Sunday, January 19, 2014

Giving back to the Earth

I'm on beautiful island of Naxos now, the largest of the Cyclades group of islands in Greece.  This is the island where the King of the ancient Greek Gods Zeus was raised, in a cave on a mountain bearing his name.   Naxos is also where his son Dionysos, the God of Wine was born.  Dionysos later married Ariadne, the Princess of Crete here after she was abandoned by Theseus, who she helped escape the Labyrinth at Knossos on Crete after slaying the half man/half bull Minotaur.

It is the myth of the Labyrinth at Knossos that is a primary reason for my coming to Greece this winter after working on the Halls Hill Labyrinth Project for two months this fall on Bainbridge Island in Washington.  I am dedicating the inner 9 circuits of the Labyrinth I'm building to the 9 planets in our solar system, which are named after Roman and Greek Gods.  The 5th circuit, which I will be building when I get back in March, is dedicated to the planet and God Jupiter, who is the Roman incarnation of Zeus.  You can read earlier essays I've written about the 6 circuits I've already completed by scrolling down past this and the previous essay about stonework in the town of Molyvos.
The Labyrinth I am building on Bainbridge Island, Washington State
Chora, the capital of Naxos is dominated by the Portara, a massive gateway to what was once the Temple of the Delian Apollo.  Apollo, the God of the Sun was born on the sacred island of Delos, which I visited a week before.  Delos was a center of political and religious power in Greece for centuries and this temple was dedicated to Apollo's home there.
The Temple of the Delian Apollo
There is a pebble beach which stretches perpendicular to the harbor of the town from the peninsula where the ruins of the temple stand.  It is covered with the most marvelous pebbles, some of which I will be incorporating in to the Labyrinth mosaics when I return to my project.
A buried marble column from an ancient building on the beach of the Delian Apollo
The beach sadly is also covered in trash, as are most of the beaches throughout the beautiful Aegean Sea.

Trash on the beach of the Delian Apollo
We are ruining our oceans because we consume massive amounts of plastic in our daily lives.  The Greeks drink most of their water from disposable plastic bottles, and take away most of their purchases in plastic bags.  These are the two most prominent forms of garbage on the beaches, along with wads of  plastic fishing nets.
Even when technically "properly" disposed of, the volume of trash generated on the islands of Greece is overwhelming
The caps of bottles number in the thousands on the beach of the Temple of the Delian Apollo.  There are disposable cigarette lighters, plastic cups, disposable razors, tooth brushes, boxes, detergent bottles, popped balloons, potato chip bags, cans, bottles, tampons, cue tips, every kind of wrapper, and thousands of cigarette butts.
Bottle caps nearly equal the number of stones on the beach in places
So today I went to the beach because I have been making mosaics using the beautiful stones I've been finding on beaches on many of the islands I have visited on this trip.  I'll post an essay with photos of the mosaics at the end of my journey.  These mosaics are dedicated to the Greek Gods, or to friends I am invoking, and I cannot justifiably do this work on a beach strewn with trash.  It is not in my nature as a lover of the environment.
Pieces of fishing nets that have washed up on the beach
So I have been spending a great deal of time cleaning up the beaches I have been on.  This can be a daunting task, especially on the beaches that face north, where the winds blow in the largest quantities of trash.  Plastic pollution is a disastrous consequence of the convenient lifestyles we have all grown accustomed to.  What washes up on beaches is estimated to be only 1% of what is in our oceans.  Every fish in the sea now contains tiny bits of plastic, and millions of sea birds have died from ingesting plastics that they mistake for food, even feeding it to their chicks.   If we are to survive with any integrity on this planet we need to make drastic changes in the way we live.  Unfortunately I don't see any sign of that happening on a level that does any good.  But it doesn't stop me from trying to do something.

We consume too much plastic.  Even as stewards of the Earth, garden clubs on tours to my garden have shown up with cases of individual water bottles, so handy and common and taken for granted today.  Individual servings of water dispensed in throw away bottles is a huge generator of garbage.  We think we can recycle them, but are they really recycled?  It is estimated that only a third of the plastic consumed in the United States gets recycled.  A third is burned in incinerators and a third goes in to landfills.  So I guess the gyre of plastic the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean came from Canada?  The less we consume, the less we have to throw away, and this by far is the most proactive solution.  I travel with a back packing water filter, so I will have bought maybe 3 disposable bottles of water in 3 months of travel this winter, rather than the 120 or so I would have bought if I was not filtering my drinking water in to reusable bottles.  I take bags to the store when I buy things.  I went to a Carrefour grocery store on the island of Ios recently and pulled out my bags.  The cashier said "Those are old, let me give you new ones, they are free."  I told her "No, thats OK, I want to reuse these."  She then said "This has a hole in the bottom, it will break."  So I said "I'll carry it carefully, I really don't want to use more plastic bags because I am always picking them up off the beach."  She said in a matter of fact way "They're everywhere."  So I said "Maybe I'm a little bit crazy, but I really like to reuse my bags because I am an environmentalist."  She smiled in acknowledgment to my insanity and let me reuse my bags.  Virtually every person I saw the rest of the day was carrying disposable plastic bags that they would use one time.  I don't think it was like this 20 years ago, but we have changed the way we live, and the consequences are obvious.

So today I arrived at the beach.  It was liberally sprinkled with trash.  A dead sea bird lay by the rocks, surrounded by plastic bags half buried in the sand, and the brightly colored caps of hundreds of water bottles and bits of rope.
A dead sea bird on the beach
I pulled the most durable bags from the sand to use to collect the garbage and went to work.  It took me all afternoon.  People would walk by and give me glances like I was some crazy eccentric, never imagining actually picking any of it up themselves.  This really pisses me off.  Nobody seems to be teaching their children the importance of the proper disposal of trash.  I see people leave the cup they just drained on a bench a few feet from a trash can.  Dumpsters usually have trash spread all around them.
Two bags of trash I collected at the beginning of the beach
Fishermen are huge contributors to the problem, throwing their trash overboard as if they owed the sea nothing for providing them with a livelihood.  Their reward is that there are few fish to catch anymore.  The fisheries have been devastated by commercial trawling, ignoring regulations relating to spawning periods, and lazy ignorance.  How many people have I seen flick a cigarette butt in the sea in front of their children on this trip?  Its appalling.
Cigarette butts on a beach on the island of Paros
So here I am, an American, picking up thousands upon thousands of pieces of trash in a country I am not native too, out of desperation to do something.  I came here to walk on the beautiful beaches that fringe the Aegean, not garbage dumps.  But I have yet to find one that isn't.
Trash on a north facing beach on the sacred island of Delos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
I wish I could make a proposal to the European Union.  There needs to be a change in the way plastics are distributed.  Water can come in large reusable jugs and dispensed in washable glasses in restaurants.    Carrefour should sell and promote reusable bags, and charge for disposable ones so people are less likely to want them.  People used to bring shopping bags to the market.  It is finally becoming popular where I live in the United States and Portland and San Francisco and Los Angeles have instigated bans on plastic bags.  It is estimated that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are given out every year on the planet, more than half of those in the United States, and most of them are used a single time.  This doesn't need to happen if you bring reusable bags with you.  I estimate that I consume 5% as many bags as the average American because of the way I shop.  I don't lead a life deprived of convenience, I just make an effort to limit my consumption.  While traveling I bring bags to the store when I shop every time.  I doesn't do much good if you forget to bring them.  Good intentions are entirely worthless without acting on them.
Santa Maria Beach on the Island of Paros
A beach on the island of Paros near Paraiki
Plastic bags on another beach in Chora on Naxos
I had covered a good quarter kilometer of the beach and hauled three large bags of trash to a dumpster a considerable distance away, and was working my way to the second half of the beach.  By now I was getting angry.  I've been doing this every time I go to the beach, and it is starting to feel entirely futile.  Nobody else seems to care.  There are times when I don't honestly believe that we deserve to live on this planet.  Our disregard is absolutely disgusting.  People just walk by.  Only once has somebody said thank you.  And only once did I see a boy take a hook during a ceremony celebrating the holy day of Epiphany on the Island of Tinos to pull a large plastic bag from the water on to a boat.  It brought me a glimmer of hope and joy to see a rare moment of consciousness.
Debris in Naxos Harbor
So I bitterly plucked up hundreds of pieces of garbage off a beach in a town I only just arrived in yesterday, for the benefit of people who I will probably never know and who will never care.  Just then a boy came down the beach towards me, and he was picking up garbage.  He brought it to me and put it in my bag.  I thanked him in Greek, since that is one of the few phrases I've learned.  He didn't speak English.  I told him I was American as tears came to my eyes.

The best kid on Naxos
He then headed down the beach and started filling a plastic fruit crate he found with plastic bottles.  He came back with a heap of garbage half his own size.  When he wasn't looking I started to cry.
I carried the crate full up to the dumpsters for him.  When we got there he gestured that we needed to sort out the plastic bottles to put in the plastics recycling bin in the row of containers.  This kid is awesome!  I feel like I have met a true Bodhisattva.
My new friend carrying as much garbage as he could up the beach
Eventually his mother came along carrying an arm load of plastic bottles.  I thanked her and asked her if I could take her picture.  She said "I should take a picture of you, my son started picking up garbage when he saw you doing it."
The Mother of a very special young Man taking plastic bottles to the recycling bin
I told her about how frustrated I have been seeing so much garbage on the beaches of Greece and she said what I'd heard before, that beaches that face north collect the most debris.  She left her son with me, who I would guess is 10 years old, and we worked diligently cleaning up the beach for about an hour.

He even found a two liter bottle full of dirty motor oil that we carefully moved to the dumpsters so it wouldn't break.  We managed to fill a dumpster half way, and recycled about 50 plastic bottles.  It was hard work and he gasped under the burden of the heaped bin, but didn't complain.  He was happy to do it.

All of this was on the beach today
His Mother came back in a car later to pick him up.  He waved and said "Bye!" from the parking lot.  I carried on, deeply moved by the quiet and gentle and gracious gift the boy had given to the Earth.  I wasn't angry any more.  I even have a little hope for the world, although I'm sure that will be short lived.  Its just good to know there are people in the world that really care, and actually do something about it.  We can all do better to make the planet we live on a healthier more beautiful place to live.  I believe it is my duty, not just an option to consider.

There are still a lot of bottle caps and bits of plastic on the beach but if you don't look too closely it looks like a pretty beach instead of a garbage dump.  It was now late afternoon and I decided, even though I hadn't eaten since breakfast, that I would make the mosaic I had come to the beach to build.  I dedicated it to the boy and to the Delian Apollo.  Most of the mosaics I've been making on beaches in Greece are sunbursts.  I used all white marble pebbles since that is what the remains of the temple at the other end of the beach is made of.

I thought about Apollo's father Zeus as well, although I would like to make a mosaic specifically for him as well at some point while I'm here.  I'll have to make one for Dionysos too, since he is my favorite immortal of all…the hedonistic bisexual God of grapes and wine, and the protector of those who do not belong to conventional society, like me.
Lying next to the giant 7th Century BC Kouros statue, believed to be an image of Dionysos 
And then I'll have to make one for the Princess Ariadne, who gave the magical thread, or 'klew' to Theseus so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur.  There is an organic garden two blocks from my house named for her where I get most of my vegetables from for several months of the year.

A couple and their two children came along as I was finishing for the day.  We had a lovely conversation about the things that seemed to make this Sunday special, caring for the Earth, creating beauty, and being compassionate.  Then they carried on down a beach that looked entirely different than it did before, and that made me happy.

Don't just walk by and ignore the world.  Make it better place.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

A beach on Mykonos Island before I picked up all the trash
A half hour later….
Postscript:  The next day I rented a car to explore the island.  I headed up the coast and just a few kilometers out of town I came upon something that put me in my place, the island's landfill.  Perched on a bluff directly above the sea is the massive pile of garbage where everything on the island winds up that is properly discarded, eventually including what we picked up yesterday on the beach.  The garbage dump spills over the sides of the hill directly in to the sea to the north of the Beach of the Delian Apollo.  Plastic bags were blowing around in the coastal winds, and some of them will wash up on the shore that we worked so hard to clean up yesterday.
The Naxos Island landfill
There is a sign stating that this facility is a joint project between the country of Greece and the European Union.  There is a shed with hogs in it that I assume they feed organic waste.  What is incredible to me is the siting of the landfill, not that there is a good place for such facilities anywhere on this lovely planet we are sullying as rapidly as we can.  We produce a lot of garbage and it has to go somewhere.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The land must have been available and far enough away from land owners with enough clout to halt such a project.  So there you go.  I went in to the survival mode I learned from a year of traveling in India, that of detachment.  It is a way to circumnavigate despair.

Like the mosaics I have been creating on the beaches of Greece, the work that incredible young man and I did with the hope of making something better is only temporary.  The mosaics wash away, and the garbage washes back in.  And so it goes.  My heartfelt apologies to the deities of this beautiful island.
The sea reclaiming a mosaic on the Beach of the Delian Apollo
Since then:
The family I met on the beach of the Delian Apollo wrote to me to say that they are doing a workshop with children on the island of Paros to teach them about plastic and how it pollutes the sea, and they are actively cleaning up the beach when they go for walks now.
Tzamaria Beach on the island of Ios

What I collected on Tsamaria Beach
Tsamaria Beach after I cleaned it
Reusable bags are no longer a part of European culture
Half of what I collected from Agia Theadoti Beach on the island of Ios

Agia Theadoti Beach after I cleaned it.  The pile of sand to the left was inside a large garbage bag washed up in the surf


  1. You are a wonderful person to take this so seriously, and this boy who learned by your example may carry on with this and do more as he grows older. I do this on Rockaway Beach in Oregon, picking up the plastic bits because they are need to be removed in that place of beauty. I also tell renters that if they take a picture of themselves with a bag of beach trash I will give them a discount on their rental.

    1. That is so great that you offer incentives to people to collect trash from the beach. Actions like this on a world wide level would be amazing!

  2. An Eye opener information and nice use of pebbles in landscaping

  3. Dear Jeffrey, I read every word. I'm with you on this. Such a magnified problem, and people just get immune to it I suppose. "it's not my problem" or "it's not my job" kind of attitude. As you eloquently SHOW us, it's our job indeed. every day, from here on out to care for Mother Earth. I love your work, appreciate your integrity. Do you know of the work of Chris Jordan? he documents the albatross infected with plastic. achingly intense. Much peace on your journey.

  4. Blessings to you on your deep caring for the earth, and your awesome mosaics. I've shared your blog with several of the ocean plastic elimination groups, and I hope more people will see your post, and your gorgeous pebble mosaics.

  5. Great post - it's why I boycott the filthy stuf

  6. Dear Jeffrey - I co-lead a new international programme which is working towards attempting to sustainably manage our deep oceans. I increasingly feel depressed about attitudes of others - indifference to the dire state of our planet. Thank you for sharing your story. I will be in Crete this summer with my husband and 2 girls. We will dedicate some time each day to picking up litter on the local beach. Let's see if we find our own local children to help! How wonderful that would be. Thanks.

  7. I've been to Greece before and I can say that it's truly breathtaking. Anywhere you point your camera to, you can take a great shot of the beauty inherent in that land. I love how you used it as an inspiration for your subsequent works. It's sad to think that the same beauty is being mired and tainted by human dregs and wastefulness. It's good that you've decided to take the initiative and start on cleaning them by yourself. I hope more people get to learn from your example, so that we can reclaim the captivating and spectacular world-at-large. Thanks for sharing your awesome story. More power to you and your ventures!

    Norman Watkins @ Giving Works

  8. How strange to be on the beach picking up garbage hoping to make a small dent in the damage done by humans and then to find that more garbage will be blown down onto the beach the next day from the garbage dump. I think you experienced the ancient story of Sisyphus. Perhaps the gods are still extracting their punishment for our misdeeds and our vanity.

  9. A plastic bag ban in Micronesia:

  10. I like so much your work. I feel depressed from this situation. As modern humans we live in the kingdom οf plastic. I live in Athens and I can assure that few people think as you do and fewer take initiatives. Τhere are some volunteers, teachers with their pupils who clean every spring the beaches, but this appears to be as a little drop in the ocean. But your action to come from America in my country and to pick up the garbage gives me the reason to continue this job...

  11. Thank you for your actions-cleaning the beach,setting a wonderful example for a child and for taking the time to post this. Decades ago I was dismayed to see so many plastic water bottles simply tossed along the roads and beaches of Greece. The have become ubiquitous.