Cleaner Than I Found It

Yesterday I took a walk on the beach to clear my head. It’s been a crazy few months full of change, and I always find grounding energy and clarity near the ocean. As I climbed over the dry, fluid sand dune and stepped down onto the steadier wet sand upon which the waves were breaking, I said to myself, “I’m ready.” 

What I meant — and I was speaking as much to the Universe and my greater self, as to my physical being right then and there — was that I’m ready for what’s next. I’m open to receive ideas, I’m open to explore new opportunities and I’m very ready to start building my future and accepting the blessings along that path. 

Walking along the sandy shores of Los Angeles’ Dockweiler Beach, I found myself weaving. Not only around other strollers and joggers, but sadly, through a crazy amount of trash. It was impossible to look for shells, because there was so much garbage, it all just appeared to be a dirty mess.

Nearly everything you see on the sand is trash.

Nearly everything you see on the sand is trash.

Our cross-country RV trip brought me face-to-face with some sobering effects of climate change, like totally out of season temperatures and weather, and dried up plains where deep vast lakes used to be. But as I walked along the beach yesterday, I recalled the many instances where I’ve come face-to-face with the causes of global warming. The ways we have abused our planet and brought her to her knees, such as the devastating reality of how much garbage is in our oceans. I’ve watched it wash up (or be discarded) on shores from West Africa, to the Caribbean, to Europe, across Central America and right on the shores of the United States. 

I can’t stand to see it. Growing up in Vermont, being ecologically mindful was drilled into us; how to properly recycle, endless little tricks to use fewer resources, and the importance of cleaning up after ourselves.

Each spring, after the snow melted away to reveal the sins of winter’s litter bugs, was “Green Up Day,” a non-official holiday observed by as many of my peers as Halloween or Memorial Day. Everyone participated. And the idea was simple: clean up the area around you, whatever you can manage. My family would walk the stretch of country road in front of my house, which was nestled between two sharp curves. It was probably only a quarter of a mile, but equipped with our gloves and garbage bags, we scoured it clean each year. 

This simple “holiday,” combined with everything else I was taught, has had a profound affect on how I behave and what I believe. At its simplest, I don’t see garbage and litter left behind as “others’,” I see it as “ours.” We all share this planet, we all share its resources, and we all own the harm that collectively we do to it. 

I often find myself collecting garbage around me, even at times when I’m meant to be relaxing. There is almost always some small bit of litter that I can easily scoop up and throw away. 

As a scuba diver, I collect anything that I find at sea’s bottom and bring it up to the boat to be properly thrown away — that is a shared understanding and responsibility among responsible divers. 

During a vacation in Costa Rica a couple years ago, I found myself unable to relax by the beach because I was distracted by how much trash was around us on its shores (this was after a celebration weekend in the local area, so it was especially bad). I grabbed what plastic bags we had in the car and our tent to collect our own garbage for the day, and I walked around our vicinity and picked up all the trash. I didn’t even have gloves with me that time, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t leave that area the way I found it. It didn’t take away from my sense of relaxation having picked up trash, because I don't see the task as "below me." In fact I felt much better having done my part. I was still seaside, enjoying the sounds of the waves and the sun's hot rays, and while a small action, I removed as much trash from the beach as I was able. 

This could kill those guys.

This could kill those guys.

The same impulse came over me yesterday here in California. I became unable to enjoy my stroll on the beach because I could not believe the amount of garbage underfoot. I looked at others on the beach and wondered if they noticed the same, and if they cared? I continued to navigate the waste on what ended up being a long walk, and all I could think was, “What if every one of us took one small action to simply leave the path behind us cleaner than we found it?” 

I meditated on that thought, “Cleaner than I found it,” as I walked, the waves ebbing and flowing with my thoughts. 

And I decided to start a mentality movement; let's leave the path behind us cleaner than we found it, and let's spread the word to others.

It can only grow if we spread it. And more importantly, if we live it. 

When I returned to the trailer from the beach yesterday, I couldn’t ignore what I’d seen. I immediately grabbed a garbage bag and rubber gloves, and headed back to the beach to remove what I could. Because there was a daunting amount of trash on this one beach, I asked myself only to fill the garbage bag, then I would be done. That was as much as I could do for the day (I was already super tired from such a long walk).  

People watched me curiously. After all, we associate collecting trash as being a “lesser than” job. The trash on the sides of the roads is for prisoners to pick up as punishment, for example. And the poor gentlemen and women who collect our everyday garbage from the curbside have a dirty job. But there I was with a rose gold and black Daniel Wellington watch and a matching gold and black purse, my hands clad in rubber gloves, bent over collecting plastic wrappers, rubber, styrofoam, straws, water bottle caps, plastic bags and anything I could find. I could see the confusion in their faces, wondering, “Why is she doing that?” But no one asked and I’m not out to preach. I can only hope that in the future, those who saw me might take action of their own.

With the density of trash on the beach, I underestimated my task. I started to get discouraged as my bag filled up (and became incredibly heavy) but it didn’t seem I was getting far. Just as with Green Up Day back in Vermont, I was able to clean up about a quarter-mile stretch of the beach.

One hour's work (I cleaned everything behind me up to the rock jetty). One bag. A little-big difference. And a Trump-esque wind-inspired combover.

One hour's work (I cleaned everything behind me up to the rock jetty). One bag. A little-big difference. And a Trump-esque wind-inspired combover.

The pride and calm I felt looking behind myself was at times marred by discouragement as the waves would deliver new trash to the shore over and over. But then, I looked down at my bag and reminded myself that I removed a full garbage bag of trash yesterday, and therefore one full garbage bag of trash is no longer on the beach. I left it cleaner than I found it, and that’s all we can do, each of us. Remove what you can.

It doesn’t matter how much trash you are able to remove at any given time: one gum wrapper makes a difference. Have an empty sandwich bag? Fill it with trash and litter and properly throw it away. A grocery bag? Fill it. A garbage bag? It’s ambitious, but fill it!

The garbage I collected in about one hour from about a 1/4 mile stretch of Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo, California.

The garbage I collected in about one hour from about a 1/4 mile stretch of Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo, California.

The most disappointing fact was that everything I collected was processed food or snack wrappers and packaging, and plastic bags. Things that had clearly been brought to the beach, their contents consumed and their packaging disregarded. 

But then I think about the times the wind has picked up a plastic bag or napkin or wrapper from my picnic and blown it faster and farther than I could catch it. For those times, I pay it forward and collect what I can, when I can. 

Would you pledge to leave the path behind you cleaner than you found it? Would you spread the word?