Saturday, June 30, 2012


The end result of hyperbole, while poetic and attention grabbing, ultimately leads to skepticism. Our pictures from Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore show no hyperbole is needed. The evidence is in. What washes up on this one beach is repeated everywhere on earth. This picture is from a cove at one end of “Ten Mile Beach” the eponymous strand filled from one end to the other with scenes like this. It’s heartbreaking, and it is our call to action. Relentless use of disposable plastic must end.

The news of plastic jetsam most igniting the public imagination is the story of the “North Pacific Gyre” and the great “Eastern Garbage Patch” which had been predicted in 1988 with a report from NOAA (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) based on coastal findings off Japan, Alaska and Hawaii. After Charles Moore’s famous Algalita voyage in 1997, an area of plastic debris north of Hawaii was described as “an island bigger than Texas” or, “twice the size of Texas”, or “bigger than Brazil.” Images of a giant “eighth continent” filled the public’s imagination—effective images, all. But the press and the blogosphere have climbed on board belying the extent of the mess. There is no Google map that shows the gyre from space, and to those who would discredit the extent of the plastic pollution—if it’s not on Google maps, it doesn’t exist.

The end result of hyperbole, while poetic and attention grabbing, ultimately leads to skepticism. Plus, if the Gyre were a densely packed, visible Cyclopean floating raft of plastic, it might be possible to clean it up. The reality, gleaned in the summer of 2009 from trips to the Gyre by Project Kaisei, Algalita, and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, confirm that it would be better described as a continent-sized bowl of plastic soup, a minestrone of tiny plastic bits. And, it can never be cleaned up. We’ve all watched as waste and water swirls down our drains. The Gyre is a prodigious drain: problem is, there is no planetary sewer pipe.

Keep America Beautiful

We are all grateful for the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign to curb littering. The tag lines:
“Don’t be a litterbug”
“People start pollution, people can stop it”
“Every litterbit hurts”

Highway signs warning of $1000 fines for littering brought responsibility to the public. It was an effective campaign and good to bring consciousness to the problem of litter. Litter
really was a problem. Still is. In the TV series Mad Men we were jolted by an early 60's picnic scene of historical realism where the mom casually shakes out the blanket on the grass—papers and cans go flying. Something we would never do today. Dutifully and virtuously we throw trash into waste bins and even separating things into compost, recycling, and garbage. 

But under the recast convention of keeping America beautiful the real action came when "bottle bills" found their way into public legislation. Manufacturers were scheduled to become responsible for the "no deposit-no return" containers. Fees were to be added to beer and soft-drink containers. The “Keep America Beautiful” campaign pointed the arrow of responsibility away from manufacturers and 180° back to the consumer. A very good move for profits and a very bad move for our world. Bottle bills were defeated over and over again—even recently in California where producer responsibility was cast as a culprit in "job loss."

We created Beauty Bar for an exhibit at the Berkeley Art Center. All of these beauty products came to us washed up on Kehoe Beach on our 1000-yard stretch of beach. To really Keep America Beautiful we must become aware of green washing and point the finger back at producers.

Demand real bottle bills from your legislators.

Why do we insist profits are more important than posterity?


We’ve chosen Pinocchio to act as our ringmaster. This tiny bit of flotsam looks like he’s been at the mercy of some deep-sea toothy-ness—maybe he really was swallowed by Monstro the whale. Gnawed and sand-rubbed, he’s been on quite a journey.

And, when you think of Pinocchio, how can you not think of his telltale nose, signifying a lie? So, our little Pinocchio, even though his elongated schnoz has been chewed off, reminds us of the big lie — plastic is cheap and disposable. Where is the away as in “throw-away”?

The “free” plastic bag taken from the supermarket is not free:

• Production costs: plastic is made from non renewable fossil-fuel resources: natural gas, coal or petroleum. Costs include mining and drilling, environmental mitigation costs, transportation and manufacture of many toxic additives.
•Consumption costs: plastic bags alone account for $4 billion in costs to retailers. Who is paying that bill?
• Disposal costs: this includes litter, collection, incineration, landfill management and the added load of dangerous toxins to the environment.

How about that reusable bag left in the car—again?? We need an honest accounting for the true costs of plastic, right, P’noc? And, by Jiminy, always let your conscience be your guide.

Friday, June 29, 2012


We've been talking with each other lately more about “place” than “plastic.” Plastic pollution, the trash we pick up, one piece at a time gets us to the beach to add to our collection, but foremost among our desires is the lean we have to be in a place that is intact—unspoiled by the industrial global market place.

Where the plants and animals are shaped by the forces of natural selection; where the terrain of the landscape is shaped by forces of plate tectonics- and were it not for the sweeps of plastic shrapnel washing in, it’d be perfection.

On the trail to the beach where the ground has been continually disturbed, we do walk through a slough of invasive species: European Mustard and Hemlock and Italian Thistle. And European Beach Grass was planted to stop the motion of the dunes doing more harm than good. Now a pilot program has started to remove the invasive grass.... it’s a great experiment to see if a place can be put back to natural.

Despite a few flaws, all in all, this National Seashore is the most "right" a place can be. In spring the marsh thick with native Cattail and Tule is whirring with the calls of Redwing Blackbirds. Last summer we saw a pair of Tundra Swans flying back and forth over the marsh. Long necks like arrows. And as the crow flies, this place is only 25 miles from downtown San Francisco.


The space of Kehoe Beach feels like home ground, like our backyard. The cliff ending by descending into the water marks the end boundary of our walk. Here alluvial fans of dirt and rocks from washouts have eroded to a shelf where pioneer plants have stabilized the sand. Rising out of the skimpy dirt are three kinds of mushrooms. Two kinds of Inky Caps; one with a long pale cap, a smooth furled umbrella; the other already curling back to release spores. These disintegrate soon after they're picked digesting themselves into a black goo. We're told they're good to eat, but if eaten with alcohol they create a substance like antabuse, the pharmaceutical used to deter alcoholics. They make you quite ill, but aren't deadly. Hmmmmm, who wants to try one?

Sandpipers, a flock of more than 100, scuttle on quick legs, a moving unison as smooth and rhythmic as the wavelets they follow. The sheets of ocean glaze the sand like mercury and the pip-squeak birds double in reflection as they skitter as if one creature racing the wave line. A wave too big and they launch in a fluttering chorus, float up on the breeze and double back to work the sand. White Dungeness Crab larvae litter the wrack line. We'd had a crab feast a couple of nights before. Sea “food” “sea life.” It’s time to create distinctions. 

Plate Tectonics

Kehoe Beach is a textbook illustration for geology classes. The Point Reyes Peninsula is as "an island in time". The whole of the National Park is part of the Pacific Plate and is moving northwest, grinding past the North American Plate. The layered rock of the Monterey Formation, the bleached pages of a book laid up from sediment, match up with rocks 120 miles to the south. This chunk of land is on the move. Further north is the smooth wall of Laird Sandstone laid up on top of the Monterey Formation. The Monterey stone was deposited slowly in the ocean with lots of microscopic critters lending their shells to the mix. You can see barnacle fossils too. The Laird Sandstone was deposited quickly in riverbeds and is so soft it can be incised to write graffiti - depending on the season - names and pluses inside of hearts. Spring blooms lots of lover pairs. All of this was laid on top of granite that is similar to what made the Sierra Nevada range.

The thing is, this mash up of rocks really happened and is the backdrop of our recurrent trips to Kehoe. During one lifetime the cliffs seem solid, monumental and permanent but we've seen the slow crumble and slide as alluvial fans of granitic rocky debris slide onto the far end of the beach.

The Monterey Formation is the most solid though it is folded by years of pressure, as though it were rubber bands caught on a treadmill. The perpendicular Laird Sandstone Formation peals off in slabs and dangerous falling chunks have killed picnickers. All of this tells the languorous and relentless story of change at the margins.

Driving out to the beach we cross the famous San Andreas Fault, now a valley filled in with waters of Tomales Bay. Change on a geologic scale may indeed be languorous, but periodically a lurch occurs as it did in 1906. The epicenter of that lurch is near park headquarters. A fence displaced by sixteen feet remains as a marker and monument.


 Far down the beach was a harbor seal pup, newly arrived, with fold-y skin and grey fluff all over. It reminded us of a Shar Pei pup. It's in the tide line scootching up to keep out of the rising tide waiting for its mother. People often mistake that the pup has been abandoned and want to help. But mom is out hunting for food and will return to care for her young. So do not touch!

And the Peregrines are seriously nesting up on a nook of the sheer yellow ochre Laird Sandstone cliffs. We'd been seeing them play at it for the last few weeks, but now they are paired up and ready for what they came here for—to make more Peregrines. There is a ledge and behind is a dark niche where the baby’s will be raised. The perch is a perfect lookout, where the female is perusing the whole scene—the Ravens, the Redtails & us, the plastic gleaners. The banning of DDT in 1972 allowed Peregrines, and most of the top of the food chain birds (Eagles, Condors and some owls) to return from the brink of extinction.

Jeeze, they way they fly, veering up the cliff face, swooping, wings tucked in, then coming to a dead stop at the nest, it's better than Cirque du Soleil. We get a good look with the binos— We'd make that heroic confident bird the national symbol. Thankfully our legislators had some sense to ban DDT.

It was a grey day, a bit heavy feeling with rain just at the horizon line, the wind out of the southwest—the rain wind. As typical this year, from several trips, the plastic has been intermittent. But we still gathered a lot of tiny pieces. And, as the focus narrows nurdles (pre-production plastic pellets) come into the spotlight, pernicious little devils, packed with absorbed toxins. 

In 2009 we had gathered packets of 100 to send to Japan for analysis by Shige Takada. The report came back that they were loaded with DDT. 40 years later DDT is still floating around in the ocean. Good thing Peregrines don't eat fish. Hey, we eat fish; fish eat nurdles, who's endangered now?

Earth Day

The first Earth Day, April 22,1970 was organized by Senator Gaylord Nelson as a response to the horrible Santa Barbara oil well blowout of January 1969. Just one month before the spill, the most powerful image of the 20th Century, earthrise over the moon horizon, was shot by astronaut Bill Anders from the Apollo 8 spacecraft. It was the first journey humans had made out of Earth’s orbit. Anders' Earthrise preceded the images of oil-soaked birds and surfers emerging from the waves black from crude oil. 

The blue marble floating in the black void was an unavoidable reminder of our commonality as citizens of planet Earth. The oil-soaked birds were an unavoidable reminder of the human impact on planet Earth. It was the synergy of those two images that became for us as artists a motivating example of what artists as image-makers could do.

In those days, the issue of the environment was not a political football tossed around casually as it is today—the decade of the 70's became a Golden Age of environmentalism — DDT was banned, the EPA was created, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were signed into law, the Superfund law—even Nixon gave speeches urging environmental legislation. In 1980 Reagan reversed the trend, cornering and Balkanizing environmentalism into becoming just another "special interest."

Just this April 7, 2011 the House passed an anti-EPA bit of legislation forbidding regulation on greenhouse gasses. How hard is it to realize—no air, no water, no life? Anti-environmentalists argue that dire predictions made that first Earth Day never came true. Fact is-they didn’t come true because the legislation prevented many, many environmental disasters.

So, here we are again headed out for Kehoe, feeling that maybe taking one miniscule bit of the planet, where the ocean meets the land, we can tell the story of what is happening planet-wide and maybe telling it with some good humor, some heart felt grief, and just the weird geeky-ness of having done this for years now. Can this be a way to open the mind to action?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Plastic in Question

Since 1999 Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang have been visiting 1000 yards of Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Sea Shore. They have rambled this one remote beach hundreds of times to gather plastic debris washing out of the Pacific Ocean. By carefully collecting and "curating" the bits of plastic, they fashion it into works of art— art that matter-of-factly shows, with minimal artifice, the material as it is. The viewer is often surprised that this colorful stuff is the thermoplastic junk of our throwaway culture. As they have deepened their practice they’ve found, like archeologists, that each bit of what they find opens into a pinpoint look at the whole of human culture. Each bit has a story to tell.

July 21- October 11, for the San Francisco Public Library - Main Branch the Lang’s are posing five important questions about the pervasive role plastic has come to play in contemporary life. In vitrines and display boards they will explore the answers to:

Where is away, as in, throw away?
What’s the true cost of plastic?
Where did this plastic come from and how did it get to the beach?
What’s love got to do with it?
What to do about the problem of plastic pollution?

Viewers to the exhibition will be encouraged to take personal responsibility for their daily use of plastic, bringing “refuse” into the conversation about reduce, reuse, recycle.

Indra's Net

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake’s lines from the beginning of the Auguries of Innocence was a precursor to John Muir’s famous line, "When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." In the science of Holography the illusion of 3-D images are achieved where every point of the image reflects all other points. Each point is a full image of the whole. Indra, in Hindu mythology, placed an infinite net over the universe where at every juncture a jewel hangs reflecting all other jewels.

Since 1999 we have focused our efforts on a single point, on just 1000 yards of beach. We have cast Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore as the stage for a drama that explores ideas of (dare we say it without irony in this postmodern world?) love and beauty. This pinpoint of land is an exemplar of the planetary problem of plastic pollution.

Kehoe Beach is our jewel on the net and the site of our ongoing investigation. We have taken up the study of geology, botany, biology, along with the history and development of polymers and plastic. One interest leading to another to another as a perfect example of how everything is connected to everything else.