By A. Kendra Greene
Illustration by Lisa Huffaker
Spring / Summer 2022 Issue
In the beginning it seemed clear enough. There was trash—packaging mostly, all the water bottles and chip bags and beer cans and cups from the drive-thru or the gas station. There were straws and lighters and bottles to hold motor oil or laundry detergent. There was all the stuff that collectively we did not want and yet, somehow, here it was: in fringes along the shoreline or amassed as floating islands or wedged amid reeds. Label papers and plastic bags snagged and bleached like flags, no fingers to tie them and yet uncannily like prayer flags, like the way you knot wishes to the branches of a tree.
When we found a little tributary to the lake small enough and started pulling things into our kayaks, it seemed possible we could make a dent. We set out with bags one afternoon to skim what we could. People who knew us would thank us for cleaning up the trash. These people would tut-tut the litterers, as if we were surrounded by discarded material because someone on shore was chucking it out. But I have seen trash cans so full that the wind then pushed things out. I know the limits of intention.
The image of the purposeful litterbug gave way to a careless one. All the picnic fare, all the cutlery and plastic bowls dropped to the ground and blown into the lake. All the volleyballs and soccer balls and footballs aimed a smidge wrong and sent sailing past dry land. It was easy to imagine every round thing rolling until it met the lake. All the unlucky moments where a doll or stuffed animal toppled from a stroller and over a bridge.
We had been paddling for some months before we decided to take anything out of the lake. It was spring. There were pelicans and cormorants; the wind ruffled the feathers on the tops of their heads. They sailed by in flotillas or sat in strings of half dozen clusters on trunks and branches blanched gray, trees that were dead and floated out, or even snagged in water shallow enough you could make out three shopping carts at various points above the waterline. We knew them by the lattice of their baskets, their wheels pointing to the sky.
Three tributaries feed into the bay, and there was one worth going down. It had the kind of close canopy from which you’d likely see a heron or an egret or a crane, those primordial bodies that jerk and fold and flap the way you imagine pterodactyls might have done. We paddled down, trying not to disturb the turtles sunning like plates stacked up a server’s arm or balanced like finials at branch’s end, and turned around where a downed tree and the raft of refuse trapped on one side or the other barred further passage.
When I consider how much detritus I see on the lake is just the sample that floats, when I think of everything that could float until it fills with water and sinks, when I imagine how much fluid has leached from the containers I actually find—it seems the floor of the lake must be carpeted in things that shouldn’t be there. I have a writer friend who knows the spot where his father used to fish, keeps up with the kind of divers who pull things from lake floors and knows the vintage of beer can that’s surely still in the sediment, and may yet go to the trouble of pulling up an artifact of fishing trips half a century old.
But lately, a year into collecting the orbs and the lures, the curiosities and the miscellany of this lake, there have been a few days where the water was so clear I could make out the edges of the leaf litter on the floors of the tributaries we traced, follow fish of all sizes approach the boat and go by. I saw almost nothing that shouldn’t be there. And I had to reconsider. Maybe relatively little sinks. Maybe what sinks gets covered over. Maybe what sinks is weathered and reverts to the earth. Maybe there is so much plastic, more than anything else, and plastic mostly floats.
There is enough flotsam in White Rock Lake that we can afford to be selective. We have what you might call our pick of the litter. We might come back to land with six objects or four hundred, but we only collect what I think of as the charismatic garbage. We favor color and shape and novelty. We bring in onion domes and spiky spheres and lumpy prisms we eventually recognize as wax candles though they make us wonder if we would recognize ambergris. We are free to pass by anything that seems potentially toxic or sharp or too entangled in a spider’s web. We do not pick up shoes because that seems like asking to find a foot. We do not pick up buckets or baskets unless I can make the case the bulk is not a storage problem, but a storage solution.
For a long time we did not pick up tennis balls—too common, too boring, too gross—but there’s actually very little material to sog or squish, and once we realized tiny plants sometimes sprout on them, make them look entirely like tiny Little Prince planets, by then we had studied their charms long enough to have an affection for the various stages of denuding they eventually arrive at, to marvel at each one faded to a unique point on the spectrum of tennis ball green, to decide well, why not and haul in 200 in an afternoon, half of them loaded up in a cooler we found and tethered to one kayak like a tipsy barge. When a dog walker passed us unloading on shore and asked for a few, it was easy to grant the wish; we had seen enough to know it was only a loan anyway, that sooner or later we would harvest them again.
We have been at this long enough to have developed a skill set, a language. We know how to scoop or balance or bat with the paddle, extend it as the long arm of the law. There are days I’ve worried what we’ve done is train ourselves to see trash, not the ducklings or the first budding out or the puff of plants going to seed.
At first it makes you sharper, trains you to look, gives you a reason to be out and witness the one pale green egg tucked in the undergrowth. But I remember how quickly after that bloom of keenness I found myself on the trail of a Doritos bag only to find it was a flame red leaf. There is a white wispy blossom I know precisely because it is so very like a feather-skirted little Seuss hook of a lure I pinched from the same trees when they were bare. I once passed a massive toad, so big and unblinking and glossy black and awkwardly wedged in between roots and totally unmoving I became convinced it must actually be a toy, was prepared to reach out and have it wheeze a squeaker’s wheeze when I saw it breathe and I almost screamed.
I’ve come to see we manufacture no color nature doesn’t already produce. I notice how the very material goods designed to seduce us almost immediately become garbage and then, depending on your tastes, might in new context draw you near once more. I’ve developed a particular place in my heart for the thing you see that makes you slow down, come closer, investigate, and—only because you have changed your pace or your angle or your proximity for it—then gifts you a more spectacular encounter with something else.
The first thing I pulled from the lake was settled on the lake floor, glinted silver and blue like the Bud Light cans surrounding it, but was decidedly something else. This was in the first few months of paddling, the months where I was still getting sure of my balance, my center of gravity, or just how much you could lean over the side before the lip became a ladle and in an instant the whole thing threatened to flip.
It was that section of the bay where it can be easy to run aground, much of it is so very shallow, no matter that you are still a good ways off from shore and closer to the pelicans than any dock. The water that day was clear enough to see the glittering, but the lake floor was close enough to stir up silt and muck, each stroke denying that there had ever been transparency. I had to be patient, memorize the spot, paddle into position, and calculate how much I drifted with the wind and try again.
I thought I must be mistaken. I thought it must be out of reach. And yet, I reached in my right hand as if pulling a sword from stone, and I claimed a tiara. In fact, I claimed it more than once. We kept dropping the tiara, trying to pass it between our two boats. We sent it skittering across the hull, and reached repeatedly into the muddy opaque, again retrieving this dripping jewel of the lake, this finery mounted to a headband, undeniable, all these silver swoops and settings for five faceted gems, everything about this resurrected crown made to center on one single, cerulean heart.
A. Kendra Greene is the author and illustrator of The Museum of Whales You Will Never See. Additional lake writing will appear this summer in D Magazine, and her collector’s eye turns back to museums this fall in Freeman‘s animal issue.
Lisa Huffaker creates writing, collage, and assemblage. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Diode, THRUSH, Michigan Quarterly Review, CTRL+V, 32 Poems, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Her work as a teaching artist brings her to such places as the Dallas Museum of Art, Nasher Sculpture Center, and The Dallas Contemporary, where creation and destruction duke it out in her bookish workshops. She is currently working on a book of visual poetry, wreaking erasure and collage upon a misogynist “self help” book from 1963. Cornell Tech and TU Delft recently exhibited her manuscript-in-progress in their 3rd Workshop on Obfuscation. More at www.lisahuffaker.com