Walking Con Respeta


Special to the PRESS

This morning I joined a group of volunteers to pick up garbage on the beach on South Padre Island in Texas. It was a windy day in January, but it was not cold. We had driven several miles beyond the city limits to where the pavement ends, and then we headed out two by two walking with big trash bags in tow from the highway towards the surf.

We were strange birds, hunched over stuffing our plastic, hand held sacks with bits of debris that our own species had fabricated. Two by two we pecked and pulled. We would walk away from each other and then walk back closer together. Sometimes, a sack would be left because it had become too heavy, and it was more prudent to make small jaunts away from it, and then return with our little prizes. Sometimes, we would meet up with, or cross paths with another pair of scavengers like us.

The wind was blowing pretty hard this morning. I could tell that each small dune made a good “net” for garbage that was being blown across the sands. That is, the level sand was layered in many shades of tan, beautiful patterns that evoked sound waves written by the wind, but the little dunes were tufted with dune bushes and garbage of every type would up clustered around its small hump.

While working one little dune garbage mine after another,

I saw many types of human garbage. Plastic, of course, but also glass. There were a few glass beer bottles, but also other glass bottles that had once held peanuts, or perhaps, instant coffee. I only found a few shards of glass today. Most of the glass was still in intact bottle form. There was quite a bit of Styrofoam, from who knows how many crumbled ice chests.  There was another kind of hard, brown foam, maybe from various protective sidings. I saw lots of string and rope, and it was made from nylon, cloth, plastic, paper, and metal and it came in many different thicknesses and colors. There were quite a number of wooden boards here and there, but I would leave them to decompose, unless they had a nail or a screw sticking out. There were some rubber hoses and some made of that black foamy material.

The plastic took the form of containers, as for oil or lighter fluid, bottles, bags, small toys, pickle bucket lids, cording and candy containers. Small plastic lids from plastic bottles percolate up through the dunes so that you can never see them all, but you know that they’re there, just below the surface. As it was, I picked up over a hundred today. Most of the plastic I saw, however, was thin shards of many colors, shards that had once been part of some container or toy. There was no way to know anymore what the original object had been. When I tried to pick these pieces up, they would disintegrate in my hand and become smaller pieces. This type of debris was concentrated around the little sand dunes where the wind had blown them.

I wondered to what extent the little creatures of the island were incorporating the endless supply of thin plastic and small chunks of Styrofoam, and all of the nylon string. Here and there were holes that some creature or another that called the beach their home had made. It was easy to imagine small bits of human debris being blown into those openings in the sand. Once they came across these items, did they use them? Down in the tunnels are there reinforcements made from our old water bottles? Do they know how to bind things with our string, or do they perhaps put it to some other use? What are the animals of the beach doing with all of our garbage?

The wind was blowing hard today, and several times I would be picking up small pieces at one of the dune garbage mines when I would suddenly see something that I had not noticed just a moment before.  The wind uncovered half of a Styrofoam bowl and a couple of water bottles in this way. The garbage on the beach is perpetually in the process of being uncovered and reburied again. I wanted to have a crane sized sieve so that I could sift out a dune at a time. I imagine that such a machine would uncover layers of plastic, glass, and metal going back at least fifty years. Before 1954, South Padre Island was only accessible by boat. There was no bridge. Things really got going when the Queen Isabella Bridge replaced the old drawbridge back in the seventies. Since then, people have been coming here in hordes and have left their mark, apparently forever, on the island.

This was not the first time I had volunteered with the Respeta group, but today I found my first diaper. I had heard all of the other volunteers talking about finding diapers, but I had not found one, until today. Now I really felt that I belonged. Before today, the strangest thing I had found was an entire empty six pack of beer cans in a plastic bag buried in the sand near the surf. In other words, those guys were maybe thirty feet from a garbage can, but they decided instead just to crush the cans, wrap ‘em up, and bury them where they were. If you tug on that little bit of plastic sticking out the sand, who knows what you’ll dredge up.

The saddest thing that I found was a half a heart locket that somebody had lost. I knew there was a story there. Was it his? Hers? Was it lost? Cast aside? Are they still together? Did this locket have anything to do with it?

One thing I have yet to find is money. Nary a quarter, or a crumpled up dollar bill, nor a checkbook, nor a credit card. Not even a dubloon. What I found today was stuff that my race had made that was now no longer useful. It had been manufactured, sold, used, and discarded with such casual arrogance that my race has learned to walk right past the sight and not really notice. It is all “our” stuff now. It is as much a part of the beach that we enjoy as the pavement and the telephone poles. It is because we have the pavement and the telephone poles that we also have the aluminum cans and rubber shoe soles on the beach.

It is because of the pools at the hotels, and the copper wiring at the convenience stores that we can find plastic bags, glass bottles, and heels from every kind of shoe all over the dunes. We bring all of this stuff with us, and then just dump it on the island.

As the wind blew across the dunes today, and I stumbled with my trash bag from clump to clump, and the rolling rhythm of the surf pounding away, it was easy to drift away into science fiction fantasies. I imagined myself on some distant planet. I wondered if civilizations so advanced that they could travel from wherever they were to here had as much garbage on their home planets. If I went to their beaches, would there be all kinds of alien debris, the refuse from their alien civilization all over? Would I be forced to pick up their garbage? Do they volunteer to pick up their own garbage? Making garbage is such a human thing, one of the defining characteristics of all human civilizations.

I wondered what they would think if they landed on this beach on some starlit, quiet night. Would they come across all of our modern artifacts and think to themselves, “This is just like home! These guys are just like us!” Do aliens litter? Or is that just a human thing?

I don’t how human it is to litter, but I do know that there is more than enough litter to go around. I am sure that if our little band of a few dozen went out every weekend and collected bags of garbage (today, my partner and I filled three large trash bags) there would still be enough for a competing group to have plenty of opportunity to collect more garbage than we did.

As the tide of tourists and local vacationers keeps rolling over the Queen Isabella Bridge, the garbage and refuse continues to collect on the sand dunes. And just like that ocean tide, our little band of garbage collectors will continue to sandpiper the dunes in search of plastic bottle caps, aluminum cans and diapers. Come join us sometime.

Editor’s Note: Jose Sanchez is a Valley native and self-described “teacher, musician and storyteller.”

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