Friday, July 20, 2012

Wrack and ruin

One last post out of the Blasket.

This from Maurice O'Sullivan's Twenty Years A-Growing, telling of life on the island during the First World War, as German U-boats prowled the Atlantic and detritus of war washed up on the shore:
There was good living in the Island now. Money was piled up. There was no spending. Nothing was bought. There was no need. It was to be had on the top of the water –- flour, meat, lard, petrol, wax, margarine, wine in plenty, even shoes, stockings and clothes. Not a house in the Island but a store-room was built beside it to keep the gatherings, and, without any exaggeration, when you entered one of them you would think you were in a big town, with all the barrels of flour piled on top of one another, tins of petrol and every sort of riches; and when the old man or the old woman came around, all they had to do was make for the barrels of wine and help themselves to a draught.
'"By God,' one man would say, 'war is good.'"

Surely, O'Sullivan is exaggerating here, looking back from middle age in Connemara, just as in his book the sun is always shining on the island. Still, there is no doubt that the poverty of that place at that time kept everyone's eyes on the shore for any sort of wrack. Even a piece of driftwood was welcome for the hearth.

I figure I have walked nearly every foot of the cliffs that gird this peninsula, and in every cove you can see the remnants of an ancient path carved into the precipice giving access to the shingle below. The sea, even then, was an inexhaustible – if paltry – pantry of goods.

It still is. As you know, I live on a tropic beach part of the year, and have harvested my own bounty from the sea. Driftwood for our bonfire cookouts, of course. Hardly a week goes by that a plastic milk crate doesn't wash up on the sand; they have made me a nice shelf system in the garage. A fine tarp. Useful rope. Even a sizable package of marijuana and another of cocaine (both surrendered to the police).

That's the "good" stuff. Most of what washes up is garbage. Each year when we arrive on that mile of pure white sand we spend a week or so picking up trash. There is not a beach in the world, no matter how remote and otherwise pristine, that does not receive its share of debris. The world's oceans are becoming a vast circulating refuse tip. What may have been a blessing to the Blasket islanders has become, even without the U-boats, a global disgrace.