothes yet): No, not in August. That’s odd and interesting about Tequila. I wonder if that’s just you or if–well, if you ever want to find out if it has that effect on other people, just have a tequila party.

      It was all in the name of research, you honor.

      I’m relieved to know that Ken isn’t a fair representative of men in general and your husband in particular. And delighted to have gotten a snort out of you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s true, it’s true. They make fun of themselves for apologizing so much, but (sorry) they can’t stop. In Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, she writes about doing an experiment in a train station that involved bumping into people deliberately, although not obviously so. The English apologized. People from other countries didn’t–they asked if she was okay, the told her to be careful, they did all sorts of other things, but they didn’t apologize.


    • You might enjoy Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English, where (among many other things) she talks about a bit of anthropological research she did, which involved deliberately bumping into people and seeing who’d apologize.


        • It’s a startlingly beautiful part of the world. I’m not in love with the Poldark series (do they know horses can walk as well as gallop?), but the landscape alone makes it worth watching–even for someone who loves here.


          • Good one! I guess I’m most pulled in by the meeting of the land and sea and the sense of another time and place (at a human pace) separate from the madness that grows daily. I choose to live rurally where I can hear my thoughts and pulse. – Douglas

            Liked by 1 person

            • I grew up in New York and lived in Minneapolis for 40 years, so I’ve always thought of myself as a city person. But after 11 years in a village, I understand what you’re talking about. If a plane flies over, we look up. Cars are more common, but in between them we get the sound of no cars. It changes a person.

              Liked by 1 person

              • You’re finger is on the pulse of the poem Ellen! Beautifully put! I too was city until I retired. At first it was an adjustment but now I would have a difficult time living in a city. Being an artist it’s perfect to not be intruded upon all day in a thousand ways! Best your way! – Douglas

                Liked by 1 person

  8. Mick Canning just recommended your blog and rightly so; a refreshing joy to read. I’d say thank you but having just moved from the U.K. to New York, I’m trying to temper and limit the amount of time I say please, thank you and sorry. You’re right, it is a British thing and I’m beginning to irritate myself for asking for forgiveness when someone jumps in front of me in the queue. Looking forward to reading more! Katie

    Liked by 1 person

Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.