Letter to America: Everything is Going to Have to be Put Back
By Rebecca Altman
after W. S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree”
Start with the larger pieces. Wander the tideline. Check beneath the beached beds of seaweed. Ignore the seashells. And don’t be distracted by sea glass.
Then seek the finer pieces. You’ll come to know what’s plastic by its color, by its shape and texture. Expect that you’ll mistake bone for plastic for stone for wood. Time will train your eye.
Do this after the tide goes out. Do it daily, twice a day, if the light allows. Eventually you must work from your knees with fine-tipped tweezers. The bulk of what you seek will be smaller than you think.
You will happen on smooth, even grains shaped like rice or lentils. This is plastic, but plastic lost in transit while traveling between factories. Keep it. For it is the seed of the never-made, of the almost spoon or the not-quite tchotchke. But look sharp for the shards of one-time objects, the fragments of a former foam cup, the ghosts of its domed lid.
It’s good to have a specific thing in mind, to hold its image, just not too tightly. For what are the chances the pieces that compose any one thing are recoverable on the same stretch of coast, on the same sand where you now stand?
Hedge your bets. Collect everything. Sort by color, by type. You’ll have to learn the different species of resins, their parentage and history. This will take study, possibly magnification, and maybe even consultation with a scientist, who will want to run tests. Plan accordingly.
But don’t let the sorting keep you from starting. Re-assemble what you can. Adhesives will be necessary, as will supports to hold the fragments as they cohere.
In all cases errors are likely.
The wrong piece will be fit into the wrong place.
Get comfortable with starting over, and familiar with ambiguity, with uncertainty, hard though it is. You will begin and begin again without knowing to what ends you work. What you think is a straw might instead be a pen, and there will be more pieces to find. While you search for these, start something else, a bottle cap perhaps, which might well be a bobber.
The day will come when you’ve rebuilt something from what’s been washed ashore. For now, let’s say: a cup—white, with ridged sides, sized for a child’s hands and used to serve juice and snacks. For all the work that went into it, you will marvel: how anyone could cast off such a thing?
But do not linger on this thought. Nor celebrate its achievement. For the end-game isn’t to re-member the cup, or even restore it. You must put everything back. Re-foresting a fallen wood is different from unchopping a felled tree.
Which means the real work still remains. You must learn what you’ve never been taught. You must teach yourself sufficient chemistry to conceive of its reverse.
To harness heat and pressure. To make the stills and tubing such tasks necessitate. To procure the right reagents and solvents, and then, with caution, to strip the residues of time. Wrest dye from polymer. Rend polymer into its parts, releasing its once-chained monomers.
The remaining work is to reconstitute the various hydrocarbons, returning them to the complexity forged by eons, to ancient cellulose and stowed sunlight and possibly even stardust.
Rebecca Altman is a New England-based environmental sociologist with recent essays in Aeon Magazine, The Atlantic, and the Summer 2018 issue of Orion. She is the daughter of a former plastics maker and is at work on an intimate history of plastic. Other work explores the social history of chemistry, pollution, and environmental legacy— what is passed from one generation to the next.