I want to tell you the ocean knows this, that life in its
is endless as the sand, impossible to count, pure,
and among the blood-colored grapes time has made the
hard and shiny, made the jellyfish full of light
and untied its knot, letting its musical threads fall
from a horn of plenty made of infinite mother-of-pearl.
From: Enigmas by Pablo Neruda, Translated by Robert Bly
The beach was clean as a whistle. Or at least, as clean as a beach that was not covered
in oil. Old plastic takeaway cups and sandwich wrappers still littered the sand. Anne’s dress swished softly as she stooped to pick up a torn plastic bag.
“Dad,” she said, “this beach needs to be cleaned. We need to get rid of all this rubbish
before the oil hits.”
“You’re right. But that’s no job for six people at nine pm,” said Ben.
“It doesn’t have to be just six,” said Halima, her rain poncho crinkling as she turned. “My
catstagram has over 10,000 followers–”
“It’s what she calls her Instagram page for her cat,” Emani explained, while Zayed
suppressed a laugh.
“Aye, so my cat Gubbins has over 10,000 Instagram followers,” Halima went on. Ben
looked even more confused. “What I’m saying is, I could put out a call for volunteers online right now and half the town would show up. Gubbins is quite the popular lad.”
“We can wait until daylight to organise volunteers. We don’t need to interrupt anyone’s
night,” said Ben.
“Aye,” said Halima. “But the drama.”
Ben looked like he was going to argue for a moment, but then he shrugged. “Alright. This
is your night. I won’t tell you how to spend it. Tell them to bring gloves, though. Don’t want
anyone cutting their hands.”
“I already nabbed all of our work gloves from the research office when we were getting
rain ponchos. And reusable bags for the rubbish and recyclables. I suspected we might do
some impromptu clean-up,” said Anne.
“And the tide’s on its way out,” said Mel. “The timing is just right.”
“If we’re going to do this, we might as well make a datasheet and keep track of the items
we find. That sort of data is quite helpful when it comes to legislating plastics use,” said Ben.
“I call dibs on data recorder! I’ve got a wee notebook in my purse I can use,” Elizabeth
said, flapping her hands.
Anne handed out gloves and reusable bags. Their eyes met over a pair of Peppa Pig
garden gloves and they looked away.
“Sorry to give you the kids’ ones. It’s just that your hands are so much smaller than mine
“I know. It’s funny since we’re practically the same height,” said Mel. When she couldn’t
think of anything else to say, she added, “I like Peppa Pig.”
Anne nodded seriously. “I was in Australia when they banned the Mr. Skinnylegs
episode. Australian spiders are no joke.”
“Aye, I suppose not.”
Anne darted away to find a smaller pair of gloves for Emani, who was waving the loose
fingers about like jellyfish tentacles. Mel looked around for Penelope, but it was impossible to find her in the dim light and spitting mist. What would happen to Penelope if the oil spill reached their beach? She’d managed to keep all three of her chicks alive this time, and her mate looked sleek and healthy. But could the family survive this kind of disaster? Millions of years of evolution had prepared them for the hardships of life along the shore, but oil spills were a relatively new development in Earth’s vast lifespan.
Mel would be devastated if anything happened to Penelope. Now that she was banished from home, she needed this landscape more than ever. It broke her heart to imagine her beautiful beach drenched in oil.
“Oi, look busy everyone. I’m going to record a call for volunteers to my Instagram story.
Emani, Anne, Mel, I need you to hold up some rubbish for the camera. Zayed, if you would hold this flashlight please–aye, that’s good. Elizabeth, pretend like you’re consulting with Ben about the datasheet,” said Halima.
“I am consulting with Ben about the datasheet.”
“And we’re live in three, two–”
“Wait, this is live? I thought we were going to–”
“Gooooood evening, everyone!” Halima began. Water droplets collected on the lens of
her cell phone camera as she focused on a tiny crab scuttling out of a styrofoam cup. “I know that you all follow gubbinsthechubbins for adorable cat content, but tonight, I have an urgent request. Unless you’ve been wandering the Cheviot Hills for the last week, you’ve probably heard about the oil spill in the North Sea. Well, that oil spill is headed right for South Shields, the place Gubbins and I call home. It’s hard to believe that we’re still relying on dangerous petroleum products in an era of climate change, and yet, here we are. We need to clear the rubbish from our beach now to make it easier to remove the oil later. These girls are missing their own leavers party just to take care of their shoreline, but we could accomplish even more with just a wee bit of help. Just an hour of your time would make a huge difference. Gubbins and I will be forever grateful.”
She finished panning across the beach and rattled off directions to the car park.
“Halima,” said Ben, “have you ever considered a career in environmental journalism?”
“Environmental journalism? You can do that as a career?”
Elizabeth and Emani ran a tape measure along the high tide mark while Halima recorded
them. Elizabeth stepped on a dead fish hidden in the seaweed and leapt away, shrieking. Emani laughed so hard she fell over, her long skirt folding around her.
“Alright, my colleagues at the Marine Conservation Society keep a list of every piece of
rubbish they find along a 100 metre transect, and that’s the protocol we’re going to use,” said Ben. “You have that datasheet ready, Elizabeth?”
Halima ran over to Mel. “Anything you’d like to say to convince people to come?”
Mel clutched a plastic water bottle and looked into the camera, but there was nothing
there for her. She looked to the sea instead. Mist had given way to the softest of rain. Tiny
droplets vanished into the waves with a collective hiss. Mel imagined Penelope, tucked safely into her sand and gravel nest with her mate and their young.
“I’m here because I love the sea,” she said. “I always have. Even when I was little I used
to beg my mam to take me here so I could watch the birds. I left a nice party in my big, ritzy dress to pick up rubbish at the beach because, in all honesty, I would rather be here.”
Her eyes finally managed to find the camera. To her surprise, her voice was breaking. “I
love to be here on the beach because...nature doesn’t judge you. There’s a plover I see here that–it sounds mad, but I swear it’s true–I think she actually listens to me. She’s used to having me around. And the ocean will swallow you whole, but it doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done. It’s...it’s like redemption, I think. When I’m birdwatching or drawing a seashell or poking about in the seaweed, all I have to do is exist. I’ve never felt that way anywhere else.”
Halima lowered her cell phone. “That was beautiful.”
Mel dug her toe into the sand and managed a nod of thanks.
A twenty-something couple who had been skipping rocks at the far end of the peninsula
walked up to their group. The man gave an awkward wave.
“Hey,” he said, “is Gubbins the Chubbins here?”
Their first volunteers had arrived.
About the author: Ella Shively is a writer and wildlife technician in northern Florida. You can find her online at https://www.instagram.com/shivelywrites/.
About this chapter's featured poet: Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) is one of the most influential and widely read 20th-century poets of the Americas. “No writer of world renown is perhaps so little known to North Americans as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda,” observed New York Times Book Review critic Selden Rodman. Numerous critics have praised Neruda as the greatest poet writing in the Spanish language during his lifetime.