ISOLATION?

Notes from March, 2020. Days on the South West Marine Debris Clean Up scouring the coastline of Lutruwita (Tasmania) alongside volunteers removing rubbish from the beaches, bays and inlets.

By Selena de Carvalho

When you cross a border nothing changes, because you’re still in the same territory, and everything changes because you are in a whole other cosmology and economy.

-39 Steps across the Border and Back, Rebecca Solnit (2005)

SdC_gondwana tooth_screen res
Image by Selena de Carvalho

Leaving was a storm, pulling up roots that didn’t want to give, groping for what didn’t get done… that maybe still could if I had another hour, two hours a little bit more time, the release of internet tentacles stung like an elastic band snapping in to shape, ambitions falling away, vomit hitting the toilet bowl, with each projection a moment of temporary relief, foolishness, regret and excitement, all churning in the swell. I should have taken the travel meds I bought. I chose this journey, this vessel punching through waves amongst a crew of strangers. I chose the reprieve of sleep.

Nestled in the stunning rocky enclave of a white sand beach, I nibble fresh seaweed pearls, none here but us, the privilege of setting foot on this remote coast sinking in between my soft, town shod toes. Crawling in the elbow crease of beach and dunes, looking for shards of modernity, waist deep in the visceral quality of remote isolation. Along the edge of an inlet I collect tiny plastic fragments the scale of native cherries. I carefully peel tender plastic bags on the brink of collapse, from shallow graves, tease out fragile, submerged, sand filled membranes. Proof of the far reaching industrial tendrils, these distant West Coast shorelines of lutruwita (Tasmania) are sprinkled with chips of smooth tumble worn plastic, the vibrant colour turquoise screaming foreign entity. Chemical imitation and mimicry wrought from coal-derived colour, these magical and poisonous, vibrant qualities that once imbued commodities with the aura of desirability[1], now short-lived forms of disposable consumer pleasure make up a formidable mass, the accumulation of tiny fragments of rejection.

A band-aid ripped from a hairy sore. I sense myself reluctantly, authentically slowing down. Arriving. When are we truly present? How slow do I have to be to develop this rubbish mindset? What is the pace of carboniferous shrapnel, the remanent of a seed that started life 300 million years ago, organic matter compressed and earth baked for an aeon to form oil, coal and gas, extracted, chemical treated, re-birthed on industrial reproduction[2] lines. What has this plastic known? Transformation, manipulation, adoration, disregard… perhaps it cunningly knows how to out survive the human…

The smell of decaying kelp hits my nostrils, held in this tight gulch of a corner, decomposition is in full swing. Winding through iodine rich mounds, a small tannin stained creek cuts a trail. Plastic mingles with the rot. Disparate temporalities nested together. Is this what graveyards are like, cyborg bodies wrapped in polyester, hip replacements, plastic teeth, nestled in soft organic flesh, rotting matter returning to earth, strewn with hyper-colour non perishable forms? I nearly step on a bloated dead Wallaby, and find it strangely comforting to encounter a corpse that isn’t a hit and run victim, a creature that appears to have died of natural causes.

Acclimating to the sensorial overwhelm, each spot is sprinkled in plastic 100’s and 1000’s, I pick away… shuffling ever so slightly when the debris supply has been exhausted. Sea lice spring to life wherever a patch of seaweed is disturbed. Lice scavenge for nutrients as we forage for debris. Others venture further into the sludge zone, closer to the shore, rank specimens are resurrected. Rope entwined with tiny worm bodies, the soft embrace of bio-mimicry, intimate regurgitation, a foul, sinuous enfolding of one another. Nanoplastics can cross both cellular membranes and the blood-brain barrier.[3]

Plastics are chemical combinations that didn’t evolve alongside the detritus of life, their human engineered composition resists deterioration, such that microbial-scavengers of decay have to play catch up. Some time between 2010-15 a tiny organism known as Ideonella sakaiensis evolved in Sakai, Japan, and figured out how to breakdown and use plastic for energy. [4] This rare, new form of life grew out of the glut, a mutant borne of the toxic soil surrounding a recycling plant, this new babe of a microbe, surely cannot proliferate to digest our overabundance?

Diving like seagulls we count the rubbish on deck, scrounging for the remnants of a humanity that has forgotten its ecological interdependence. Unhooked from the news, the shows, the updates, the discovery of a nurdle[5] becomes tabloid. Bags of rope, lurid fluro containers, shards of glass, tokens of plastic, netting, fragments of polystyrene, everything reeks of overwhelming futility, and yet, simultaneously feels purposeful.

How do we care for places, not just technically?

SdC_worm ropes
Image by Selena de Carvalho

Walking this painfully beautiful coast I cannot help but wonder if deceleration into rubbish meditation is just another form of capitalism selling me my attention back, I paid to participate in this dark tourism escapade. Together, apart, heads craned forward, our slow moving zombie-esk gang looks to the ground, scrutinising this apparently pristine place, the rubbish of millions on the shores of few. Two beaches separated by a headland, a conglomerate of pink rose quartz that fades into cream, a lake behind the dunes, a seam of garnets, petrol shiny middens[6] of snail shells, crags of abalone, a seal skull, spiral twisted bonsai climb the dunes. Only the most elegant of traces remain. Stone tools set in place, seemingly with the confidence of an imminent return. Time stands still.

Is country laughing at me, in my plastic shoes, and plastic rain-jacket, my fancy phone and plastic bag in hand, examining the sand for hours, picking up pieces of plastic the size of my fingernail? Plastic promiscuously cruising the globe, transporting toxic bacteria surfing international tides, bacteria that are capable of causing coral bleaching, and triggering wound infections in humans.[7] Hyperobjects[8] vastly distributed through time and space, riding the currents of large ocean gyres, no regard for political boundaries… another transnational movement like migratory birds, drifting pollutants, changing weather and pandemics, so widespread in their reach and web of affect.

We move at the pace of snails, each dragging a bag, leaving trails in the sand, every few steps stooping for collection… irregular paths drawn forth by random pieces of crap, our tracks are slow motion burn outs, temporary proof of each illogical step, they weave traces along the shore line and sandbanks. This changing place is full of ghosts, of histories, country that I will forever be a visitor. The profound sensation of remoteness and isolation is intrinsically linked to colonisation, to the trauma of Aboriginal people. I feel the debt that other bodies have paid for me to walk this line. I want to re-arrange time.

We get pulled into several dry creek beds as clusters of sticky smeg collect in the cul-de-sac of tributaries. Someone pulls a rats tail of rope resting on the surface, the sands birth a sleazy orgy of metal cable, faded ropes of all colours and textures knotted together, pieces of steel railing, a giant caterpillar cocoon post-industrial dread lock. With each forward motion the intractable messy past hangs around like an acid wasted body still moving to a silent beat on the dance floor long after the party is over. The uncomfortable presence of absence, a gaping hole in the sand that will be smooth after the next high tide, washed away with our footsteps.

We eat hot pink pig face flowers, their salty bitter flavours linger making my tongue tingle, one by one we trudge through the tea tree swamp, a small soak between two sand dunes, tights rolled over knees, the cool tannin stained water a refreshing change, the reeds part in a path, we leave traces in the water as it traces our limbs. The beach opens up to empty bottles, bait traps half obscured in the sand, ship wreaked timber (the leftovers of early bio-prospecting days, scraps of ancient Huon Pine or regal King Billy) and dags of small ropes, knots that spread fibres like dandelion seeds as I tap the sand out of them. 1000’s of tiny plastic seeds. Is this helping or hindering?

A crooked set of jagged Gondwana teeth gnash their jaws at the sky, plentiful sharp islands erupt from the living ocean, banded at the waterline with skirts of kelp, irregular green ribbons dancing in perpetual tidal motion. Buoys work loose from ropes that can no longer withstand the never ceasing surge of waters. Known futures break away as the mist tucks us in for the night.

The web of the internet catches us before we reach land. That powerful, invisible territory, not tied necessarily to geography or politics, but influencers and mediaocracy, ruthlessly harvesting attention and cognitive capital. News on repeat, cruise ships reeling with COVID19, a different regime, new rules and governance, we play catch up after having dropped out of what felt like a significant moment in the unfurling of this tragic time.

On the wharf the still ground continues to sway beneath my feet, I step out of the freedom and closeness of ship bunk life, the wild remote isolation and endless days of plastic attention. I bid goodbye to my micro community of scrutineers and head back to an ever-tangled world trying to balance safety and control, refrain and care, home bound and isolated, squashed into the extreme reductive flatness of the virtual, grappling with this expanded moment of temporary shifting realness.

SdC_Micro plastics_rose quartz conglomerate
Image by Selena de Carvalho

Who am I thinking with…


[1] Taussig, Michael. What Colour is the Sacred (The University of Chicago Press) 2009.

[2] Haraway, Donna. Cyborg Manifesto, 1997. Source: (https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fictionnownarrativemediaandtheoryinthe21stcentury/manifestly_haraway_—-_a_cyborg_manifesto_science_technology_and_socialist-feminism_in_the_….pdf

[3] Lubofsky, Evan. Particles on the Move Studying the spread of nanoplastics inside fish (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) March 7, 2019. Source: https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/particles-on-the-move/

[4] Ifran, Umair. Scientists are trying to accelerate evolution to make plastics rot. A tiny new organism is showing them how. May 15, 2019. Source:

https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/4/9/18274131/plastic-waste-pollution-bacteria-digestion

[5] A Nurdle (bead) is a pre-production microplastic pellet imbued with a unique traceable chemical makeup about the size of a pea as defined by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nurdle

[6] A ‘midden’ is an occupation site where Aboriginal people left the remains of their meals. At some sites substantial deposits grew over generations of use of the same area. Source:  https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/guide-to-aboriginal-sites-and-places

[7] Curren, Emily. Chee Yew Leong, Sandric. ‘Profiles of bacterial assemblages from microplastics of tropical coastal environments. Science of The Total Environment, 2019. Source: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190211110348.htm

[8] Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: philosophy and ecology after the end of the world, (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press) 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.