Here on Dog Island, there’s no trash on the beach. To live here, one must own a boat or be invested with the preternatural patience to book a private ferry for a twenty minute ride to the Forgotten Coast, then rent a car to drive to Appalachicola or Tallahassee for grocery shopping, then book a ride back, carting gallons of drinkable water and fresh produce back to the one of a hundred or so cottages allowed to exist on the island. Permanent residents don’t like it that some of the cottages here are being rented out to vacationers. Out of the one hundred or so properties surviving the summer storms and occasional hurricanes, only nine are let out, some by people whose claim to the island dates back several generations. Even such a small number puts a strain on the septic system, on the garbage retrieval system. The islanders tell us: “We’re just not equipped for that kind of thing. Things are much simpler here.”
Someone with a truck will pick up the garbage daily, at eight o’clock in the morning, but residents and renters alike do not have the option to bring out their garbage the night before. Joel and I are leisure-seekers, vacationers, and we don’t like it that we have to get up with the sun every day for a task that at home we perform only once per week, on Sunday nights. We’ve been informed, warned, lectured. “Bring the trash out yourself. Early.” The cottage owner paints a picture in my mind: “raccoons get to it, coyotes. We [the real residents] have pick up the trash all over the island, get the paper stuck from shrubs.”
I never see the trucker. I don’t know if the islanders take turns, if it’s a local, making extra income, a boy on break, or an elderly woman. There are no schools here, no hospices, no businesses, so it’s hard to imagine anything other than a retiree agreeing to the task on rotation. Real estate is cheap, but it’s expensive to grocery shop via a boat to the mainland. It’s not everyone’s idea of a picnic to cart gallons of drinkable water into a thirty-foot boat, then up the steps of the marina, and through the twisty sandy paths that are the island’s version of infrastructure. I wonder what the islanders do with all those trash bags: a big metal bin sits right by the marina, but I can see no cranes, no barges except the one we hear about, owned by Rusty, the suntanned sailor who also owns the ferry that got us here – the only way to get here. Rusty, we’re told, is the guy to talk to if you want something as simple as live bait or as complicated as a new couch.
It takes me only a few hours here to realize and appreciate just how healthy the island is, whatever the inconveniences of having to get up early to put out the trash. While Joel looks for a nice spot to settle our shade tent, I’m admiring the diaphanous teal-colored water, and mistake a sun-glinting clamshell for a bottle cap. It’s then that I realize there are no cigarette butts to avoid stepping on, no bottles, no broken plastic containers of half eaten foods, and no wrappers floating on the shore. The only thing to watch out for are the dead algae washed ashore with the tide and the pervasive weeds that manage to find a toe-hold on life even in these crystal white sands, where, you’d otherwise assume, no plant life could thrive.
For the next few days I’m actually on the look out for trash. I take long walks on the shore, for shells that I only pick up to observe, and then carefully put back on the beach, remembering what a friend who grew up on Key West told me about the shells that used to wash ashore in abundance when she was a kid: all those shells found their ways to souvenir shops, especially when the locals realized there was money to be made out of it, until the seemingly endless supply was so depleted that it affected mollusk sea life. Today, in Key West, the only pretty shells are in souvenir stores. The irony is, they’re imported.
I don’t need another shell, besides. My house is cluttered as it is.
The single plastic water bottle I find, along with a cap and a fisherman’s bright glowing orange glove stand out in an otherwise pristine and unperturbed shore, populated by ghost crabs too curious to stay in their holes, but too shy to stay put once I return their curiosity and move towards them. They scurry so fast across the sand they’re almost mirages, fleeting ghost I catch with my peripheral visions that can come to a stop as quickly as they can spring across an acre of sand. The water bottle glistens unnaturally, and so I pick it up. I will keep this one, this human-made shell so alluringly transparent that birds and fish cannot fathom its poison.
Still, walking miles down the shores, in spite of the fact that the coast is dotted with houses spaced only yards apart, the beaches are otherwise pristine: the island residents seem diligent about respecting the wild life. I look at the glistening, transparent waters as they lap at my feet, and wonder if, after only two days here, I’ve been spoiled for any other beach. I am not a stranger to beach paradises: I’ve seen a few, and I hunt for them across the planet. When I was nine years old, my parents who then lived in Milan, Italy, noticed my worsening asthma and decided it was urgent that they do something about it. My father came home a few months later and announced a surprise. My mother showed us pictures of what was to be our new summer home in a place called Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean just south of the island Corsica, where Napoleon was born.
Up to then, my family, like every other Italian family, had vacationed in the month of August in the popular overcrowded beaches along the coast of Tuscany and Lazio, unnaturally linear rows after rows of identical beach umbrellas rented out by the hour or the day, set so close to one another that part of the fun as children was to make friends with the neighboring shadow-renters. To take a dip in the sea meant to step over children building a sand castle where the sea kissed the beach, wading between elderly ladies conversing thigh-deep in sea water, and swimming past volleyball splashing teens or tenderly loving couples all crowded next to one another in every available square meter of shallow.
But Sardinia was different. The slice of coast where my father had discovered a new enterprising development had hitherto been undiscovered. There were only a scatter of beach bungalows, constructed in that cookie cutter fashion of housing communities that were still relatively avant-garde for the seventies, at least in Italy. Ours was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom beachfront, and one of the first to be sold. It had stucco walls and red roof shingles, a tiled front porch, and a bamboo pergola that served as a trellis for a gorgeous bougainvillea and her red-petal gifts.
The closest grocery store was ten miles up hill, and if we really wanted produce, we had to buy from the farmers who lived an hour’s drive uphill from the coast, but that could sell us suckling pig, goat, and rabbit that tasted as wild and fresh as the island’s briny breezes. We stocked for food once per week and were careful to buy our supplies. Plumbed water was undrinkable, and shortages, frequent.
Like Dog Island, Sardinia offered nothing in terms of entertainment. Even a television antenna seemed like an unnecessary luxury on the cove called Costa Rei, with no cities nearby or small towns to disturb it. Sardinia’s capital was a four-hour drive through twisted switchbacks too dangerously frequented by cargo trucks for us to consider undertaking, unless it was for an emergency.
In Sardinia, too, the beaches looked pristine – at least for the first four years we spent summers there. With nothing to entertain us but the beach, and with the kind of tropical winds that could blow a well-anchored fishing ten-footer into the sea, the only litter, our inflatable mattresses, would end up in Tunisia before we had a chance to run after them and dispose of them properly. But by and by the community grew, and from the first twelve bungalows, there sprouted dozens more, until the coast was dotted with these tiny white stucco houses all the way up into the hills and along the length of the shore.
There was garbage then, all right: from weekenders making the drive down from the capital; from one-week vacationers who could afford the flight from more important cities on the peninsula; from German investors who could sell Italy as an exotic and cheap alternative to fancy resorts on the Emerald Coast. When we ran on the beach, we often stepped on tar balls gifted to us on the diaphanous blue seas by the water crafts, cruise and cargo ships that more and more often skirted the deep seas out of the southern tip of the island.
I quickly grew to appreciate and mourn the pristine beach. It isn’t the same to race your friends to shore on an inflatable raft if the foam you dive into is not from a cresting wave, but from the day-trip teen who thinks it’s a good idea to shampoo in the sea. It’s not as fun to build sand castle if what comes up from under the sand is a disposable diaper or a gelato wrapper.
When my father sold the Sardinia house in 1979, I wasn’t as heartbroken as you would expect of a girl who spent nearly a decade’s worth of summers on that island, making her most important memories, and communing with the wildlife as much as a civilized, city-dwelling tween might hope.
I have been in search of the lost Sardinia ever since. I’ve looked for it in the Cayman Island, Greece, Hawaii, Bahamas, Mexico, and all along the Florida coast, both east and west. Necessity made it so that I needed a city to ensure my livelihood, so after I graduate college, South Miami Beach was the best I could do for a substitute to my Italian island. And for years, it worked just fine. I traded in the deserted beaches and cool sapphire waters for the pastel colored nightclubs and the ever-present house music and Spanish guitar.
The beaches in south Florida are spectacularly wide, and the waters warm and welcomingly transparent. And yet, year after year, I’ve watched South Florida’s most precious asset suffer from neglect all the more appalling as its worst perpetrators are not tourists or the over-crowded hotel chains, but the locals themselves. Some families are in the habit of gathering on the beach on weekends, crowding six or seven at a time in cheap two-star hotels one street-block from the beach. They camp early in the morning, equipped with boom boxes, tents, coolers, soccer balls, and sometimes, even portable barbecues. The gatherings are like family reunions: fifteen, twenty people at a time claim a large slice of beach with foldable chairs, umbrellas, canopies, babies in carriages, toddlers in pink and blue bathing suits, children who dig holes the size of a septic tank, and music blasting loud for blocks it’s hard to imagine how anyone can hear anyone else talking.
It’s not their gregariousness that is bothersome, though certainly it is noteworthy. It’s the waste of trash that invariably piles in their wake. Although the clean up crews come twice per day to empty out trash bins, the wind, and general carelessness has left a once lovely coastline littered with cigarette butts and bottle caps and foaming with plastic food containers and grocery bags coming in with the tide like exhausted jelly fishes, powdered in sand and salt.
One learns to snap one’s bamboo beach mat avoiding the more conspicuous peaks of orange and yellow plastic, pretending not to notice more disgusting items – like syringes, used condoms, and even broken glass.
But here on Dog Island, the residents seem to prefer to remain indoors, behind the fortification of their wooden walkways and wraparound porches, peering out only occasionally from lookout points or from curtained windows. The beaches belong to the sandpipers and shore birds, to the ghost crabs and the seashells that somehow appear in thick clusters on certain curves of the shores, nonexistent in others – and to the occasional swath of green algae that washes in with the tide. After our day at the beach, I am meticulous about keeping track of every thing not natural: the tent nails, the umbrella ties, the caps to the insect repellent. I gather every piece, keeping count, then counting again, making sure I haven’t missed a piece. I can’t help but long for the South Florida that was my permanent residence for most of my twenties, the one I only glimpse from time to time when visiting my parents, despoiled a little more every year.
“There are littering fines for dropping a cigarette butt on a highway,” I tell Joel a propos of nothing. “But people can just dump an entire week’s of garbage on a beach without anyone saying anything.”
He nods, and looks pensively at the incoming crystalline waves that lap at our feet. “It’s changing,” he says after I’ve given up hope of a reply. “They’re starting to ticket people.”
“About time,” I say. But I know it’s unreasonable to expect that every last piece of trash be accounted for: a set of keys can easily get lost on a bright sandy beach, so much more so a bottle cap you earnestly meant to collect. A gust of wind can rip your best intentions right out from your hands. Still, I think, what is really so terrible about picking up someone else’s garbage? I’m not talking about the rare infected syringe, the shameless condom: most of what we find on public beaches are cigarette butts, or cans of baby food, and soda bottles, handled briefly by people just like me, not by lepers, or bleeding zombies. My civilized self sets off alarms at things disposed in improper places as if they were radioactive already, infected with deadly diseases, but this island reminds me of what matters.
On my way back home tonight, I discover a plastic glass stuck in the sand behind one of the stanchions. It’s not mine or Joel’s: we haven’t brought any drink down to the beach since we got here. Nonetheless, I pick it up, and carry it with my towel and my umbrella under arm, placing it into the recycling bean under the kitchen sink. It’s not an answer to the breakdown of ecology by any means, but I leave the beach cleaner than I found it, and that is something.