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.