I find my inner warriors as I pick up beach trash

Beach cleanups are never scheduled when I can participate, so I gather trash whenever I walk the beach. I'm self-conscious doing it alone, though. Do people think I'm doing a "community service" sentence for a crime I've committed, or trying to make them feel guilty for not picking up trash, too? No, I do it by choice, and it's not just for the environment. Over time, I've found my own rewards.

Beach cleaning is a habit I formed when I lived in Boston. I would go to Plum Island, a nearby wildlife refuge on the North Shore, back in the days when the sign at the gate read, "There is no entry fee, but consider your exit fee to be one bag of trash collected from the beach." I took that "fee" seriously. It was worth it, if it kept the beach free (which I guess it did for a while). And it was worth it if it kept the dunes and the tidelines clean so animals could live there and humans could meditate on the beauty of it all.

And for me? Bending to pick up trash always gave me a closer view of the habitat, so at some point on every walk, I would put down the trash bag and get out the camera. I'd record the calligraphic forms of the seaweed, pulled across wet sand by a receding wave. I'd use the macro lens to capture tiny pill-bug-like amphipods that lived between the sand grains. And some weathered bits of trash were interesting enough that I'd photograph them before removing them.

But I discovered a new kind of treasure on Cape Cod.

I walked onto Sandwich Town Beach late one afternoon, just as a little boy was leaving with his mother. Near where they'd had their blanket, I noticed a small action figure in the sand - a drab green soldier aiming a rifle. A Surf Warrior, I thought - a protector to defend me. I picked it up.

For a moment I wondered if the kid was still in the parking lot - should I hurry there to return his lost soldier? No, the figure had already adopted me. I found a special spot for it when I got home. Surf Warriors, those frayed and gritty amulets, became a prize I sought.

Not long after, I moved to San Diego, bought a condo near the beach, and started volunteering at the local aquarium. Here I walk with a pedometer on my belt and a goal in my head - 2 miles, 3, maybe 4. But I slow down at the first bit of trash.

I learned at the aquarium that plastic bags and balloons are two of the biggest threats to marine life. Fish swallow them because they look like yummy jellyfish, but the plastic clogs their gut, preventing them from absorbing nutrients, and they die. Plastic bags and balloons make up the bulk of the trash I collect. I do that for the fish, but I still pick up Surf Warriors for myself - cowboys, soldiers, animals, vehicles. Having survived the perils of sand and sea, they inspire me in my own quests. They help me find the warrior within.

One day last summer, as I was entering the water at La Jolla Shores in my scuba gear, people really did turn and look when I yelled, "Alligator!" It was a four-inch long plastic 'gator with orange eyes and an open mouth. After making sure there were no kids around who might be coming back for it, I put it in my pocket. It accompanied me on a 60-foot dive before joining the other warriors in my kitchen.

The army that war-games on the oak ledge near my stove is eclectic. A frayed green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stands with arms in the air as though to stop a driverless green Jeep. Jack, with ping-pong ball head and pointy yellow hat, approaches the turtle from behind in a red convertible. He was found 70 feet underwater. His new passenger is a tiny parachutist from a Cracker-Jack box.

Another parachutist makes an ungainly landing on a dried-out lei. A gray whale, now mostly white, surfaces from the lei. Cowboys and soldiers crouch and aim in all directions.

The Surf Warriors go on temporary duty, acting as muses when I write, or supporters when I prepare for presentations. Sometimes they return to the beach in the hands of young visitors.

I, too, continue my temporary duty on the beach. This morning, as I deposited bits of trash in a dripping plastic sack I'd dug out of the sand, a woman approached me. "Good for you!" she said. As I noticed her hands were full of beach trash, too, she continued "I pick up five things every time I walk. Now if everybody did that...."

I congratulated her, too. "We are surf warriors in our own way," I thought as I deposited my trash and left. "Protectors and defenders of Neptune's creatures. We are coalescing into our own whimsical platoon."

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