Turning the Tides: A conversation about the ocean

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2007

In a conversation the other day, I was questioned about the personal connection I felt with the ocean. I fumbled, looking for words to explain what was so important to me. Sometimes the closer the connection we have to something, the harder it is to explain. It was only when I pulled back from a direct explanation that I felt clearest about my sense of why the ocean is important to me and others.

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I described a friend who was a wilderness ranger. She'd kayak to ships in Misty Fjords and talk with passengers about the value of wilderness. She had an unfaltering belief that our mind, our psyche, needs to know that wilderness exists even if we don't venture off the cruise ship or leave our home city.

I talked about a friend named Kevin, who talks about wilderness as a physical presence, about how our body and our senses are altered when we are removed from the artificiality that we impose upon nature. He feels the existence of geo survey markers in dwindling areas of wilderness impact its true essence. His impassioned sense that wilderness is embodied by the presence of our small and insignificant self amid a landscape where we are both essential and inconsequential to its existence, made me understand why something as small as circle that can fit into your palm destroys that opportunity for discovery.

As I continued to explore my connection with the ocean in this conversation, I drew on my experiences with water. Lake Michigan in its various states, from the sheltered Green Bay side to the longer stretch of water along the lake side, features in my memories during a time that coincides with the expanding world of my late teen years.

Now the water level of Lake Michigan is lower, with shallower areas becoming susceptible to algae growths that get washed upon the shore. Beaches that were once pristine, white sand dunes that went on for miles, have stinking clumps of green growth mats lining the shore. The lake has been impacted by zebra mussels and, introduced fish as well as pesticide and fertilizer run-off have changed its ecology. In an era marked by the Clean Water Act and hopes of recovery, I wonder how long Lake Michigan will last.

I also wonder about how long our oceans will last. Knowing that plastics and garbage line our coastline and are infused in the water as well as in marine animals and sea birds makes me wonder how we will bear its loss. On Sept. 15, more than 80 people from Juneau participated in the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Clean-up. Collecting trash from 12 different beaches, they collected an estimated three tons of garbage. Beverly Anderson, director of the Juneau Watershed Partnership, said that most people reported finding less trash than they had expected.

Some of what the clean-up crews found were heavy items such as tires, sofas, and even a hot water heater, but what struck me the most was the amount of plastics we found. I trailed behind five other volunteers and still collected four plastic bottles, 31 pieces of Styrofoam, three pieces of hard plastic, three plastic grocery bags, strapping tape, and foam padding. These items are inconsequential in terms of weight, but they cause an extreme amount of havoc in our environment. Plastic can be recycled once into another product, but it does not disappear.

Oceans feature loudly in our imagination. I know that the idea of oceans played a part in my sense of the world, despite not seeing it until I was 17. Throughout literature and paintings from every culture, water and oceans display a large presence. Whether it is a benevolent soul or a fury, the ocean is a part of our fate.

Like the power of the wilderness to be there for all of what we instill in it without physically touching it, we need to know that our imaginings of the ocean continue to feed our need of the idea of what the ocean is, even if we cannot find the words to express that idea.

• Corinne Conlon is a member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit organization working to promote ocean-friendly technologies and alternatives to plastics. To contact the organization, call 907-789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.

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