Decolonization / Personal Is Political

West To North: The Story Of A Half A Metric Ton Of Beach Trash

Over the past four months, on average about once weekly, I personally have been descending the stairs at the edges of UBC campus in Vancouver, picking up as much trash as I can haul from between the North-facing beach (i.e., Acadia beach) and the West-facing beach (i.e., Wreck beach), and disposing of it in garbage barrels provided and emptied by Greater Vancouver Regional District. Over the past four months, a conservative estimate of exactly how much trash I have picked out of the marsh, from the roots of trees, from underneath washed up wooden logs and fallen forest, and from the shade beneath eagles’ nests, would be about a half a metric ton.

Take all the time you need to think about that — over a thousand pounds of refuse in four months.

I pick up everything your fire pits don’t turn into ash. I’m not a scientist, but I’d say the heat of an average fire on the rocks at a beach is probably around a few hundred degrees. Your broken booze bottles need to be exposed to at least a couple thousand degrees of heat for several minutes before they begin to melt.

I pick up your keg parties. All of each and every one of them. Every week.

I pick up your daily newspapers, your cigarette butts, and what’s left of your frappuccinos. While I don’t understand many of your choices, they are neither mine to make nor to understand.

I pick up every trace of your sex without even a momentary lapse into speculation, condemnation, or judgement.

I pick up your forgotten towels, blankets, socks, hats, sunglasses, and clothes. I pick up all your unwanted, tattered, abandoned shoes and sandals. Until writing this sentence, I hadn’t yet begun to wonder what it must feel like to have so much in a bedroom closet that it can be left behind without a second thought.

I pick up your drugs, too. Both used and forgotten about.

I pick up all the balls you told your dog to fetch but were never returned to you.

I pick up your “toilets”. Yes, those.

I also pick up every piece of broken glass, every chip and chunk of styrofoam that washes up out of the ocean, every granola bar wrapper, every water bottle, every tampon, every napkin and wetnap, every piece of rope and tangled fishing line that threatened to strangle something until the tide breathed it back out, and every piece of plastic with indeterminate origins.

I pick up all the bottles and cans that get thrown into the most obscure hiding places, where no one catches you in the act of trying to drink your shame. I pick up all the six-pack rings you leave behind too.

I also pick up every trace I can find of all the abandoned camp sites I come across.

I’ve brought help a total of three times. One person described a feeling of small veins popping in the back of their neck while silently filling a bag with trash from the marshes (that was in April). Another became so rapidly overwhelmed with anger and deep suspicion about what grim things someone was doing when they tried to hide several articles of clothing in bulrushes, that they couldn’t continue and never again returned to do this important duty as long as we were still on speaking terms (that was later in April). The third worked as hard and humbly as possible for well over two hours under the unforgiving blaze of the sun in 80-degree heat before packing it in for the day to administer much-needed self-care (that was yesterday).

On average, I’ve extracted about 50-80 lbs of trash every week by myself. I’ve been acutely conscious of the fact that several times, in just the space of two trips, I’ve picked up and thrown out significantly more than my own body weight. This is becoming increasingly consistent as the weather continues to draw thousands of people towards the shores of the Strait of Georgia.

I’ve also very nearly gone through entire rolls of bags (each roll being 28 bags) in just the space of two trips (sometimes I simply run out while I’m down there) — and this is especially true in fairer weather conditions, though I’ve been going on the same day each week regardless of the weather that greets me by the time I get there. With the amount of refuse I pick up—which I often have to strap onto my backpack with bungee cords just to make it to the nearest trash bin without back-tracking—I’ve completely filled empty barrels in a single trip. Many times over.

I was honestly beginning to believe that I might be the only person caring for the land in this way, until my friend and I crossed paths with four employees of Greater Vancouver Regional District, who asked us if we were picking trash. We answered honestly. They asked us if we were disposing of the trash we collect in the barrels they provide, and assured us that they empty every one of them out frequently. They also asked me if we have a vehicle, and I told them about how I’ve been coming there all the way from East Vancouver on public transit. They began telling us about how some of their coworkers appear to exhibit a preference for writing tickets and issuing fines over actually picking up trash (which, evidently, is only part of their job). But they also told us about how much garbage they pick up, most of which is literally buckets of broken glass. They had no idea that for the past four months, someone has been picking up several dozen pounds of trash every single week. I had no idea they were picking up any trash.

Take all the time you need to think about that — there is so much garbage strewn all over the beaches at UBC every single week that my removing a half a metric ton of it over the course of 4 months wasn’t even noticeable to the people whose job it is to keep those beaches (and other parks) well-groomed.

I feel it is important at this point to acknowledge that those beaches were once the site of a Musqueam village—about a hundred years ago, in fact—and that slowly learning this history over the past year is primarily what motivates me to treat that space as sacred now, though it has always been important to me since my first visit there, and because of that, I had already been returning to that space every Summer for several years before I started to learn its history directly from the people whose ancestors once walked there.

The Musqueam are said to have inhabited what is now called Point Grey since “time immemorial” (that includes the beaches, the entire university campus, and several upper-class neighbourhoods, which are collectively referred to as “UBC Endowment Lands”). And as a matter of fact, the Musqueam had another 125 other villages throughout Vancouver and the Lower Mainland prior to European contact. Former Musqueam village sites currently include some of Vancouver’s most up-scale neighbourhoods (e.g., Kitsilano, Kerrisdale, and Marpole), which were initially set aside as reserve lands after contact by invading European colonists; though this is rarely, if ever, openly acknowledged by anyone outside of indigenous communities. For those who deem oral history inadequate to support Aboriginal claims to place and culture, archaeologists have confirmed that the Musqueam were already inhabitants of this territory as far back as 40,000 years ago. Take all the time you need to think about that and the “land bridge” theory — which had already been outright rejected within 30 years of being first concocted in the 1950s, but which is still being taught in public schools today as if it were fact. It’s now been about 30 years since it had been unanimously dismissed as fabricated (not to mention racist) bullshit that can literally never be proven or ruled out, due to… well… the ocean (and never mind the fact that this completely ignores oral tradition, which is just as accurate—if not more so—than written tradition). But I digress.

At the turn of the century, a rapidly diminishing Musqueam population was driven out of almost all of their reserve lands in Vancouver (save, perhaps, for the Dunbar reserve) — by smallpox, gunpoint, and a rapid succession of malicious amendments to the Indian Act — while tens of thousands of their fallen family members were put in hundreds of mass graves all over their former territories (i.e., Vancouver and the Lower Mainland). The Musqueam had been systematically reduced from a nation of tens of thousands, living in 126 villages prior to contact in the late 18th century; to just a couple thousand, being repeatedly displaced by force from a steadily dwindling number of disappearing “reserves”, by the early 20th century. At one point, Musqueam were forced onto the same reserve as the Squamish nation, some of whose families had been forced onto a barge at gunpoint and cut loose to simply drift across the Burrard Inlet, after being driven out of their last remaining reserve lands in “Vancouver” in the year 1913. I almost wish I was at least slightly exaggerating.

These very real histories are never openly acknowledged at the beaches I consider sacred. They aren’t even considered factual or legitimate claims on the Wikipedia page for these beaches, let alone on the community’s “preservation society”website, where international status is boasted about and a code of “etiquette” is expected to be consulted prior to stepping foot there. That is, you’re expected to know the “etiquette” in advance, even though virtually none of the “community” follows it themselves; and though the “etiquette” page even goes so far as to suggest that Greater Vancouver Regional District employees and RCMP will voluntarily enforce these informal requirements, the reality is that the presence of both GVRD and RCMP are strongly discouraged by a “community” that pretends to be policing itself and taking proper care of the space. Instead, the nudist beach “community” that has been occupying these beaches for a mere few decades has exhibited an increasingly reflexive hostility towards newcomers who violate their unannounced “local” etiquette, and for a territorial entitlement over the beaches themselves — which are treated with about as much respect and dignity as one would show a bathroom trash can at a strip joint. This is all despite the fact that the dominantly white settler community of the beach have literally no grounds on which to base either a claim of ownership or their increasingly entitled attitude. Here’s the single line from the entire Wikipedia article that even acknowledges the Musqueam; though this line is most assuredly crafted to directly convey this attitude of entitlement—of which I have just so forcefully emphasized—as if it were more legitimate than indigenous claims:

The park is administered by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), though aboriginal claims are repeatedly asserted, especially by the Musqueam.

Additionally, the community website refuses to acknowledge the history of the land prior to the year 1977, and only obliquely acknowledges the continued presence of Coast Salish peoples, including Musqueam, in a) the “community” claim to “fighting against” development of the land, and b) the inclusion of a Squamish elder in holding an informal ceremony for the destruction of an old growth fir tree several years ago—an isolated event which may legitimately be considered a display of Aboriginal tokenism, given the manner in which indigenous peoples, traditions, and histories are actively ignored by the “local” community the other 99% of the time.

I used to feel a special kind of love for the most popular part of the beach, though never for its dedicated occupants, to whom I was merely indifferent. But now, I am feeling a simultaneously magnified appreciation and love for the land itself, and deep-seated sensation of resentment towards the dominantly white settler “community” that occupies it while actively ignoring its history prior to the late 70s. Though I am myself a white settler, I simply choose not to engage any of them directly (if at all) a vast majority of the time now, and don’t expect to be able to enjoy that particular stretch of beach again until it’s once again too cold to bear any attempt to swim in its waters. This dissonant state of mind is not helped at all by white booze-guzzling hipsters—who apparently think I answer to the sound of glass beer bottles clanking together on the ends of their fingers—expecting me to drop whatever I’m doing to relieve them of their empty recyclables without requiring of themselves to even get up off their drunken asses or to at least take note of the fact that the bags strapped to my back and in my hand are visibly full of plastic and cigarette butts.

As upsetting and distressing as it is to stumble into so much trash strewn all over a beach where one can literally feel the presence of their ancestors among them (as well as the ancestors of the territories — those who once walked along the same stones), I do not allow myself to get angry there. I perform ceremony before my arrival (or sometimes even before I depart from my home), I humble myself, and I conduct myself as though I were doing sacred work there. Any frustration I experience must be as abbreviated as possible, for if I allow it to persist beyond a fleeting moment, I will be leaving a part of it there. I carry with me the understanding that a balanced person would not leave their refuse there; therefore, it is unbalanced people who do, and I am doing the work of removing all traces of their sickness from this sacred space. I am there to be a healing presence in that space, to honour the indigenous protocol, and show my respect to the traditional stewards of the land—the Musqueam people of the past, present, and future. That is my primary purpose there. I sometimes carry feathers with me (or more often than not, wear them on my hat or in my hair), I always leave tobacco, and sometimes I even practice singing songs that I have learned came from that land.

I generally conduct myself in silence and with the utmost respect for every person, animal, plant, and thing there. I often find myself there before I have eaten that day, and more often than not, I spend several hours working without stopping. When I am there, I do not feel hunger or thirst. I do not generally feel fatigue or a compulsion to rush myself. I find myself in a meditative state there, which persists until long after I have left.

I may find and pick up important things there from time to time, but I never take them just for the sake of having them. Sometimes I have declared my wish to find those specific things—for specific people or purposes—during my ceremony that day (sometimes I have been declaring this intent weekly for several weeks in a row). Sometimes I have simply been surprised (and rather taken aback) by these unexpected and invigorating discoveries, which helped me through a moment of weakness later that same day. Everything of this nature that I do find and take with me, I do my best to take proper care of until they are united with whomever they were meant to be with.

If you see me there, just a slight nod is enough, although I won’t turn away from an expression of gratitude—for example, whether or not you ever see me there, you couldn’t hurt anyone or anything by just bringing a bag down with you, asking those within earshot to put their bottles, cans, and/or garbage into it, and taking it back up the stairs yourself. Compared to a half a metric ton of trash, that’s hardly any effort, but it sets an important example and it works towards the same things I’m working towards every week.

That beach was a Musqueam village just 100 years ago. Enjoy it, don’t destroy it.

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