Article — From the January 2007 issue
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Article — From the January 2007 issue
We know exactly where the spill occurred: 44.7°N, 178.1°E. We know the day, January 10, 1992, but not the hour. Neither do we know the name of the ship nor of its captain nor of the shipping magnate who owned it. We do know the harbors from which it sailed (Hong Kong) and to which it was headed (Tacoma). We know that despite its grandeur, when rocked by forty-foot waves, the colossal vessel, a floating warehouse weighing 50,000 deadweight tons or more and powered by a diesel engine the size of a barn, would have rolled and pitched and yawed about like a toy in a Jacuzzi.
We know that twelve of the colorful containers stacked above deck snapped loose from their moorings and tumbled overboard. We can safely assume that the subsequent splash was terrific, like the splash a train would make were you to drive it off a seaside cliff. We know that each container measured forty feet long and eight feet wide and may have weighed as much as 58,000 pounds, depending on the cargo, and that at least one of them—perhaps when it careened into another container, perhaps when it struck the ship’s stays, perhaps as it descended to high-pressure depths—burst open. We know that when it left port, this ill-fated container had contained 7,200 little packages; that, as the water gushed in and the steel box sank, all or most of these packages came floating to the surface; that every package comprised a plastic shell and a cardboard back; that every shell housed four hollow plastic animals—a red beaver, a blue turtle, a green frog, and a yellow duck—each about three inches long; and that printed on the cardboard in multicolored lettering were the following words: floatees. the first years. from 6 months. expert developed ? parent preferred. 100% dishwasher safe.
From a low-flying plane on a clear day, the packages would have looked like confetti, a great drift of colorful squares, exploding in slow motion across the waves. Within twenty-four hours, the water would have dissolved the glue. The action of the waves would have separated the plastic from the cardboard. There, in the middle of the North Pacific, in seas almost four miles deep, more than six hundred miles south of Attu Island, the western extreme of the United States, more than a thousand miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan, and more than two thousand miles west of Sitka, Alaska, 28,800 plastic animals produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free.
Eleven years later, more than 7,000 nautical miles to the east, an anthropologist named Bethe Hagens and her boyfriend, Waynn Welton, a retired digital cartographer, spotted something small and bright perched atop the seaweed at the southwest end of Gooch’s Beach near the entrance to Kennebunk Harbor in Maine. They stopped and crouched. Its body was approximately the size and shape of a bar of soap, its head the size of a Ping-Pong ball. A brand name, the first years, was embossed upon its belly. The plastic was “white, incredibly weathered, and very worn,” Hagens would later recall. Welton remembers it differently. It was, he insists, still yellow. “Parts of it had started to fade,” he told me. “But not a great deal. Whatever they’d used for the dye of the plastic had held up pretty well.” Yellow or not, the thing looked as though it had crossed the ocean; on that Hagens and Welton agree. It was fun to imagine, a lone duck, drifting across the Atlantic, like something out of a fairy tale or a children’s book—fun but also preposterous. Sensibly, they had left the toy where they found it and walked on.
The classified ads in the July 14, 1993, edition of the Sitka Daily Sentinel do not make for exciting reading, though they do convey something of what summertime in Alaska’s maritime provinces is like. That week, the Tenakee Tavern “in Tenakee” was accepting applications “for cheerful bartenders.” The Baranof Berry Patch was buying berries—“huckleberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries.” The National Marine Fisheries Service gave notice that the winners of the 1992 Sablefish Tag Recovery Drawing, an annual event held to encourage the reporting of tagged sablefish, would be selected at 1:00 p.m. on July 19 at the Auke Bay Laboratory. “Tired of shaving, tweezing, waxing?!” asked Jolene Gerard, R.N., R.E., enticing the hirsute citizens of Alaska’s Panhandle with the promise of “Permanent hair removal.” Then, under the ambiguous heading of “Announcements,” between “Business Services” and “Boats for Sale,” an unusual listing appeared.
ANYONE WHO has found plastic toy animals on beaches in Southeast please call the Sentinel at 747-3219.
The author of the ad was Eben Punderson, a high school teacher who moonlighted as a journalist. On Thanksgiving Day, 1992, a party of beachcombers strolling along Chichagof Island had discovered several dozen hollow plastic animals amid the usual wrack of bottlecaps, fishing tackle, and driftwood deposited at the tide line by a recent storm. After ten months at sea, the ducks had whitened and the beavers had yellowed, but the frogs were still as green as ever, and the turtles were still blue.
In subsequent weeks beachcombers on other islands found more of the toys, and new ones kept washing ashore. Laurie Lee of South Baranof Island filled an unused skiff with the horde she’d scavenged. Signe Wilson filled a hot tub. Betsy Knudson had so many to spare she started giving them to her dog. It appeared that even the sea otters of Sitka Sound were collecting them: one toy had been plucked from an otter’s nest. On a single beachcombing excursion with friends, Mary Stensvold, a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service who normally spends her days hunting rare varieties of liverwort, gathered forty of the animals. Word of the invasion spread. Dozens of correspondents answered the Sentinel’s ad. Toys had been found as far north as Kayak Island, as far south as Coronation Island, a range of tide line extending for hundreds of miles. Where had they come from?
Eben Punderson was pretty sure he knew. Three years earlier, in May of 1990, an eastbound freighter, the Hansa Carrier, had collided with a storm five hundred miles south of the Alaskan Peninsula. Several containers had gone overboard, including a shipment of 80,000 Nikes. Six months later, sneakers began washing up along Vancouver Island. The story had received national attention after a pair of oceanographers in Seattle—Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a scientist with a private consulting firm that tracked drifting icebergs for the oil industry, and James Ingraham of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—turned the sneaker spill into an oceanographic experiment. By feeding coordinates collected from beachcombers into NOAA’s Ocean Surface Current Simulator, or OSCURS, a computer modeling system built from a century’s worth of Navy weather data, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham had reconstructed the drift routes of some 200 shoes. In the process the basement of Ebbesmeyer’s bungalow had become the central intelligence headquarters of what would eventually grow into a global beachcombing network. Would a similar accident account for the appearance of the bath toys?
Punderson had one lead. The ducks—and for some reason only the ducks—had been embossed with the logo of their manufacturer, The First Years. A local toy store was unable to find the logo in its merchandise catalogues, but the director of the Sheldon Jackson College Library traced the brand back to its parent company in Massachusetts, Kiddie Products. Punderson spoke to the company’s marketing manager, who confirmed the reporter’s speculations. Yes, indeed, a shipment of Floatees had been lost at sea. “Solved: Mystery of the Wandering Bathtub Toys,” ran the headline in the Sentinel’s “Weekend” section a month after Punderson’s ad first appeared. And that is where the story should have ended—as an entertaining anecdote in the back pages of a provincial newspaper. Mystery solved. Case closed. But then something unexpected happened. The story kept going.
In part the story kept going because Ebbesmeyer and his beachcombers joined the hunt, in part because the toys themselves kept going. Years later, new specimens and new mysteries were still turning up. In the autumn of 1993, Floatees suddenly began sprinkling the shores of Shemya, a tiny Aleutian island that lies about 1,500 miles closer to Russia than to Sitka, not far from the site of the original spill. In 1995, beachcombers in Washington State found a blue turtle and a sun-bleached duck. Dean and Tyler Orbison, a father-son beachcombing team who every summer scour uninhabited islands along the Alaskan coast, added more toys to their growing collection every year—dozens in 1992, three in 1993, twenty-five in 1994, until, in 1995, they found none. The slump continued in 1996, and the Orbisons assumed they’d seen the last of the plastic animals, but then, in 1997, the toys suddenly returned in large numbers.
Thousands more were yet to be accounted for. Where had they gone? Into the Arctic? Around the globe? Were they still out there, traveling the currents of the North Pacific? Or did they lie buried under wrack and sand along Alaska’s wild, sparsely populated shores? Or, succumbing to the elements—freezing temperatures, the endless battering of the waves, prolonged exposure to the sun—had they cracked, filled with water, gone under? All 28,800 toys had emerged from that sinking container into the same acre of water. Each member of the four species was all but identical to the others—each duck was just as light as the other ducks, each frog as thick as the other frogs, each beaver as aerodynamic as the next. And yet one turtle had ended up in Signe Wilsonhot tub, another in the jaws of Betsy Knudson’s labrador, another in the nest of a sea otter, while a fourth had floated almost all the way to Russia, and a fifth traveled south of Puget Sound. Why? What tangled calculus of causes and effects could explain—or predict—such disparate fates?
There were other reasons why the story of the toys kept going, reasons that had nothing to do with oceanography and everything to do with the human imagination, which can be as powerful and as inscrutable as the sea. In making sense of chaotic data, in following a slightly tangled thread of narrative to its source, Eben Punderson had set the plastic animals adrift all over again—not upon the waters of the North Pacific but upon currents of information. The Associated Press picked up the Daily Sentinel’s story. Newspapers across the country ran it. The Floatees eventually made brief appearances in The Guardian and The New York Times Magazine, and a considerably longer appearance in The Smithsonian. Like migrating salmon, they returned almost seasonally to the pages of Scholastic News, a magazine for kids, which has reported on the story seven times. They were spotted in the shallows of People and MSNBC, and in the tide pools of All Things Considered. They swirled around the maelstrom of the Internet and bobbed up in such exotic waters as an oceanography textbook for undergraduates and a newsletter for the collectors of duck-themed stamps.
These travels wrought strange changes. Dishwasher safe the toys may have been, but newspaper safe they were not. By the time they drifted into my own imagination, the plastic animals that had fallen into the Pacific in 1992 were scarcely recognizable. For one thing, the plastic had turned into rubber. For another, the beavers, frogs, and turtles had all turned into ducks. It had begun the day Eben Punderson published an unusual ad in the pages of the Sitka Daily Sentinel—the metamorphosis of happenstance into narrative and narrative into myth.
Far across the ocean, in a toy factory made of red brick, a pinkly Caucasian woman in a brick-red dress and a racially ambiguous brown man in a sky-blue shirt work side by side at an assembly line. From a gray machine, yellow-beaked and lacking irises in the whites of their eyes, rubber ducks emerge, one by one, onto a conveyor belt. Chuckedy-chuckedy-chuck goes the rubber-duck machine. As the ducks roll past, the woman in the brick-red dress paints their beaks brick red with a little brush. The man in the sky-blue shirt paints their irises sky blue. It is beautiful, this unnamed country across the sea. Green grass grows around the factory. The people who work there clearly enjoy making rubber ducks. They are all healthy, well rested, and smiling. At the end of the assembly line another racially ambiguous brown man, lighter and yellower than the first, packs the ducks, ten to a cardboard box, onto a grass-green truck that carries them to a waiting ship named the Bobbie. The Bobbie’s crew consists of a racially ambiguous stevedore in a hard hat and a pinkly Caucasian, white-bearded captain whose blue cap matches his blue coat. There are two gold stripes around the cuffs of the coat and two red stripes around the smokestack of the ship. A few decades ago the captain would have been smoking a pipe. Now he waves jauntily from a porthole. Above him, a white puff rises from the smokestack into a sky-blue sky.
Away the Bobbie chugs, carrying five cardboard boxes across a blue-green sea, a white streamer of smoke trailing behind it. Smiling overhead is an enormous sun the color of a rubber duck. Then a storm blows up. Waves leap. The Bobbie tosses about. The captain cries and throws his hands in the air. Down goes a cardboard box. Ducks spill like candy from a piñata. The sea calms. Slowly, the ducks drift apart, across the ocean, to diverse and far-flung ecosystems. One duck frolics with a spotted dolphin. A second receives a come-hither look from a blueberry seal in a lime-green sea. A polar bear standing on an ice floe ogles a third. And so their journeys go, each duck encountering a different picturesque animal—a flamingo, a pelican, a sea turtle, an octopus, a gull, a whale. Finally, who should the tenth rubber duck meet but a brood of real ducks. “Quack!” says the mother duck. “Quack! Quack! Quack!” say the ducklings. “Squeak,” says the rubber duck. “Press here,” says a button on the rubber duck’s wing, and when you do, a battery-powered computer chip embedded in the back cover of Eric Carle’s 10 Little Rubber Ducks emits what to my admittedly untrained ear sounds like the cry of a cormorant tangled in fishing line.
Published in the spring of 2005, shortly after my own duckie hunt began, Carle’s picture book was inspired by a newspaper article, titled “Rubber Ducks Lost at Sea,” that he’d happened upon in 2003. “I could not resist making a story out of this newspaper report,” a brief author’s note explains. “I hope you like my story.” Beautifully illustrated with Carle’s signature mix of paint and paper tearings, the book is hard not to like. Studies have shown that the primary colors, smiling faces, and cute animals with which 10 Little Rubber Ducks abounds—and of which the rubber duck may well be the consummate embodiment—have the almost narcotic power to induce feelings of happiness in the human brain. The myth had at last found if not its Aesop, then at least its Disney.
The loss of fantasy is the price we have paid for precision,” I read one night in an outdated Ocean Almanac while investigating the journey of the Floatees, “and today we have navigation maps based on an accurate 1:1,000,000 scale of the entire world.” Surveying the colorful, oversized landscape of my National Geographic atlas, a cartographic wonder made—its dust jacket boasted—from high-resolution satellite images and “sophisticated computer algorithms,” I was unconvinced; fantasy did not strike me as extinct, or remotely endangered. The ocean is far less fathomable to my generation of Americans than it was when Herman Melville explored that “watery wilderness” a century and a half ago. Most of us are better acquainted with cloud tops than with waves. What our migrant ancestors thought of as the winds we think of as turbulence, and fasten our seat belts when the orange light comes on. Gale force, hurricane force—encountering such terms, we comprehend only that the weather is really, really bad and in our minds replay the special-effects sequences of disaster films or news footage of palm trees blown inside out like cheap umbrellas. In growing more precise, humanity’s knowledge has also grown more specialized, and more fantastic, not less: the seas of my consciousness teem with images and symbols and half-remembered trivia as fabulous as those beasts frolicking at the edges of ancient charts. Not even satellite photographs and computer algorithms can burn away the mystifying fogs of ambient information and fantasy through which from birth I have sailed.
Not long ago on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, the novelist Julia Glass worried that her fellow Americans, “impatient with flights of fancy,” had lost the ability to be carried away by the “illusory adventure” of fiction, preferring the tabloid titillation of the “so-called truth.” Perhaps, concluded Glass, “there is a growing consensus, however sad, that the wayward realm of make-believe belongs only to our children.” By the spring of 2005, I had reached different conclusions. Hadn’t we adults, like the imaginative preschoolers Glass admires, also been “encouraged”—by our government, by advertisers, by the fabulists of the cable news—“to mingle fact with fiction”? Hadn’t millions of adults bought the illusory adventures of both Frodo Baggins and Donald Rumsfeld? Medieval Europeans divided the human lifetime into five ages, the first of which was known as the Age of Toys. It seemed to me that in twenty-first-century America, the Age of Toys never ends. Yes, stories fictional and otherwise can take us on illusory adventures, but they can also take us on disillusory ones, and it was the latter sort of adventure that I craved.
I tracked down a phone number for Curtis Ebbesmeyer and asked him how the journey of the castaway ducks had ended. I’d read that some toys were supposed to have crossed the Arctic, reaching the North Atlantic by the summer of 2003. Had they made it? Oh, yes, Ebbesmeyer assured me, yes, they had. Right on schedule, he’d received a highly credible eyewitness report from a trained anthropologist in Maine, which he’d published in his quarterly newsletter, Beachcombers’ Alert! He promised to send me a copy. But—he added—if I really wanted to learn about things that float, then I should join him in Sitka that July. “You can’t go beachcombing by phone,” he said. “You have to get out there and look.”
Since 2003, Sitka has played host to an annual Beachcombers’ Fair over which Ebbesmeyer—part guru, part impresario—presides. Beachcombers bring him things they’ve scavenged from the sand, and Ebbesmeyer illuminates these discoveries as best he can. “Everything has a story,” he likes to say. When an object mystifies him, he investigates. At this year’s fair, a local fisherman would be ferrying a select group of beachcombers to the wild shores of Kruzof Island, where some of the toys had washed up. Ebbesmeyer, who would be leading the expedition, offered me a spot aboard the boat. Alaska—snow-capped mountains, icebergs, breeching whales, wild beaches bestrewn with yellow ducks. There was only one problem. The Beachcombers’ Fair ended July 25, and my wife and I were due to have a baby on August 1, which was cutting it pretty close.
Soon thereafter an envelope with a Seattle postmark arrived. Inside, printed on blue paper, were a half-dozen issues of Beachcombers’ Alert! Thumbing through this digest of the miscellaneous and arcane was a bit like beachcombing amid the wreckage of a storm. Alongside stories about derelict vessels and messages in bottles, the oceanographer had arrayed a photographic scrapbook of strange, sea-battered oddities, natural and man-made—Japanese birch-bark fishing floats, the heart-shaped seed of a baobab tree, land mines, televisions, a torn wet suit, a 350-pound safe. Many of these artifacts had accumulated colonies of gooseneck barnacles. Some were so encrusted they seemed to be made of the creatures: a derelict skiff of barnacles, a hockey glove of barnacles. A disconcerting number of the photographs depicted the plastic heads of mannequins and dolls, including the head of a plastic infant impaled like a candy apple on a stick.
At the end of an article titled “Where the Toys Are,” Ebbesmeyer had published Bethe Hagens’s letter. “You won’t believe this,” she’d written after hearing about the castaway toys on NPR, “but two weeks ago, I found one of your ducks.” In fact, Ebbesmeyer had believed her, or wanted to. The details of her description matched the profile of a Floatee perfectly. Because Hagens had neglected to keep the evidence, however, her testimony remained in doubt. Accompanying the article was a world map indicating where and when the toys had washed up. Off the coast of Kennebunkport, Ebbesmeyer had printed a pair of question marks the size of barrier reefs.
There are two ways to get to the insular city of Sitka—by plane and by boat. In my dreams, I would have picked up the frayed end of that imaginary, 7,000-mile-long trail that led to Gooch’s Beach and followed it, Theseus-style, to its source—sailing back across the Gulf of Maine, back through the Northwest Passage, that legendary waterway which the historian Pierre Breton has described as a “maze of drifting, misshapen bergs,” a “crystalline world of azure and emerald, indigo and alabaster—dazzling to the eye, disturbing to the soul,” a “glittering metropolis of moving ice.” To Lieutenant William Edward Parry of the British Navy, who captained the Alexander into the maze in 1818, the slabs of ice looked like the pillars of Stonehenge.
By the summer of 2005, global warming had gone a long way toward turning that metropolis of ice into the open shipping channel of which Victorian imperialists dreamed. That September climatologists would announce that the annual summer melt had reduced the floating ice cap to its smallest size in a century of record-keeping. Nevertheless, even a transarctic journey aboard a Coast Guard ice breaker was out of the question if I wanted to make it to Sitka and back before the birth of my first child. Instead I booked passage on the M/V Malaspina, part of the Alaskan Marine Highway, which is in fact not a highway at all but a state-operated fleet of ferries. Sailing from Bellingham, Washington, the Malaspina would reach Sitka five days before the Beachcombers’ Fair began. If I flew home as soon as the fair ended, I would be in Manhattan a week before the baby arrived—assuming it did not arrive early, which, my wife’s obstetrician warned us, was altogether possible. My wife was not at all happy about my plan, but she consented on one condition: that if she felt a contraction or her water broke, I would catch the next flight home, no matter the cost.
On my way to Bellingham I stopped in Seattle to visit Curtis Ebbesmeyer. I met him at home, in a quiet neighborhood near the University of Washington, where he had earned his Ph.D. Navy blue awnings overshadowed the porch of his bungalow, and peering into the semidarkness I could see four matching Adirondack chairs, lined up, side by side, as if to behold the vista of the lawn. Ebbesmeyer himself greeted me at the door. “Come in, come in,” he said.
His face was familiar to me from photographs I’d seen in the press and in the pages of Beachcombers’ Alert!, where he makes frequent cameo appearances, displaying a water-stained basketball, hoisting a plastic canister that was supposed to have delivered Taiwanese propaganda to the Chinese mainland, gazing down deifically at the four Floatees perched upon his forearm. He has a white beard, a Cheshire grin, and close-set eyes that together make his face a bit triangular. Since Ebbesmeyer likes to wear Hawaiian shirts and a necklace of what appear to be roasted chestnuts but are in fact sea beans, the waterborne seeds of tropical trees that ocean currents disseminate to distant shores, pictures of him often bring to mind cartoons of Santa Claus on vacation.
He brewed us each a cup of coffee and suggested we adjourn to the back yard, which he refers to as his “office.” Passing through his basement, I saw many of the objects I’d read about in Beachcombers’ Alert! Piled high on a bookshelf were dozens of Nikes. Some of them had survived the 1990 container spill—the first Ebbesmeyer ever investigated—in which 80,000 shoes had been lost. Others came from later accidents: 18,000 Nike sneakers fell overboard in 1999; 33,000 more in December of 2002. In January of 2000, some 26,000 Nike sandals—along with 10,000 children’s shoes and 3,000 computer monitors, which float screen up and are popular with barnacles—plunged into the drink.
Nike’s maritime fortunes are not unusually calamitous; as many as 10,000 containers spill from cargo ships annually. But few commodities are both as seaworthy and as traceable as a pair of Air Jordans, which conveniently come with numerical records of their provenance stitched to the undersides of their tongues, and which—
submerged up to the ankle, laces aswirl—will drift for years. It helps, too, that Ebbesmeyer learned the serial numbers for all the shoes in the 1990 spill. In his basement, Ebbesmeyer selected a high-top at random and taught me how to “read the tongue.” “See the ID?” he asked. “‘021012.’ The ‘02’ is the year. ‘10’ is October. ‘12’ is December. Nike ordered these from Indonesia in October of 2002 for delivery in December.”
Next he pulled down a black flip-flop, and then a matching one that he had sliced in half. Inside the black rubber was a jagged yellow core resembling a lightning bolt—a perfect identifying characteristic. If Ebbesmeyer had discovered the coordinates of this particular spill, the sandals would have provided a windfall of valuable data. Unfortunately, the shipping company, fearing legal liability, had “stonewalled” him, “like usual.”
It took Ebbesmeyer a year of diplomacy and detective work to find out when and where the Floatees fell overboard. Initially, the shipping company stonewalled him, like usual. Then one day he received a phone call. The container ship in question was at port in Tacoma. On the condition that he never reveal its name or that of its owner, he was welcome to come aboard. For four hours, Ebbesmeyer sat in the ship’s bridge interviewing the captain, a “very gracious” Chinese man who had a Ph.D. in meteorology and spoke fluent English. The day of the spill the ship had encountered a severe winter storm and heavy seas, the captain said. The readings on the inclinometer told the story best. When a ship is perfectly level in the water, its inclinometer reads 0°. If a ship were keeled on its side, the inclinometer would read 90°. Containers begin to break loose when a ship rolls more than 35°, Ebbesmeyer has found. When this particular spill occurred, the inclinometer would have registered a roll of 55° to port, then a roll of 55° to starboard. At that inclination, the stacks of containers, each one six containers tall, would have been more horizontal than vertical. Perhaps Dr. Ebbesmeyer would like to have a peek at the log book, the captain discreetly suggested. He’d already opened it to January 10, 1992. There were the magic coordinates.
OSCURS could now reconstruct, or “hindcast,” the routes various toys had traveled, producing a map of erratic trajectories that appeared to have been hand drawn by a cartographer with palsy. Beginning at the scattered coordinates where beachcombers had reported finding toys, the lines wiggled west, converging at the point of origin, not far from where the International Dateline crosses the 45th parallel. The data that Ebbesmeyer’s beachcombers had gathered also allowed NOAA’s James Ingraham to fine-tune the computer model, adjusting for coefficients such as the height at which the toys rode in the water (an object with a tall profile will sail as well as drift). The toys, it turns out, rode high, skating across the Gulf of Alaska at an average rate of seven miles a day, twice as fast as the currents they were traveling. Among other things, the simulation revealed that in 1992 those currents might have shifted to the north as a consequence of El Niño.
OSCURS could forecast as well as hindcast, and in this respect, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham were like clairvoyant meteorologists of the waves. OSCURS was their crystal ball. To the eyes of a driftologist, even the most state-of-the-art globe is in one respect as fabulous as the cartographic dreamscapes of the past. No clouds swirl across a map’s invisible skies. The painted topography of its empty seas are not troubled by the wind. The polar ice does not thicken and thin with the seasons and the ages. There is no sign of “thermohaline circulation,” the vertical movement of water layers caused by variations in density and temperature. A globe is a static illusion of permanence because it lacks a crucial dimension, the dimension that OSCURS was programmed to map—time.
By simulating “long-term mean surface geostrophic currents” (those currents that flow steadily and enduringly, though not immutably, like rivers in the sea) as well as “surface-mixed-layer currents that are functions of wind speed and direction” (those currents that change as quickly as the skies), OSCURS could project the trajectories of the toys well into the future. According to the simulator’s predictions, some of the animals would drift south, where they would either collide with the coast of Hawaii in March of 1997, or, more likely, get sucked into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
“‘Gyre’ is a fancy word for a current in a bowl of soup,” Ebbesmeyer likes to say. “You stir your soup, it goes around a few seconds.” The thermodynamic circulation of air, which we experience as wind, is like a giant spoon that never stops stirring. Comprising four separate currents—the southerly California Current, the westerly North Equatorial Current, the northerly Kuroshio Current, and the easterly North Pacific Drift—the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre travels from the coast of Washington to the coast of Mexico to the coast of Japan and back again. Some of the toys would escape the gyre’s orbit, spin off toward the Indian Ocean, and, eventually, circumnavigate the globe. Others would drift into the gyre’s becalming center, where a high-pressure system has created what Ebbesmeyer calls “the garbage patch”—a purgatorial eddy in the waste stream that is approximately the size of Texas. “It’s like Jupiter’s red spot,” says Ebbesmeyer. “It’s one of the great
features of the planet Earth, but you can’t see it.”
A similar high-pressure calm at the center of the North Atlantic Gyre gave rise to the legend of the Bermuda triangle as well as to the Sargasso Sea, named for the free-floating wilderness of sargasso seaweed that the currents have accumulated there. A Sargasso of the imagination, I thought to myself as I listened to Ebbesmeyer describe the garbage patch. The phrase comes from a scene in Day of the Locust in which Nathanael West is describing a Hollywood backlot jumbled with miscellaneous properties and disassembled stage sets.
The Atlantic is far shallower and narrower than the Pacific, and upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water nourish the sargasso forest and the marine life that inhabits it. The center of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which circles around the deepest waters on the planet, is, by contrast, a kind of marine desert. If you go fishing in the garbage patch, all you’re likely to catch aside from garbage
In 1998, with help from Ingraham and Ebbesmeyer, a researcher named Charlie Moore began collecting water samples from the eastern edge of the North Pacific garbage patch, trawling along a 564-mile loop encompassing exactly one million square miles of ocean. Approximately 800 miles west of California, where the wind speed fell below ten knots, drifts of garbage began to appear. The larger items that Moore and his crew retrieved from the water included polypropylene fishing nets, “a drum of hazardous chemicals,” a volleyball “half-covered in barnacles,” a cathode-ray television tube, and a gallon bleach bottle “that was so brittle it crumbled in our hands.” Most of the debris that Moore found had already disintegrated. Caught in his trawling net was “a rich broth of minute sea creatures mixed with hundreds of colored plastic fragments.”
OSCURS’s simulations predicted that relatively few of the bathtub toys would have contributed to this “plastic-plankton soup,” as Moore calls it. The majority would have stayed well to the north, closer to the site of the spill, caught in the Sub-Polar Gyre, which travels counterclockwise between the coasts of Alaska and Siberia. Smaller and stormier than the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, the Sub-Polar Gyre does not collect vast quantities of trash at its center. Here, the Floatees would have remained in orbit, completing a lap around the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea once every three years, until a winter storm blew them ashore or they strayed onto one of the northerly currents flowing through the Bering Strait.
There, OSCURS lost them.
Ingraham had not programmed his model to simulate the Arctic. To follow the animals into the ice, Ebbesmeyer had to rely on more primitive oceanographic methods. He went to a toy store and purchased a few dozen brand-new Floatees to use as lab animals in various experiments. Several specimens he subjected to the frigid conditions inside his kitchen freezer in order to find out whether cold would make them crack (it didn’t). Others he bludgeoned with a hammer to see what it would take to make them sink (a lot). Even breeched and taking on water, they kept afloat. Able to withstand fifty-two dishwasher cycles, the toys, Ebbesmeyer concluded, could also survive a ten-year voyage through the ice. Using data collected from transarctic drift experiments conducted in the late 1970s, he calculated that, once beset, the toys would creep across the North Pole at an average rate of a mile per day. When they reached the North Atlantic, the ice would melt and set the Floatees loose upon the waters east of Greenland. Some would catch the Gulf Stream to Europe. Others would ride the cold southerly longshore current that flows past Gooch’s Beach.
Although his library of shoes may suggest otherwise, Ebbesmeyer has not amassed a museum of flotsam in his basement. He collects stories and data, not things. Fat, three-ring binders occupy most of the shelf space. They contain “a small portion” of the studies he has conducted over the years. I saw binders labeled Fishing Floats and Vikings, Phytoplankton and Drifting Coffins, Eddies and Icebergs. There was an entire binder devoted to Isis and Osiris, the star-crossed Egyptian gods. Ebbesmeyer told me the tragic ending of their tale: “Osiris’s brother killed him, put his body in a coffin, put the coffin in the Nile River, and it washed up 300 miles to the north of Lebanon. His wife, Isis, went to find it, and she did. That’s the first documented drift of an object between point A and point B that I know of.”
In the back yard, seated on the patio, where a string of rubber duckie Christmas lights festooned a grape arbor and wind chimes made mournful noises on the breeze, Ebbesmeyer waxed ecclesiastical. “There’s nothing new around,” he said. Take Osiris. Even today, when the Nile floods, flotsam follows that same route. Not even pollution is new. He told me to think of volcanic eruptions, of the tons of pumice and toxic ash an eruption throws into the sea. No, when you studied the history of flotsam long enough you realized that only one thing was fundamentally different about the ocean now, only one thing had changed since the time of the ancient Egyptians. “See, pumice will absorb water and sink,” he said. “But 60 percent of plastic will float and the 60 percent that does float will never sink because it doesn’t absorb water; it fractures into ever smaller pieces. That’s the difference. There are things afloat now that will never sink.”
Ebbesmeyer went inside and returned a moment later carrying what at first glance appeared to be exotic produce—a new, flatter variety of plantain or summer squash, perhaps. He spread these yellowy lozenges out on the patio table. “Remnants of high-seas drift-net floats,” he said. There were four of them, in varying stages of decay. The best-preserved specimen had the hard sheen of polished bone. The worst was pocked and textured like a desiccated sponge that had been attacked with a chisel. Ebbesmeyer picked up the latter float. “This is a pretty cool old one,” he said. By “cool” he meant that it told the story of drift-net floats particularly well.
“High-seas drift nets were banned by the United Nations in 1992,” his version of this story began. “They were nets with a mesh size of about four inches, but they were, like, fifty miles long. The Japanese would sit there and interweave these for fifty miles. There were something like a thousand drift nets being used every night in the 1980s, and if you do the math they were filtering all the water in the upper fifty feet every year. Well, they were catching all the large animals, and it clearly could not go on.”
According to Ebbesmeyer, those high-seas drift nets had not gone away, and not only because pirate drift netting still takes place. Before the moratorium, fishermen had lost about half of their nets every year, and those lost nets were still out there, still fishing. “Ghost nets,” they’re called. When he tells stories like this, Ebbesmeyer will punctuate the most astonishing facts with his eyebrows. He’ll say something like, “What happens is, the nets keep catching animals, and then the animals die, and then after a while, the nets get old, and they roll up on a coral reef, and the waves roll it along like a big avalanche ball, killing everything in its path.” Then his bushy eyebrows will spring up above his glasses and stay there while he looks at
you, wide-eyed with auto-dumbfoundment.
And killer drift-net balls are genuinely dumbfounding, like something from a B horror movie—so dumbfounding that, smelling a hyperbole, I later checked Ebbesmeyer’s facts. A ghost net may not kill everything that crosses its path, but it sure can kill a lot. News reports describe nets dripping with putrefying wildlife. Just three months before I showed up on Ebbesmeyer’s doorstep, NOAA scientists scanning the ocean from the air with a digital imaging system had spotted a flock of 100 or so ghost nets drifting through the garbage patch. When they returned to fetch them, they found balls of net measuring thirty feet across. “There is a lot more trash out there than I expected,” one of the researchers, James Churnside, told the Associated Press. A few years earlier, Coast Guard divers had spent a month picking 25.5 tons of netting and debris—including two 4,000-pound, fifteen-mile-long, high-seas drift nets—out of reefs around Lisianski Island in the North Pacific. They estimated that there were 6,000 more tons of netting and debris still tangled in the reefs when they left.
In Ebbesmeyer’s opinion, ghost nets may pose a still greater danger once they disintegrate. While we were conversing on his patio, he handed me the oldest of the drift-net floats. “Hold this a minute,” he said. It weighed almost nothing. “Now put it down and look.” On the palm of my hand, the float had left a sprinkling of yellow dust, plastic particles as small as pollen grains in which, if you believe Ebbesmeyer, the destiny of both the Floatees and of the ocean could be read.
Out on his front lawn, as I was leaving, I asked him what he thought of 10 Little Rubber Ducks. Despite the gloomy future he glimpsed in that handful of plastic dust, he thought Carle’s cheerful picture book was “delightful,” especially that little squeaker in the back, and he hoped that it would “make the ocean fun to kids.” He did have one criticism. He couldn’t figure out why Carle along with just about everyone else seemed compelled to turn the four Floatees into rubber ducks. Coverage of the story in newspapers and magazines almost always showed a picture of a solitary rubber duck, and usually not even the right kind of duck. What was wrong with the other three animals? “Maybe it’s a kind of racism,” Ebbesmeyer speculated. “Speciesism.”
The Floatees are no longer on the market, but before I left, Ebbesmeyer loaned me a set that had survived his experiments, to be returned when I was done with them. I have been carrying them around with me ever since, and they are at present perched before me on my desk as I write. Monochromatic and polygonal in a Bauhaus sort of way, they bear little resemblance to the rubber ducks in Carle’s book or, for that matter, to any other plastic animal I’ve ever seen. Although blow-molded out of a rigid plastic (probably polyethylene), they look whittled from wax by some artisanal tribesman. The frog’s four-fingered hands (the left smaller than the right) seem folded in prayer. The limbs of the turtle are triangular stubs. The duck’s head, too large for the flat-bottomed puck of a body it sits upon, is imperfectly spherical, the flat plane of its beak continuing like a crew-cut mohawk over the top of the skull. Poke an axle through the duck’s puffed cheeks and its head would make a good wheel. Wildly out of scale and dyed a lurid, maraschino red, the beaver seems altogether out of place in this menagerie, a mammalian interloper from somebody’s acid trip. A seam left by the split mold bisects all four animals asymmetrically, and there’s a little anal button of scarred plastic where the blow pin, that steel umbilicus, withdrew.
“Why do precisely these objects we behold make a world?” Thoreau wonders in Walden. “Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors; as if nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice?” Since Thoreau’s time, ecologists have explained why that mouse filled that crevice, and since then Walden woods have grown far less bewildering. For Thoreau the distinction between the natural world and the man-made one matters less than that between the subjective experience within and the objective world without. For him, both rocks and mice are objects that he perceives as shadows flickering on the walls of his mind. For him, anthropomorphism is inescapable. All animals, he writes, are “beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts.”
The word “synthetic” in its current sense of “chemically unnatural” would not appear in print until 1874, twenty years after the publication of Walden and five years after the invention of celluloid, the first industrial synthetic. In its 137-year history, the synthetic world has itself grown into a kind of wilderness. With the exceptions of our fellow human beings and our domestic pets, the objects that make the worlds we behold today are almost entirely man-made. Consider the following: In nature, there are 142 known species of Anatidae, the family to which ducks, swans, and geese belong. Of those species only one, the white Pekin duck, a domesticated breed of mallard, produces spotless yellow ducklings. Since the invention of plastic, four known species of Anatidae have gone extinct; several others survive only in sanctuaries created to save them. Meanwhile, by the estimates of one collector, the makers of novelties and toys have concocted more than 5,000 different varieties of novelty duck, nearly all of which are yellow, and most of which are not made in fact from rubber but from plasticized polyvinyl chloride, a derivative of coal. Why has man just these species of things for his neighbors, a latter-day Thoreau might ask, as if nothing but a yellow duck could perch on the rim of a tub?
Let’s draw a bath. Let’s set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there. What misanthrope, what damp, misty November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart? Graphically, the rubber duck’s closest relative is not a bird or a toy but the yellow happy face of Wal-Mart commercials. A rubber duck is in effect a happy face with a body and lips—which is what the beak of the rubber duck has become: great, lipsticky, bee-stung lips. Both the happy face and the rubber duck reduce facial expressions to a kind of pictogram. They are both emoticons. And they are, of course, the same color—the yellow of an egg yolk or the eye of a daisy, a shade darker than a yellow raincoat, a shade lighter than a taxicab.
Like the eyes of other animals (rabbits, for example, or deer) and unlike the eyes of a happy face, the rubber duck’s eyes peer helplessly from the sides of its spherical head. Its movement is also expressive—joyously erratic, like that of a bouncing ball, or a dancing drunk. So long, that is, as it doesn’t keel over and float around like a dead fish, as rubber ducks of recent manufacture are prone to do. It’s arguable whether such tipsy ducks deserve to be called toys. They have retained the form and lost the function. Their value is wholly symbolic. They are not so much rubber ducks as plastic representations of rubber ducks. They are creatures of the lab, chimeras synthesized from whimsy and desire in the petri dish of commerce.
Apologists for plastics will on occasion blur the semantic lines between the antonyms “synthetic” and “natural.” Everything is chemical, they rightly say, even water, even us, and plastic, like every living creature great and small, is carbon-based and therefore “organic.” But to my mind the only meaningful difference between the synthetic and the natural is more philosophical than chemical. A loon can symbolize madness, and a waddling duck can make us laugh. But the duck and the loon exist outside of the meanings with which we burden them. A loon is not really mad. A duck is not really a clown; it waddles inelegantly because its body has evolved to swim. A rubber duck, by comparison, is not burdened with thought. It is thought, the immaterial made material, a subjective object, a fantasy in 3-D.
One night, during the thirty-third week of her pregnancy, my wife and I attended a practicum in infant CPR. With the other expectant parents, we sat around a conference table set with babies—identical, life-size, polyethylene babies, lying there on the formica like lobsters. The skin of these infantile mannequins was the color of graphite. Even their eyeballs were shiny and gray. Their mouths had been molded agape, so that they seemed to be gasping for air. To dislodge an imaginary choking hazard, you were supposed to lay the baby facedown over your left forearm and strike its back with the heel of your right hand. If you struck too hard, its hollow head would pop from its neck and go skittering across the linoleum. The morning after my visit with Ebbesmeyer, hurtling up the eastern shore of Puget Sound aboard the Amtrak Cascades bound for Bellingham, it occurs to me that “garbage patch” sounds like “cabbage patch,” and for a moment I am picturing a thousand silvery, gape-mouthed heads bobbing on the open sea.
The old woman across the aisle, a retired high school chemistry teacher from Montana, tells me that she and her husband are traveling the globe. They have been to every continent but Antarctica. She teaches me how to say “I don’t have any money” in Norwegian. She tells me about the mural she saw in Belfast depicting a masked man and a Kalashnikov. She tells me about her nephew, who has in fact been to Antarctica. He spent a night dangling from the ice shelf in something like a hammock. National Geographic named him one of the top mountain climbers in the world, she says. Then he died in an avalanche in Tibet. Left three little boys. She smiles as she says this. In the window behind her, the blue waters of Puget Sound flash through the green blur of trees.
The train groans into a curve. Suddenly there are green and orange and blue containers stacked atop flatbed train cars parked on a neighboring track. The polyglot names of shipping companies speed by: Evergreen, Uniglory, Maersk. Then, at a clearing in the trees, the great brontosaural works of a gantry crane loom up above a Russian freighter loaded with what looks like modular housing. port of seattle, a sign on the crane reads.
We are somewhere east of the Strait of Juan de Fuca—Juan de Fuca, whom I read about in one of my books. He was a Greek sailor in the Spanish navy whose real name was Apostolos Valerianos. He claimed to have discovered the entrance to the Northwest Passage at the 47th parallel in 1592. The transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic had taken a mere twenty days, he reported, and the northern lands between these oceans were filled with riches. Despite how familiar this tale must have sounded, for centuries people actually believed him. Although no one knows for certain whether the Greek sailor ever even visited the North Pacific, his description of the entrance to the passage, then known as the Strait of Anian, bears a superficial resemblance to the entrance of Puget Sound, and so the Strait of Juan de Fuca memorializes the pseudonymous perpetrator of a hoax.
Viewed from the patio of the Bellingham ferry terminal, the M/V Malaspina is a splendid sight, its white decks gleaming, a yellow stripe running the length of its navy-blue hull, its single smokestack painted in the motif of the Alaskan state flag—gold stars of the Big Dipper and the North Star against a navy-blue sky. All the motor vessels in the Alaska Marine Highway system are named for Alaskan glaciers, and the Malaspina is named for the largest, a 1,500-square-mile slow-moving mesa of ice, which is in turn named for an eighteenth-century Spanish navigator, Alejandro Malaspina, whose search for the Northwest Passage ended in 1791 at the 60th parallel, in an icy inlet that he christened Bahía del Desengaño, Disappointment Bay. When I wheel my suitcase down the gangway that evening, the splendor of the M/V Malaspina diminishes with every step. The ferry is, I see upon boarding it, an aging, rust-stained hulk, repainted many times. Posted in a display case of documents near the cocktail lounge one can read a disconcerting open letter in which “past and present crew members . . . bid farewell to this proud ship.” Queen of the fleet when it was first launched in 1962, the Malaspina, the letter explains, “will cease scheduled runs of Alaska’s Inside Passage on October 27, 1997.” Why the old ferry is still in service eight years later the documents in the display case do not say.
The Malaspina’s diesel engines rumble to life. I am going to sea! Who can resist an embarkation? The thrill of watery beginnings? Not me. The evening is cool and exhilarating, the sky clear save for a distant, flat-bottomed macaroon of a cloud. The wavelets on Bellingham Bay are as intricate as houndstooth, complicated by cross breezes and by ripples radiating from the hulls of anchored boats. The dock falls away. I stand at the taffrail and think to myself, taffrail, enjoying the union of a thing and its word. Out on the sundeck, at the mouth of the Plexiglas solarium where I will spend the next three nights sleeping for free in a plastic chaise longue, backpackers are pitching their tents, duct-taping them down so that the wind doesn’t toss them overboard. Soon a rustling nylon village of colorful domes has sprung up. “Tent city,” the veteran ferry-riders call it. On the forested hills of Bellingham, the houses face the harbor. How festive the ferry must look from up there! As the ship turns and slithers toward the horizon, the low sun moves across the windows of the town, igniting them one by one.
During the middle of the first night, off the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, the temperature drops, a fog shuts down, and my cell phone loses reception. So much for daily phone calls to my pregnant wife. A plastic deck chair, it turns out, makes for a miserable mattress. Cold air seeps between the slats. The government-issue cotton blanket I rented from the ship’s purser for a dollar is far too thin. Some of my neighbors in the solarium move inside to sleep like refugees on the carpeted floor of the recliner lounge. I rent a second blanket for the second night, but it hardly makes a difference. Shivering in a fetal position, I think about that mountain climber dangling from the Antarctic ice shelf in a hammock and feel faintly ridiculous. After two nights in the solarium of a cruise ship—a state-operated, poor man’s cruise ship, but a cruise ship nonetheless—I have already had my fill of adventuring.
What is childhood? Developmental psychologists will tell you that infancy and toddlerhood and childhood and adolescence are neurologically determined states of mind. Sociologists and historians, meanwhile, tell us that childhood is an idea, distinct from biological immaturity, the meaning of which changes over time. In his seminal, 1960 study of the subject, French historian Philippe Ariès argued that childhood as we know it is a modern invention, largely a by-product of schooling. In the Middle Ages, when almost no one went to school, children were treated like miniature adults. At work and at play, there was little age-based segregation. “Everything was permitted in their presence,” according to one of Ariès’s sources, even “coarse language, scabrous actions and situations; they had heard everything and seen everything.” Power, not age, determined whether a person was treated like a child. Until the seventeenth century, the European idea of childhood “was bound up with the idea of dependence: the words ‘sons,’ ‘varlets,’ and ‘boys’ were also words in the vocabulary of feudal subordination. One could leave childhood only by leaving the state of dependence.” Our notion of childhood as a sheltered period of innocence begins to emerge with the modern education system, Ariès argues. As the period of economic dependence lengthened among the educated classes, so too did childhood. These days education and the puerility it entails often last well into one’s twenties, or longer.
Twenty-two years after Ariès published his book, media critic Neil Postman announced in The Disappearance of Childhood that modern childhood as Ariès described it had gone extinct, killed off by the mass media, which gave all children, educated or otherwise, premature access to the violent, sexually illicit world of adults. Children still existed, of course, but they’d become, in Postman’s word, “adultified.” I was ten years old when Postman published his book, and in many respects my biography aligns with his unflattering generational portrait. In Postman’s opinion the rising divorce rate indicated a “precipitous falling off in the commitment of adults to the nurturing of children.” My parents divorced just as the American divorce rate reached its historical peak. After my mother moved out for good, my brother and I came home from school to an empty house where we spent hours watching the sorts of television shows Postman complains about (Three’s Company, The Dukes of Hazzard). Reading Postman’s diagnosis, I begin to wonder if he’s right. Maybe my childhood went missing.
But then I think of Joshua the Mouse. One day at the school where I teach I stopped to admire a bulletin board decorated with construction-paper mice that a class of first graders had made. Above one mouse there appeared the following caption: “My mouse’s name is Joshua. He is 20 years old. He is afraid of everything.” I love this caption. I love how those first two humdrum sentences do nothing to prepare us for the emotional revelation of the third. And then there’s the age: twenty years old. What occult significance could that number possess for Joshua’s creator? When you are six, even eight-year-olds look colossal. A twenty-year-old must be as unfathomable as a god. And contemplating poor, omniphobic, twenty-year-old Joshua, I am convinced that children may impersonate adults but they will never become them. I doubt that childhood has ever been the safe, sunlit harbor adults in moments of forgetfulness dream about. I suspect that it will always be a wilderness.
“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land,” Ishmael philosophizes midway through his whale hunt, “so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!” We canst never return, but oh, how we try, how we try.
Postman does not only argue that television produced “adultified children”; paradoxically, it also produced “childified adults.” As evidence, he points to the absence on television of characters who possess an “adult’s appetite for serious music” or “book-learning” or “even the faintest signs of a contemplative habit of mind.” One wonders what he would have made of the popular culture of centuries past—the pornographic peep-show boxes, the slapstick vaudeville acts, the violent and salacious Punch and Judy shows, the bearbaitings and cockfights, the dime novels and penny weeklies. The great difference to me seems one not of quality but of quantity: entertainment has become so cheap and ubiquitous that it is inescapable. Even the material world has become a “Sargasso of the imagination.” Life is still half known.
The Alaskan stretch of the Inside Passage snakes through the Alexander Archipelago, a chain of 1,000 or so thickly forested islands, some as small as tablecloths, some as large as Hawaii. These are, in fact, the tops of underwater mountains, part of the same snowcapped range visible on the mainland to the east. Most rise steeply from the water and soar to cloudy heights. Before going there, I expected southeast Alaska to feel like a giant outdoor theme park—Frontierland—and the shopping districts of the resort towns where the gargantuan cruise ships dock confirm my worst expectations. Cruise-ship companies now own many of the businesses in those districts and may soon be able to “imagineer” (as the folks at Disney call it) every aspect of your vacation experience. But the backwaters of the Inside Passage, too narrow and shallow for the superliners to enter, contain lost worlds.
In the narrowest of the narrows, it feels as though we are motoring down an inland river rather than along the ocean’s edge—some Amazon of the north. Although this is the Pacific, the water doesn’t look, smell, or sound like the sea. Neither waves nor flotsam get past the outer islands to the placid interior. In the summer, streams of glacial melt freshen the channels, and in places the minerals those streams carry turn the channels a strangely luminous shade of jade. The banks sometimes loom so close you could play Frisbee with a person standing on shore. Hours go by when we see no other ships, or any sign of civilization besides the buoys that mark the way among the shoals.
Early in the morning, fog rises here and there from the forests of hemlock, cedar, and spruce. It is as if certain stands are burning, except that the fog moves much more slowly than smoke. On the far side of one mountain, a dense white column billows forth like a slow-motion geyser that levels off into an airborne river flowing into a sea of clouds. I’ve begun to notice currents everywhere, a universe of eddies and gyres. Phytoplankton ride the same ocean currents that carried the Float ees to Sitka. Zooplankton follow the phytoplankton. Fish follow the zooplankton. Sea lions, whales, and people follow the fish. When, at the end of their upriver journey, salmon spawn and die en masse, their carcasses—distributed by bears, eagles, and other scavengersthe forests that make the fog, which falls as rain, which changes the ocean’s salinity. All deep water travels along what oceanographers call the “conveyor belt,” which begins with warm water from the Gulf Stream draining into the North Atlantic, where evaporation increases the salinity and makes it sink to the ocean floor, where it creeps south into the Antarctic circumpolar stream. After a thousand years—a millennium!—the conveyor belt ends here, in the North Pacific, where the ancient water wells up, carrying nutrients with it. Oceanographers learned much of this from studying radioactive isotopes released into the sea as fallout from nuclear tests. I’m becoming a devout driftologist. The only essential difference between rock, water, air, life, galaxies, economies, civilizations, plastics—I decide, standing on the Malaspina’s deck, totally sober, watching the fog make pretty shapes above the trees—is the rate of flow.
Everywhere they look, archaeologists find them—buffalo sprayed with pigments onto the walls of caves, killer whales cut from cedar or stone, horses molded from terra-cotta or plaited out of straw. Our primal fear of predators and our hunger for prey cannot alone account for this menagerie. Three thousand years ago in Persia, someone carved a porcupine out of limestone and attached it to a little chassis on wheels. Four thousand years ago in Egypt, someone sculpted a mouse and glazed it blue. Why blue? Whoever heard of a blue mouse? Is this the forebear of the red beaver and the yellow duck? In fact, many of the figurines that look to us like toys turn out to have been totemic gods or demigods, used in religious ceremonies or funerary rites. To make the archaeological record all the blurrier, some totems in some cultures were given to children as playthings once the festivities had ended. One thing is clear: animals held an exalted position in the lives of both children and adults. Even after the missionaries came and cleansed them from the temples, the animistic gods survived, adapting to the altered cultural landscape. In Europe of the Middle Ages, one of the most popular books after the Bible was the Bestiary, a kind of illustrated field guide to the medieval imagination, wherein the animals of fable and myth were reborn as vehicles of Christian allegory. From the Bestiary came the idea that after three days a pelican could resurrect a dead hatchling with her blood, and from the Bestiary we learned that only a virgin girl can tame a unicorn. Even Aesop, that pagan, remained a favorite with old and young alike well into the seventeenth century.
Gradually, as allegory gave way to zoology and farming to industry, we decided that animals were for kids. “Children in the industrialised world are surrounded by animal imagery,” notes John Berger in “Why Look at Animals?” Despite the antiquity of zoomorphic toys and the “apparently spontaneous interest that children have in animals,” it was not until the nineteenth century that “reproductions of animals became a regular part of the decor of middle class childhoods—and then, in [the twentieth] century, with the advent of vast display and selling systems like Disney’s—of all childhoods.” Berger traces this phenomenon to the marginalization of animals, which the age of industrialism either incarcerated as living spectacles at the public zoo, treated as raw material to be exploited, processed as commodities on factory farms, or domesticated as family pets. Meanwhile, “animals of the mind”—which since the dawn of human consciousness had been central to our cosmologies—were sent without supper to the nursery. Animals both living and imaginary no longer seemed like mysterious gods. They seemed, increasingly, like toys.
Go bird-watching in the pre-industrial libraries of literature and myth, and you will find few ducks, which is puzzling, considering how popular with the authors of children’s books ducks have since become. Search, for instance, the fields and forests of Aesop, whose talking beasts are the ancestors of both Chanticleer the Rooster and Walter the Farting Dog, and you will meet ten cocks, a cote of doves, several partridges, a caged songbird, six crows, three ravens (one portentous, another self-loathing), a dozen or so eagles, five jackdaws (one of whom wishes he were an eagle), many kites, flocks of cranes, two storks, three hawks, a cote of pigeons, three hens, a sparrow with a bad case of schadenfreude, five swallows, many peacocks, a jay who wishes he were a peacock, many swans, two nightingales, two larks, two owls, a gluttonous seagull, a thrush en snared in birdlime, and nary a single duck.
Aesop’s fables exhibit considerable ornithological knowledge, but their primary aim is to transmute animal behavior into human meaning—to burden them, as Thoreau would say, with some portion of our thought. “The lot of each has been assigned by the will of the Fates,” the god Juno explains to an insecure peacock in one fable, “—to thee, beauty; to the eagle, strength; to the nightingale, song; to the raven, favorable, and to the crow, unfavorable auguries.” The closest to ducks that Aesop gets is geese, which invariably end up on dinner plates.
Even Aesop’s most famous goose, the one who lays the golden egg, succumbs to the carving knife. In a Kashmiri version of the same tale, Aesop’s barnyard variety Anatidae becomes the Lucky-Bird Humá, a visitor from the magical avian kingdom of Koh-i-Qáf. A Buddhist version of the tale replaces the egg-laying goose with one of the only mythical ducks I have found, a mallard plumed in gold, which turns out to be a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva.
In all three versions of the fable, the human beneficiaries sacrifice their magically profitable waterfowl on the altar of their greed. The farmer kills the goose, cuts it open, and finds no eggs. Dreaming of rupees, a Kashmiri woodcutter accidentally asphyxiates the Lucky-Bird Humá while carrying him to market in a sack. A family of Brahmin women decide to pluck out all of the Bodhisattva’s golden feathers at once; they turn into the feathers of a crane. Unlike the others, the Buddhist version tells the fable from the bird’s point of view, and for that reason it is peculiarly affecting. Both Aesop’s fable and the Kashmiri one show us the folly of human desire, and it is satisfying, reading them, to watch our wicked, bumbling protagonists endure dramatically ironic reversals of fortune. The Buddhist fable shows us the folly of human desire, but it also makes us experience that folly’s cost, the debt of suffering our appetites can incur. The tone of the final sentences is more sorrowful than ironic. Trying to escape, the once golden mallard stretches his plucked wings but, featherless, finds he cannot fly. His captors throw him into a barrel. With time, his feathers grow back, but they are plain white ones now. He flies home, never to return.
On the morning that I disembark from the Malaspina at Sitka, Tyler and Dean Orbison are just returning from a two-week, 300-mile beachcombing expedition to Latuya Bay and back. They go on such expeditions every summer, traveling farther and farther afield every year, poking around in bunkers abandoned at the end of World War II, walking beaches where the only footprints in the sand are animal tracks. They have a cabin cruiser big enough to sleep in and a skiff for going ashore. From the cruiser, they look for V-shaped coastlines that funnel the tides, and they look for “jackstraw”—driftwood logs jumbled like a pile of pick-up-sticks—and, most important of all, like prospectors panning in the tailings, they look for “good color,” their term for plastic debris visible from afar. Where there’s some color, there’s sure to be more. Their style of beachcombing is by necessity a two-man job. One person has to stay in the skiff to keep it from foundering on the rocks while the other person wades in and combs. They take turns. Dean prefers to hunt high up, in the purple fireweed, where storms will throw objects out of the reach of tides. Tyler, Dean’s son, is “a digger.” Like a human metal detector, he’s learned to divine the location of buried objects by reading the terrain. This year, for the first time, Tyler and Dean started combing in seaside caves where tangled driftwood will form a kind of flotsam trap. It’s dark in the caves. You have to beachcomb with a flashlight. It’s also cold, but the labor of log-lifting keeps you warm. The effort’s worth it. Every cave the Orbisons searched contained a farrago of wrack—a Dawn dish detergent bottle, glass fishing floats, Floatees. Half a water pistol turned up in one cave, the other half in another. By far the most common objects the Orbisons find are polyethylene water bottles. They have begun keeping the screw-tops, cataloguing the varieties. On this last trip they identified seventy-five different brands, many of them foreign in origin. Up in Latuya Bay they saw a black wolf and the bones of a whale, and they picked wild strawberries, and when their cooler ran out of ice they floated alongside a glacier and broke off a chunk.
Now, at the end of my first day ashore, they’ve fetched me from my hotel. “Growing up here, I mean, there’s nothing,” Tyler tells me from the back seat of his father’s truck while we’re waiting for his parents to emerge from Sitka’s only supermarket. “I mean we don’t even have a mall. So I took to the outdoors pretty hard.” It is clear that Tyler has never given much thought to the marginalization of animals. You wouldn’t either if you’d grown up in southeast Alaska, where bears make off with household pets, and ravens alighting on transformers cause power outages, and bald eagles sometimes come crashing through dining room windows. If anything, it’s the people who occupy the margins here. Just look at a map: Sitka perches on the coastal brink of Baranof Island, wedged between mountainous wilderness to the east and watery wilderness to the west. Sitkans share their island with an estimated 1,200 grizzly bears—more than are found in all of the lower forty-eight states combined. In May and June, eagles and ravens—the supreme deities in the pantheon of the native Tlingit—wheel overhead. In July and August, the creeks grow dark with spawning sockeye and chum. In November, the whales and the whale watchers arrive. People like me may feel sorry for the 1.2 million sea otters that the Russian American Company parted from their pelts in the early 1800s, but Sitka’s otters have replenished themselves with such procreative gusto that local fishermen now regard them as pests—crop-thieving, net-wrecking vermin of the sea.
Like most beachcombers of the Pacific rim, the Orbisons started out collecting Japanese fishing floats, the glass balls that you sometimes see hanging in nets from the ceilings of seafood restaurants, or decorating the window displays of maritime boutiques. The popularity of glass floats owes partly to their delicate, soap-bubble beauty, partly to the Kuroshio Current that sweeps them across the Pacific and bowls them up the beaches of the American West Coast, and partly to Amos L. Wood, an aeronautics engineer and beachcombing enthusiast whose books Beachcombing for Japanese Floats and Beachcombing the Pacific have become to beachcombers what Audubon guides are to bird-watchers.
A century and a half ago, beachcombers tended to be transcendental weirdos like Ellery Channing and Henry Thoreau. Back then, much of New England’s shoreline was as wild as Alaska’s is today and more treacherous to passing ships. Just before Thoreau arrived at Provincetown in 1849, a ship carrying Irish immigrants sank off Cohasset. The bodies of the drowned lay strewn along the beach, torn asunder by the surf and fish. “There are more consequences to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice,” Thoreau observed. “The Gulf Stream may return some to their native shores, or drop them in some out-of-the-way cave of Ocean, where time and the elements will write new riddles with their bones.” Even where no shipwrecks had occurred, a Cape Cod beach in 1849 was “a wild rank place” littered “with crabs, horse-shoes and razor clams, and whatever the sea casts up—a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them.”
Still a recent coinage, the word “beachcomber” in 1849 meant approximately what we mean by “beach bum”: it evoked a character like the narrator of Melville’s Omoo, a transient ne’er-do-well who’d fled from civilization hoping to sample tropical women and tropical fruits and loaf around beneath the blowsy palms. “Idle, drunken, vagabond,” Edward J. Wakefield wrote in 1845, “he wanders about without any fixed object, cannot get employed by the whaler or any one else, as it is out of his power to do a day’s work; and he is universally known as ‘the beach-comber.’” The local Cape Codders whom Thoreau met on his seaside rambles usually took him for a traveling salesman. What other explanation could there be for a vagabond with a walking stick and a knapsack full of books?
The Orbisons gave up collecting for driftology in the summer of 1993, when they began discovering bath toys. Tyler was just twelve at the time, but he was the one to find their first toy, a beaver, and he remembers the moment vividly. “We were on Kruzof Island, looking for glass balls,” he says. “We didn’t really know what else to look for. It was beautiful weather; the reason we went to Kruzof is because it’s really hard to get ashore, and that’s where we go when the weather’s good. We were up beyond the high-tide line. It was in the drift a ways. It had been there for a little bit. And I thought, This is cool. It was bleached out, exactly like the beavers we find now. I would say it had been there since the winter storms.”
They assumed that their beaver was a solitary castaway, but when they arrived back in town, talk of the mysterious invasion was in the air. Dean and Tyler went looking for more plastic animals, and found them. They started keeping meticulous records, treating the Floatees as data, which they eventually reported to Ebbesmeyer. About three years later, the oceanographer began publishing Beachcomber’s Alert!, and the Orbisons were among his first subscribers. They own every issue. “Curt tells us what to look for, and we go out there and find it,” Dean explains. This year, at Ebbesmeyer’s bidding, they searched for and found a computer monitor, Japanese surveying stakes, hockey gloves, “antisandals” (a sheet of rubber from which flip-flop–shaped blanks have been stamped), part of a naval sonar buoy, and six new Floatees, including a turtle they’d chiseled from the ice. After cataloguing the junk on their and showing it to Ebbesmeyer, they’ll take most of it to the dump.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, rubber ducks were wilder than they are now. There was nothing iconic or nostalgic about them. Some rubber ducks of the Nixon era were white, some were calico. Some had swan-like necks and rosy circles on their cheeks. Some came with rococo feathers molded into their wings and tails. No one used them to sell baby clothes or soap. Normal adults did not give them to one another, or decorate their desks with them. As far as I can remember, no one I knew even owned a rubber duck. I did own one, however, on account of the pet name my mother had given me: Donovan Duck. My duck was a somewhat hideous specimen, with white plumage, a green topcoat, a big head, and the posture of a penguin. It resembled a Hummel figurine that had sprouted a beak.
Not long ago, my mother sent me a photograph in which, naked, eight months old, sitting in the bath across from my brother, I appear to be attempting to gnaw through my rubber duck’s skull. The picture is dated January 1973. Most exotic varieties of rubber duck have since gone extinct—they are the dodos and carrier pigeons of the nursery—and what new ones have evolved share a single, yellow ancestor whose pop-cultural apotheosis was by January 1973 already under way. It had begun three years earlier, in 1970, when an orange puppet named Ernie appeared on PBS and said, “Here I am in my tubby again. And my tubby’s all filled with water and nice, fluffy suds. And I’ve got my soap and washcloth to wash myself. And I’ve got my nifty scrub brush to help me scrub my back. And I’ve got a big fluffy towel to dry myself when I’m done. But there’s one other thing that makes tubby time the very best time of the whole day. And do you know what that is? It’s a very special friend of mine. My very favorite little pal”—at which point Ernie reaches into the suds and, brandishing his yellow duck, bursts into song.
You can watch a video clip of the number online. A pink towel hangs from a wooden post at the left edge of the frame. The post looks like something out of an old Western. There is no other scenery to speak of. Behind the bathtub—which is huge, presumably claw-footed, and decorated with three pink daisies—hangs a sky-blue backdrop. Bubbles of the sort you blow with a wand come floating up from the bottom of the screen, and the gurgle of water accompanies the music. Although I watched my share of Sesame Street as a child, I far preferred Super Grover’s mock-heroic pratfalls to Ernie’s snickering bonhomie, and I have no memory of the rubber duckie number. My wife, on the other hand, still knows the song by heart.
“Rubber Duckie, joy of joys,” Ernie sings. “When I squeeze you, you make noise,/Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true.” It’s all so synthetic, so lonely, so imaginary, so clean. And apparently children loved it. In the 1969 pilot episode of Sesame Street, in which a version of the rubber duckie song appeared, children in the test audience responded so enthusiastically to Ernie and Bert and so tepidly to segments featuring the live actors that the show’s creators redesigned it, giving the puppets a starring role.
However novel the medium, however inventive Jim Henson’s puppetry, Ernie’s bathtub serenade draws upon a history of representation that can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when British portraitists stopped painting children as diminutive adults and turned them into puppy-eyed personifications of Innocence. In the Romantic era, no longer was innocence merely the antithesis of guilt; it was also
the antithesis of adulthood and modernity. Children became little noble savages and childhood became a place as well as an age—a lost, imaginary, pastoral realm.
It is striking how much the modern history of childhood resembles that of animals. “In the first stages of the industrial revolution,” John Berger writes, “animals were used as machines. As also were children.” In the latter stages of industrialism, poor children who escaped the factory often took to the street, where they formed what social historians call “child societies,” gangs of urchins who—like feral cats—invented a social order all their own. Partly in fear of child societies, middle-class parents of the Gilded Era began treating their children increasingly like pets. Nurseries and playrooms became more common, and toy chests began to overflow.
 Teddy bears and other stuffed animals, Peter Stearns explains in Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, “were widely appealing at a time when parents were trying to facilitate new sleeping arrangements for babies and also to guard against unduly fervent emotional attachments to mothers. The decline in paid help for young children also opened the door to the use of toys as surrogate entertainment.” One commentator at the time speculated that toy animals helped children overcome primal fears of scary predators, turning lions and tigers and bears into snuggly sidekicks. Perhaps the most astute psychological profile of the child consumer appeared in Playthings, the trade journal of the American toy industry, which in 1913 was predicting that “the nervous temperament of the average American child and the rapidity with which it tires of things” would guarantee a never-ending bull market in toys.
In 1869, a printer from Albany, New York, named John Wesley Hyatt mixed ground camphor with nitrocellulose, thereby inventing celluloid. In 1873, the first Pekin ducks were imported to the United States from China. And in the 1880s, bathtubs began appearing in middle-class homes along with indoor plumbing. Celluloid eventually evolved into the plastics industry. The Pekin duck eventually became the preferred species of American duck breeders, making yellow ducklings a familiar symbol of birth and spring. And the average American bathroom, which had once consisted of a washtub and an outhouse, was consecrated as a temple of cleanliness. Much as the modern nursery sheltered children from the social contamination of the street, so the modern bathroom protected their naked, slippery bodies from germs. In the first decades of the twentieth century, public-health campaigns and soap advertisements—usually illustrated with pudgy little tots—exhorted parents to bathe their children often. Little boys, the thinking went, were naturally indisposed to bathing. Bath toys not only made hygiene boyishly fun; they helped overcome the naughty urges that bathing tended to arouse: “The baby will not spend much time handling his genitals if he has other interesting things to do,” one government-issue child-care manual advised in 1942. “See that he has a toy to play with and he will not need to use his body as a plaything.” Enter the rubber duck.
Ducklings are the aquatic equivalent of kittens and bunnies. In fact, it’s hard to think of a smaller, cuddlier animal that can swim. Most of the frogs and turtles of children’s literature are middle-aged men, whereas even in nature ducklings are model offspring: obedient, dependent, vulnerable to predation, clumsy, soft, a little dumb. Just think of them waddling in a train behind a mother duck, a familiar image memorialized by Robert McCloskey’s best-selling children’s book Make Way for Ducklings. McCloskey’s baby mallards, penciled in black and white, look like real baby mallards—a little stylized, but real. Like the ducks depicted in other venerable children’s books, they bear little resemblance to Ernie’s Day-Glo squeak toy. Beatrix Potter’s Jemimah is a white Pekin duck in a bonnet and shawl. Donald Duck, the most famous water fowl at mid-century, was also a white Pekin, and the most common toy duck was still the ancient bird-on-a-leash, a wooden pull-toy with wheels instead of feet. Before the rubber duck could eclipse it, plastic had to replace wood as the preferred material for toys, which, following the technical innovations spurred by World War II, it did.
McCloskey published his book in 1941. That same year, at the beginning of the war, two British chemists, V. E. Yarsley and E. G. Couzens, prophesied with surprising accuracy and quaintly utopian innocence what middle-class childhood in the 1970s would be like. “Let us try to imagine a dweller in the ‘Plastic Age,’” they wrote in the British magazine Science Digest.
This creature of our imagination, this ‘Plastic Man,’ will come into a world of colour and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbour dirt or germs, because, being a child his parents will see to it that he is surrounded on every side by this tough, safe, clean material which human thought has created. The walls of his nursery, all the articles of his bath and certain other necessities of his small life, all his toys, his cot, the moulded perambulator in which he takes the air, the teething ring he bites, the unbreakable bottle he feeds from . . . all will be plastic, brightly self-coloured and patterned with every design likely to please his childish mind.
Here, then, is one of the meanings of the duck. It represents this vision of childhood—the hygienic childhood, the safe childhood, the brightly colored childhood, in which everything, even bathtub articles, have been designed to please the childish mind, much as the golden fruit in that most famous origin myth of paradise “was pleasant to the eyes” of childish Eve. Yarsley and Couzens go on to imagine the rest of Plastic Man’s life, and it is remarkable how little his adulthood differs from his childhood. When he grows up, Plastic Man will live in a house furnished with “beautiful, transparent, glass-like materials in every imaginable form,” he will play with plastic toys (tennis rackets and fishing tackle), he will, “like a magician,” be able to make “what he wants.” And yet there is one imperfection, one run in this nylon dream. Plastic might make the pleasures of childhood last forever, but it could not make Plastic Man immortal. When he dies, he will sink “into his grave hygienically enclosed in a plastic coffin.” The image must have been unsettling, even in 1941; that hygienically enclosed death too reminiscent of the hygienically enclosed life that preceded it. To banish the image of that plastic coffin from their readers’ thoughts, the utopian chemists inject a little more technicolor resin
into their closing sentences. When “the dust and smoke” of war had cleared, plastic would deliver us “from moth and rust” into a world “full of colour . . . a new, brighter, cleaner, more beautiful world.”
For new parents who had themselves grown up during the Depression and the war, the fantasy of childhood as consumer paradise exerted a powerful appeal. Browsing through issues of Parents Magazine from 1950, I came upon an ad campaign for Heinz baby food (“Scientific Cooking Gives Finer Flavor, Color and Texture to Heinz Strained Carrots”). In one Heinz ad, targeted at new mothers, cartoon butterflies, fairies, and dolls encircle the photograph of a baby girl. “Wee elfin creatures go riding on butterfly wings,” the copy reads, “dolls speak in a language all their own and something altogether new and wonderful happens everywhere a baby looks . . . your child lives in a magic world where everything’s enchanted.” Then came television, enchantment in a box. Annual toy sales in America shot from $84 million in 1940 to $1.25 billion in 1960. Peg-and-socket pop beads sold to girls as costume jewelry consumed 40,000 pounds of polyethylene resin per month in 1956. In 1958, “twirling hoops” consumed 15 million pounds of the stuff. Polystyrene replaced balsa wood as the material of choice for model cars and planes. Plasticized polyvinyl chloride, the material from which the brand-new Barbie doll was made, provided a cheaper, more durable alternative to latex rubber, rendering traditional molded rubber animals and dolls obsolete except in name.
Not long after PBS first broadcast it, Ernie’s rubber duckie song went to number 16 on the Billboard charts. Radio stations were playing it, adults were buying it. And, unlike the other Sesame Street characters, Ernie’s rubber duck could not be licensed. Producers had picked up the prop at a local dimestore, which meant that even as it became a recurring character and a pop music phenomenon, it remained in the public domain, free for the taking, no fees required. Does that mean that if Ernie had gone bathing with a white duck or a green one, our iconic ducks would be white or green? I’m not sure. The threads of chance and meaning are hard to disentangle. On the album cover of the single of the song, Ernie, for some reason, is holding a different duck, a white one with burnt-orange spots. Perhaps there is more to the message in this particular bottle than the medium. Perhaps Ernie alone does not explain the yellowness of the duck.
“Ideals of innocent beauty and the adorable have changed little in a hundred years or more,” the historian Gary Cross writes. “Many today share with the Victorian middle class an attraction to the blond, blue-eyed, clear-skinned, and well-fed child and are appalled by, uninterested in, and even hostile to the dark, dirty, and emaciated child. Even when humanitarian groups try to shame us into giving money to support poor peoples far away, they usually show us an image of a smiling olive-skinned (not black) girl, a close copy of our ideal of innocence.” So maybe it’s just as Curtis Ebbesmeyer suspected. Maybe there is a racial bias at play. Is it too much of a stretch to see in the yellowness of the rubber duck a visual reminder of that well-fed, blue-eyed, clear-skinned, yellow-haired Victorian ideal? After all, real ducklings have black, beady eyes, not blue ones like the ducks in Eric Carle’s book. The lyrics to Ernie’s serenade show just how childlike his rubber duckie is. “Every day when I,/Make my way to the tubby,” the song’s chorus goes, “I find a little fellow who’s/Cute and yellow and chubby!” Chubby vs. well-fed, blond vs. yellow, what’s the difference?
Tuesdays during the seventh month of her pregnancy, my wife and I attended a prepared childbirth class on the maternity ward of our hospital. On one wall of the classroom hung a poster of an egg, mid-hatch. Contemplating it during the long, tedious hours of instruction, I began to wonder why this particular poster had been hung before our eyes. Was it meant to comfort us? Did we prefer the clean, white orb of an egg to the bloody, mammalian mess of one body gushing forth from the wounded nethers of another? On the opposite wall of the classroom hung an enlarged, sepia photograph of naked, racially diverse babies; aligned firing-squad style along a fence over which they appeared to be attempting an escape, they displayed their wrinkly bums for our delight. Children are fundamentally the same, such images suggest, as indistinguishable as ducklings despite the color of their skin. They inhabit a world before sex, before race, before history, before self, before humanity. Children, then, are beasts of burden, too—ducklings and bunnies of burden—asked to carry the needful daydreams of adults. The apotheosis of the rubber duck wouldn’t be truly complete until the children who had watched that 1970 episode of Sesame Street grew old enough to look back forgetfully with longing and loss.
We are going beachcombing. We are going beachcombing on Kruzof Island, along a pumice beach at the mouth of Fred’s Creek, which originates high on the perennially snow-capped slopes of Mt. Edgecumbe and empties into Sitka Sound. Curtis Ebbesmeyer is here, aboard the Morning Mist, wearing his sea-bean necklace and a baseball cap decorated with stickers from Seattle coffee houses. Dean Orbison is here, in his customary plaid woodsman’s shirt and a pair of Sitka sneakers—the local name for knee-high rubber boots. Tyler Orbison is not here; sadly, he had to work. Piloting the Morning Mist—a white, twin-engine troller with outrigging as tall as flagpoles and orange floats the size of beach balls dangling like ornaments from its rails—is Larry Calvin, a spry, white-haired fisherman in suspenders.
A self-employed, left-wing entrepreneur who subsidizes his fishing with profits earned in the building-supply business, Calvin embodies an old brand of American individualism that seems to flourish in the strange demographic conundrum that is maritime Alaska, a place both rural and coastal, both red and blue, Western and Tlingit, industrial and aquacultural and wild. On Calvin’s black ball cap a fish leaps above the words
With us aboard the Morning Mist are a dozen or so scholars—oceanographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians—who have come to Sitka for the annual Paths Across the Pacific Conference, an academic symposium scheduled to coincide with the Beachcombers’ Fair. The organizing theory of the conference is this: People started crossing the Pacific Ocean by boat tens of thousands of years ago, far earlier than was previously thought. Some Asian immigrants sailed to America by mistake when blown astray. Some came on purpose, paddling along the coast of the Beringian ice shelf, traveling a little farther east with every generation. Comparatively little is known about these ancient migrations, and on the way to Kruzof Island, an oceanographer named Thomas Royer tells me one reason why. Sea levels have risen so much since the last ice age that the earliest settlements in Alaska are now 100 meters underwater.
Another passenger, an archaeologist, interrupts to contest Royer’s figures. Sedimentation adds about a centimeter a year to the ocean floor, this archaeologist says, which means you’d have to dig deeper than 100 meters. You’d have to dig about 400 meters to find any artifacts.
Most of the chitchat aboard the Morning Mist is similarly quibbling, interdisciplinary, and esoteric. When did people first begin using boats—40,000 years ago? 50,000 years ago? What does it take to start a migration—a critical mass, or a few individuals with the itch to explore? Why did people migrate in the first place—the profit motive? hunger? exile? Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham’s computer simulations may help these marine archaeologists reconstruct the routes of those transoceanic migrations, the history of which is inseparable from the history of global climate change. In other words, it is humanity’s own past and future that the oceanographers are scrying in the tangled drift routes of the toys.
Looking out from the cabin of the Morning Mist, Royer teaches me how to read the surface of the sea. “You see that smooth area there?” he asks. “Either temperature or the salinity will change the surface tension of the water, so the same wind will ruffle the water in one spot but not in another.” All variations in the surface are the effects of hidden causes. What to me looks simply like an expanse of water is in fact a kind of shifting, aquatic topography, like an enormous lava lamp, only far more complex and subtle. Instead of one liquid suspended in another, there are slopes of dense, salty water and rivers of light, brackish water, and all of it, over the course of centuries, will eventually intermingle. As in all complex systems, minute changes to the ocean—in salinity, in temperature, in air pressure—can entail grand and unpredictable climate events. Because of melting glaciers, for instance, the salinity in the 18-mile-wide coastal current that flows north along the Alaskan seaboard is presently decreasing, making the water fresher and lighter. Counterintuitively, however, sea levels in Alaska are falling—or so it seems—because the land, relieved of the weight of ice, is lifting, the way an air mattress resumes its shape after you stand up.
In the half hour or so it takes us to get to Kruzof, centuries seem to recede. Sitka disappears into a blur of blue horizon. The world out here would not have looked much different a millennium ago, I think to myself. It resembles the opening verses of Genesis. There is only the land, the water, the trees. And then, at the edge of my peripheral vision, an orange figure swoops and dives. It’s a kite. A kite shaped like a bird, and there on the beach below it are three figures, a father and his children, dressed in colorful swimsuits. They have rented one of the four rustic cabins that the National Forest Service maintains on Kruzof Island. The cabin itself becomes visible now, tucked back into the trees. Here, in the forest primeval at the foot of a dormant volcano, is a scene from the New Jersey Shore. Larry Calvin anchors the Morning Mist well away from the rocky shallows and ferries us in several at a time aboard his aluminum skiff. The father flying the kite hollers hello, the children eye us warily. Ebbesmeyer hands out white plastic garbage bags in which to collect our discoveries. Dean Orbison will lead one beachcombing party to the south. I join Ebbesmeyer’s party, headed north.
I try to remember what the Orbisons and Amos Wood have taught me. Up ahead, where the beach curves and tapers into a sickle, there’s lots of jackstraw and even a little color—a fleck of blue, a daub of red. To get there we have to cross Fred’s Creek, which spills down through the trees over terraces of rocks before carving a delta of rivulets and bluffs through the sand. The delta is perhaps a dozen yards wide, and those of us without Sitka sneakers have trouble getting across. I manage to leap from rock to rock. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who ambles along somewhat effortfully, is in no state to go rock jumping. He hikes up into the trees and crosses where the creek narrows. Reuniting on the far shore, we make our way down the beach in a line, scanning the sand. Ebbesmeyer launches into one of his litanies of facts. Bowling balls float, he informs us, or rather the nine-, ten-, and eleven-pounders do. Heavier ones sink. And did you know that the valves of clams are not symmetrical? A colleague of his once surveyed the clamshells along a mile of beach. “At one end of the beach, it’s mostly rights, and at the other end it’s mostly lefts.” The currents can tell the difference.
In Beachcombing the Pacific, Amos Wood tells us “to keep looking out at the horizon and not continuously at the sand, for, after a few hours this can be tiring on the neck”—advice that I am all too happy to follow. For the first time since I entered Alaska aboard the Malaspina a week ago, the rain clouds have cleared. A strong breeze is blowing inland across the sparkling waves. To our right, there is the sound of the surf; to our left, the soughing of the trees. Peering into them, I see
only shadowy depths of green. The beach here is more gravelly than sandy. It’s like walking over peppercorns. Our boot soles crunch, and I fall into a kind of trance. No matter how crappy a pittance the tide leaves, no matter how darkly ominous the riddles in the sand, beachcombing has its delights. There is pleasure in setting your senses loose. At the sight of something half-buried, the eye startles and the imagination leaps. At the edge of the waves flickers a silver flame. A hundred yards off, from beneath a pile of driftwood, glows a small, fallen sun. Then, at the moment of recognition, there is a kind of satisfying latch. The silver flame? An empty bag of Doritos, torn open. The small sun? A red, dog-chewn Frisbee. The strange becomes suddenly familiar once again, though never quite as familiar as before. Occasionally the object you’ve inspected is unrecognizable or exotic or mysteriously incongruous. Occasionally that surf-tossed bottle turns out not to have been left by a camper but tossed from a Malaysian shrimp boat crossing the Andaman Sea.
It occurs to me that this is what I have been pursuing these past months, this is what I found so spellbindingly enigmatic about the image of those plastic ducks at sea—incongruity. We have built for ourselves out of this New World a giant diorama, a synthetic habitat, but travel beyond the edges or look with the eyes of a serious beachcomber, and the illusion begins to crumble.
According to Ebbesmeyer, the beachcombing this year has not been good. It all depends on the winter storms. But to me the junk seems abundant. I clamber over the jackstraw, finding there a predictable assortment of water bottles, but also a polystyrene ice cream tub, a plastic length of hose, nylon nets, huge cakes of Styrofoam, all of which I dump into Ebbesmeyer’s bag.
“Aw, man,” Ebbesmeyer says of the Styrofoam. “That’ll break up into a billion pieces. That’s the worst stuff. In Seattle you can’t recycle Styrofoam. Pisses me off. So what do you do with it? See all those little cells? The irony is, it’s made of polystyrene, which sinks, and they foam it to make it into something that floats. That’s what I think of when I see that stuff, all the windrows of Styrofoam, coffee cups with barnacles growing on them. You say you’d love to get it off the beach, but there’s no way.” He tells me about a container that spilled a shipment of filtered cigarettes. “There are about 10,000 polymer fibers per butt—that’s, what? Ten to the order . . . about ten billion fibers for just one container.” His eyebrows spring up above his glasses.
This, then, is the destiny of those toy animals that beachcombers fail to recover: baked brittle by the sun, they will eventually disintegrate into shards. Those shards will disintegrate into splinters, the splinters into particles, the particles into dust, and the dust into molecules, which will circulate through the environment for centuries. The very features that make plastic a perfect material for bathtub toys—so buoyant! so pliant! so smooth! so colorful! so hygienic!—also make it a superlative pollutant of the seas. No one knows exactly how long a synthetic polymer will persist at sea. Five hundred years is a reasonable guess. Globally, we are presently producing 200 million tons of plastic every year, and no known organism can digest a single molecule of the stuff, though plenty of organisms try, including many of the friendly organisms depicted in Eric Carle’s 10 Little Rubber Ducks.
Luckily for them, none of Carle’s ducks runs into a Laysan albatross. The encounter would not be pretty. The Laysan albatross is probably the most suicidally voracious plastivore on the planet. Although the bird prefers squid, it will scarf up almost anything colorful that it sees on the ocean’s surface. Albatross nesting grounds in the North Pacific are littered with the plastic debris that the birds have crapped out intact. Three to four million cigarette lighters have been collected from seabird rookeries on Midway. Albatross chicks have been known to starve to death on the plastic their parents regurgitate into their mouths, and the intestines of the adult birds can handle only so much before a fatal case of indigestion sets in. Naturalists recently found 700 different plastic items inside the feathery carcass of an albatross found in the Pacific. After cataloging this scrap, they assembled it into a mosaic, a great technicolor mandala of detritus, that is a marvel to behold. The other day, during a lecture he gave at a Rotary Club luncheon in Sitka, Ebbesmeyer showed a slide of the thing. Backlit against a white screen, it at first calls to mind stained glass. Then, as you look closer, you start spotting familiar objects strewn amid the shrapnel. Two cigarette lighters and a dozen-odd bottlecaps appear to be as good as new. Somewhere among those 700 items may be the remains of a Floatee.
Where does all that plastic come from? Container spills, fishing boats, and recreational beaches, but also sewers and drainage systems that empty into the sea. Bottlecaps are especially abundant in the North Pacific because they are small enough to slip through grates. The lost Super Balls of my childhood may now be abob in the garbage patch. The California Coastal Commission, an independent, quasi-judicial state agency, estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of visible plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean, never mind the invisible pieces Charlie Moore has gone trawling for. Based on the samples he collected, Moore calculates that in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre there are now six pounds of plastic for every one pound of zooplankton. Zooplankton such as salps, a kind of chordate jellyfish that feed by pumping seawater through their gelatinous bodies and straining out the nutrients, ingest bits of plastic far too small to catch an albatross’s eye. But the journey of the toys won’t end there, in the watery belly of a salp. Long after my own organic chemistry has fertilized leaves of grass, the pulverized, photo-degraded remains of that hollow duck of mine will, chemically speaking, live on, traveling through the food chain, scattering toxins in their wake.
We find the remains of a derelict motorboat, a bayliner. The boat was here last year, Ebbesmeyer says, marooned but intact on the beach to the south. A year’s worth of wave and wind action has torn its fiberglass hull asunder. It looks as though someone blew it up. We find one big blue shard of fiberglass and then, fifty feet farther, another piece. I would like to place a time-lapse camera on a beach like this and watch what happens over the course of a year, watch the giant logs jump around and the flotsam explode. Not far from the bayliner’s gas tank, we find a child’s baseball mitt that looks as good as new, and then, not far from the glove, in the damp sand at the edge of the ebbing surf, we come upon the fresh footprints of a bear. The beach ends, the shoreline giving way to a labyrinth of wave-washed boulders into which the footprints continue. “Stonehenge for bears,” says Michael Wilson, a Canadian geoarchaeologist who later this week will deliver a lecture titled “Natural Disasters and Prehistoric Human Dispersal: The Rising Wave of Inquiry.”
Wilson leads us into the boulders, talking loudly. The wind is behind us, and we assume that the bear will keep its distance, but you can tell that Ebbesmeyer is feeling nervous. I am, too. We both start glancing into the trees. Wilson’s spotted something, something big and blue, and runs ahead to see what it is. It turns out to be an empty plastic barrel with the word “toxic” printed on the lid. It appears to be watertight. Wilson thumps it like a drum, then hoists it up above his head and roars like one of the apes in 2001. We’d like to take it back with us rather than leave it here to decompose, but the damn thing is just too big, and we end up abandoning it there, among the rocks. As we turn to retrace our steps, I think of Wallace Stevens’s anecdotal jar: The wilderness rose up to it,/And sprawled around, no longer wild.
Another incongruity: in 1878, nine years after the invention of celluloid, a sales brochure promoted it as the salvation of the world. “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale,” the copy ran, so “has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.” A hundred years later, in the public mind, plastic had gone from miracle substance to toxic blight. In 1968, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, the editor of Modern Plastics argued that his industry had been unfairly vilified. Plastic was not the primary cause of environmental destruction, he wrote, only its most visible symptom. The real problem was “our civilization, our exploding population, our life-style, our technology.” That 1878 sales brochure and that 1968 editorial were both partly, paradoxically, right. Petroleum did save the whale, plastics did save the elephant, not to mention the forest. Modern medicine would not exist without them. Personal computing would not exist without them. Safe, fuel-efficient cars would not exist without them. Besides, they consume fewer resources to manufacture and transport than most alternative materials do. Even environmentalists have more important things to worry about now. In the information age, plastics have won. With the wave of a magical iPod and a purified swig from a Nalgene jar, we have banished all thoughts of drift nets and six-pack rings, and what lingering anxieties remain we leave at the curbside with the recycling.
Never mind that only 5 percent of plastics actually end up getting recycled. Never mind that the plastics industry stamps those little triangles of chasing arrows into plastics for which no viable recycling method exists. Never mind that plastics consume about 400 million tons of oil and gas every year and that oil and gas may very well run out in the not too distant future. Never mind that so-called green plastics made of biochemicals require fossil fuels to produce and release greenhouse gases when they break down. What’s most nefarious about plastic, however, is the way it invites fantasy, the way it pretends to deny the laws of matter, as if something—anything—could be made from nothing; the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last. By offering the false promise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting. The flotsam Ebbesmeyer and his beachcombers find is not only incongruous, it’s uncanny, in the Freudian sense—a repressed fact breaking forth with the shock of strangeness into our conscious minds. As he, Charlie Moore, and other oceanographers can tell you, the ocean does not so easily forget. Chemically, it remembers. An environmental geochemist at the University of Tokyo has shown that on the open sea polyethylene acts as a toxin sponge, attracting and concentrating free-floating non-water-soluble chemicals such as DDT and PCB, and plastics themselves contain a host of known carcinogens, including PCBs, that are safe only as long as they remain inert. Some of these compounds have also been recently identified as “gender-bending” endocrine disruptors. The American Plastics Council has called such findings “fascinating” but inconclusive, and many concerned scientists agree. A PVC duck in the bathtub may well be harmless to your child, but no one yet knows how post-consumer plastics that escape the landfill are altering the chemistry of the environment. The experiment, which began a century or so ago, is ongoing. In the meantime, Ebbesmeyer worries that plastics could do to our civilization what lead did to the Romans. He thinks the garbage patch may betoken nothing less than “the end of the ocean.” The seas have become synthetic. The planet is sick. It can no longer recycle its ingredients, or purge itself of pollutants.
Some of the archaeologists in our beachcombing expedition have studied the midden heaps of shells that prehistoric seafarers left around the Pacific Rim. Garbage often outlasts monuments, and if 10,000 years from now archaeologists come looking for us, they will find a trail of plastic clues. It will be easy to date us by our artifacts. At the rate we’re burning and extruding fossil fuels, the age of petrochemical plastics promises to be relatively short.
I have yet to reach the end of my own trail of clues. I’d like to go farther. I’d like Larry Calvin to ferry me 2,000 miles west, to that spot in the middle of the North Pacific where thirteen years ago a container of bath toys tumbled into the sea. I’d like to ride a container ship through a winter storm and return with it to Guangdong Province, where low-wage factory workers manufacture 70 percent of the toys we Americans buy—about $22 billion worth—71 percent of which are made of plastic. I’ve read disturbing reports about the Chinese toy industry, and now when I read Eric Carle’s 10 Little Rubber Ducks, which was itself manufactured in China, and come to the scene of the woman in the brick-red dress painting brick-red beaks with her little paintbrush, I can’t help but think of Huangwu No. 2 Toy Factory, where, according to the nonprofit China Labour Watch, in order to earn the legal minimum wage of $3.45 for an eight-hour day, a piece-rate worker in the spray department “would have to paint 8,920 small toy pieces a day, or 1,115 per hour, or one every 3.23 seconds.”
Did workers make the Floatees under similar conditions? Before leaving for Sitka, I called The First Years, Inc., which has recently been bought out. The current management seemed to know less about the Floatees than I did, or pretended to. There was no way they could tell me which factory produced that yellow duck of mine, they said. I would like to know the provenance of everything. I would like to follow the duck back into the blow molding machine, back into the resin extruder, back to the petroleum refinery, back to the oil field or coal mine whence it came. But for now, it’s time to give up the chase. In 1827, returning from another failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage, Lieutenant Parry, upon learning that he was to become a father, sent a letter home to his pregnant wife: “success in my enterprize is by no means essential to our joy, tho’ it might have added something to it; but we cannot, ought not to have everything we wish. . . .”
On Kruzof Island, I find that for the first time since Bellingham my cell phone is picking up a signal. I call my wife and tell her I’ve decided to fly home sooner than planned, just to be safe. A week after my return, following a difficult, thirty-hour labor, my wife will give birth to a son, the sight and touch of whom will dispel my usual, self-involved preoccupations and induce a goofy, mystical, sleep-deprived euphoria. My wife will cry, and when she does so will I. These will be tears of joy, of course, but also of exhaustion and of awe and, truth be told, of sadness. Holding my son for the first time, I will feel diminished by the mystery of his birth and by the terrible burden of love, a burden that, requiring hopefulness, will feel too great to carry, but which I will take up nonetheless.
In the meantime, back on Kruzof Island, there is Fred’s Creek to cross.
Tired, loaded down with our plastic bag of scavengings, Ebbesmeyer is having a hard time fording the stream. He picks his way carefully up into the trees, places his foot on a partially submerged rock, but hesitates. His breath is short and his footing poor. The rest of our party has continued on without us. I wait. “Throw me the bag,” I call to him, and he does. It lands with a splash at the edge of the creek. I met the aging oceanographer in person only a week ago, but I feel oddly protective of him, oddly filial. I watch the trees for bears. Finally he is over to the other side, and we walk together back to the landing on the beach and wait for Larry Calvin to come for us.
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Memento Mori — January 14, 2013, 4:30 pm