Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Albatross Necklace

Somewhat in the manner of a triumphal cat who has dragged home the wretched dead mouse, I returned from my Lynchburg experience bearing an unlikely trophy: an outsized necklace of sausage-shaped beads, whose nebula of soft, buzzy colors I'm assuming even Andy Warhol would have loved.

The necklace looks pretty enough, seems innocent enough, until you learn its story--after which there is the inevitable spasm. Its beads are made from plastic salvaged from the guts of dead albatrosses. They have been fashioned into lei necklaces by an artist from Hawaii, Cindy Waddington, who lives on Oahu, for the Friends of Midway Atoll. The knowledge of their origin is arresting: you realize these beads contain the hushed urgency of death and it makes you flinch.

Midway Atoll consists of three islands and a shallow white sand lagoon, sheltered from the surrounding Pacific Ocean by a coral reef. It is the major breeding ground for over two million seabirds including the world's largest colonies of black-footed albatrosses--and it is also adjacent to two of the largest and most deadly concentrations of floating plastic debris. Officially the most threatened seabird species in the world, albatrosses die in unprecedented numbers partly from becoming entangled in fishing nets, and partly from ingesting marine debris, in the form of plastic that they mistake for food and then can't digest.

I acquired my necklace from Wayne Sentman, a naturalist, field biologist, and third speaker at the conference, who had brought along several of them as part of his show-and-tell eco-talk. The necklaces are available from a gift shop on Midway Atoll, now a National Wildlife Refuge and the second largest marine protected area in the world, situated 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. Since l994, Wayne has been conducting ecotourism trips and field programs for the Oceanic Society, to educate the public regarding habitat and species protection, at sites that include the one on Midway Atoll, as well as others in Micronesia, Africa, and South America. (More information about these adventure expeditions can be found at www.oceanicsociety.org.)

Thinking about this necklace and its distinctive role as keeper of the albatross's story--and the poisoning of the oceans--I was suddenly struck by its unlikely resonance with the idiomatic phrase "an albatross around your neck," alluding, of course, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which a sailor shoots a friendly albatross and is forced to wear its carcass around his neck as a punishment. According to Google, an albatross (around your neck) is someone or something that causes you a lot of problems and stops you from being successful. When I scrolled down further, I found some intriguing search results, suggesting that certain humans (Republicans in particular) may be as equally tough to digest, once they have entered the system, as is plastic:

"The 'Rick Warren Albatross' around Obama's Neck"..."Palin, the albatross around McCain's neck"..."Cheney is the Albatross Around George Bush's Neck"..."The Bush-Cheney Albatross Around McCain's Neck." And on and on it goes. Every culture has its own way of driving people crazy. I even found "The Obama Stimulus Plan--An Albatross around the Neck of America." With the metaphor of the albatross, politics has met its match.

Already in 1892, according to an essay in Resurgence magazine written by Mark Cocker, the naturalist W.H. Hudson was sounding the alarm about the imminent extinction of an ostrich-like bird, the rhea, from the Argentine pampas. "What a wail there would be in the world if a sudden destruction were to fall on the accumulated art-treasures of the National Gallery, the marbles in the British Museum, and contents of the King's Library," Hudson wrote in his book "The Naturalist in La Plata." He goes on to lament the significantly higher value we place on human creativity and culture than we place on the survival of other species.

Wayne and Pam Longobardi plan to collaborate in the future on several projects, one of which will be to curate an exhibition of environmental artists from around the globe, who use marine debris in their work, along with a forum to inspire possible action on the problem. So, a muscular vision of our ruined world may soon be headed your way. Will it trigger the required wake-up? The thing I love most about my new necklace is the way it bites you in the backside. As the dangers to planetary survival escalate, this one chunky little bauble, in its own subtle way, helps (if I may steal a phrase from Barbara Kingsolver) to explain our pickle. Probe it, and the path is illuminated: two hundred years of unsustainable and unmanaged growth economy that have allowed this necklace, with its implicit reproach, to exist.

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