To make these microplastics visible, lake ecologists from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology collected samples of marine animals from the River Leven and Morecambe Bay in the north-west of England. The Leven is a 17-mile conduit transporting water – and more – from Windermere, the Lake District’s largest lake, or mere, into the tidal mudflats of the bay.
I’d been invited along for the day, but when the email arrived, ecologist Heidrun Feuchtmayr’s phrase ‘marine animals’ flipped my synapses into overdrive. Momentarily, what I saw was not the Morecambe Bay I was familiar with, but the wider pelagic, my imagination running rampant with the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, whales, dolphins and the floating sci-fi spaceships of the giant ray.
I met Heidrun, Stephen Thackeray and Daniel Harvey early one morning in the upper reaches of the bay. Daniel is a master’s student whose research investigates microplastics being carried into the bay from Windermere. Hefting sweep-net, plastic trays and jam-jars of filtered water, we followed a path underneath the busy A590, threading our way through a forest of concrete pillars and emerging onto the sloping, muddy shore.
Stephen stepped gingerly over weed-strewn rocks into a receding tide. The prints of a heron indicated a more assured trajectory. ‘Mind you don’t fall in’ Heidrun called, and we grinned. Stephen jiggled the net back and forth and deposited – what exactly? – into the yellow plastic tray, then carried it back up the bank. We hunkered down to inspect. ‘Plenty of Paleamon,’ Stephen said.
Paleamon elegans, or the rockpool shrimp, are one of the bay’s most prolific organisms. A keystone species, they play a major role in what’s known as the ‘detritus cycle’ – or the breaking down of marine litter and are therefore an intrinsic part of marine food webs. Peering into the tray, I noticed how some were so tiny they were barely visible whilst others were much larger and scooted in sudden diagonal trajectories like those primitive computer games.
As we peered into the tray, Heidrun said that the samples would be placed in filtered water overnight to allow the animals guts to empty, and the next day the organisms would be weighed and broken down in potassium hydroxide, then stained with a pigment called Nile Red. Bound to microplastics, Nile Red becomes fluorescent under the microscope. It is this process that creates that extraordinary deep-space imagery.
One minute the shrimp are minding their own business and the next (and despite the fact of chromatophores – those handy cells that enable some animals to change colour instantly to blend into their surroundings) – they are recruited as unwitting participants in an experiment to examine some of the impacts of human behaviours on the planet.
According to the UN Environment Committee, over a million single use plastic drinks bottles are purchased every minute across the world. Half of all plastics manufactured are intended for single use only, with 3 million tonnes of plastic waste manufactured every year – equivalent to the weight of the entire human population of the Earth. Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the natural environment that scientists suggest it could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene.
Ninety-nine percent of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil and from natural gas and coal — all of which are carbon heavy, non-renewable resources. The UN say that by 2050 the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
One minute the shrimp are minding their own business and the next – they are recruited as unwitting participants in an experiment to examine some of the impacts of human behaviours on the planet
I began to accommodate myself to this marvellous jumble of names and species. Morecambe Bay shrimp (Crangon crangon) rockpool prawn, corophium or mud scud: creatures about which I’d previously known nothing.
Daniel emptied a netful into the tray and Heidrun picked something wriggly from an unearthed clod of sediment. ‘Erg; what’s this?’ I said as a dubious-looking red-brown invertebrate unfurled itself, the hairy exterior and strangely hypnotic winding action invoking primal repulsion. ‘Ragworm,’ Heidrun said. ‘Just don’t look into its eyes’.
A family in wellies trudged out onto the foreshore close by; parents, grandparents and two small children hefting fishing nets. They set about investigating a rock pool and subsequently our collecting was punctuated by whoops of joy as another whatever was caught in the children’s nets. I noticed the way the grown-ups mirrored the youngster’s fascination, exclaiming in delight and hunkering down to examine whatever it was they’d just found.
Heidrun pushed a dessert-spoon into the tray of water, gently swishing away the flotsam. She located a single shrimp and scooped it adroitly into the bowl of the spoon.
‘I’m just being nosy,’ a woman with a small dog stopped to chat. ‘Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing?’ ‘Not at all,’ Heidrun said, ‘We’re looking for evidence of microplastics in marine creatures.’ Then the woman asked, ‘And if you find them, will you be able to tell where they come from?’ Heidrun answered, ‘From all around Morecambe Bay and from the Lake District.’ And for a few moments we indulged ourselves; how many tourists are coming to the Lakes now, with Covid, and how much plastic waste gets left behind – barbecues abandoned, their scorched stigmata in the grass, picnic leftovers abandoned, plastic plates, cutlery, wine glasses
‘Did you see the footage after Reading Festival?’ the woman said, ‘Who’d have thought a tent was something you bought and threw away?’
That summer I’d also been collecting plastic waste from Windermere’s islands and inaccessible shorelines. What came to me as a great surprise the first time I went out picking litter around Windermere wasn’t anything to do with feelings of virtue. It was much more an overwhelming feeling of despair at being able to make anything like a difference. There was just so much plastic, and not all of it easy to get at. I began to extrapolate how much plastic waste existed here in this World Heritage ‘cultural landscape’. And exactly how many more litter-pickers/volunteers/bags/bin lorries would it take to deal with just today’s haul. From one lake in a land of lakes. I stopped myself pursuing the drift of ideas, the facts of it too overwhelming.
Another time, collecting litter from Cockshott Point to Bowness Bay there’d been this tide of bright blue something, some polypropylene substance that might once have been a boat awning, or maybe an exploded paddle board. Shards of it littered the beach in contorted coils and fragments, ingrained into the shingle as mussel shells ingrained onto rocks. No matter how many shards I picked with my gadget, so many more remained. I found the same blue fragments on every shore of the lake I visited that summer.
Many times, William Wordsworth suffered from what is now recognised as trachoma, a serious inflammation of the eyes resulting in extreme light sensitivity, or photophobia, and pain. During those episodes, the natural world was simply too painful for Wordsworth to endure, and the poet was confined, utterly frustrated, to a darkened room.
Having heard of Wordsworth’s affliction, an editor arrived at Grasmere, bringing with him a blue stone. By touching the stone (a small piece of copper sulphate) to each eye, the visitor announced, the poet’s condition would be cured. Just two weeks later, William’s sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson wrote in a letter that William was completely recovered. Once again, Wordsworth’s poetry flew out into the Cumbrian hills from the nib of his re-invigorated quill. The blue stone remains on display in a glass-fronted cabinet in Dove Cottage.
I am thinking about blindness, about seeing or not seeing and the difference between the two. I want to understand how it is that we have become so accommodated to the fact of plastic waste that we have, in many ways, forgotten how to see it. Is it simply too painful to keep looking? I see these blue fragments horribly entangled in the shores of Windermere; I am overwhelmed. If I walk away leaving so many blue particles amongst the stones, part of me has chosen not to see.
Is there a cure for this affliction? Are we waiting for someone to come galloping out of the darkness, bringing forth a cure for our ecological malaise?
I want to understand how it is that we have become so accommodated to the fact of plastic waste that we have, in many ways, forgotten how to see it
In his book Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, David Farrier follows the lifespan of a single plastic bottle from its inception as a derivative of oil to a container for a drink to a piece of litter carried by the tide, crossing oceans, touching shorelines, setting sail again, all the while undertaking its own journey of disintegration.
Plastic comes from oil and like everything else on Earth, the origins of oil are deeply bound up with reactions forged between interstellar molecules and clouds of gas and dust in space; a theory known as panspermia.
Micro-plastics are now a deeply embedded part of our culture. They exist in the stratigraphic records of sediments and are bound up in molecules that fall as snow on Antarctica.
Of the 5.25 trillion pieces of marine plastics in the world’s oceans, 92% are microplastics of less than 5mm in size and are commonly ingested by marine life, in some cases in animals as small as plankton. Those ingested toxicants go on accumulating in life-forms, magnified continuously in food webs and life forms. The UN has declared plastics in our oceans as a planetary emergency.
This upwardly mobile toxic progression represents an environmental justice issue not only for people who consume fish or who depend upon them for subsistence, but for all forms of life, wherever these plastics are encountered.
But who calls for environmental justice for the mud scud or the lithe baby eel winding itself through the water in the yellow plastic tray, only recently arrived all the way from the Sargasso Sea? Can we extrapolate the weight of all the dying stars and comets found in the guts of marine animals, whether in the tidal zone of Morecambe Bay or in the cultural landscape of the Lake District or in those bromeliad-leaf Amazonian swimming pools or in that snowflake falling, falling, across the frozen unfreezing continent of Antarctica?
In the sunshine yellow of the tray, Paleamon disappear almost completely. Creatures almost without substance, their eyes are a pair of infinitesimally small, dark apostrophes, the spine a minimalist Gaudi architecture and the antenna and legs, mottled threads.
There was a slightly larger dark shape behind the eyes that Steven confirmed were the animal’s internal organs. We couldn’t see the microplastics that may or may not have been lodged inside the animals’ digestive tract; of course not. Regardless, Paleamon get on with doing what they do as the moon cycles through its sometimes visible and sometimes not waxing and waning and the tide pours in and out of the bay and the geological age of the planet collides with the geological impacts of humans.
Somewhere inside these tiny Paleamon is a stomach and inside that, who knows: a supernova, a comet?
IMAGES; All sea photograms by Anne Campbell http://www.annecampbell.photography/photograms.html
Lancaster’s Future Places Centre is hosting Reimagining Landscapes Conference on 7th and 8th July 2022. The conference brings together the arts, environmental science and more to explore the ways that imagination can help shape narratives for wider communication. The conference includes the world premier of Flight//In Conversation, a performance by Propeller Orchestra and author and naturalist Mark Cocker. Full details and booking link here.
Calling all salt and fresh water lovers! Dark Mountain’s next How We Walk through the Fire creative workshop will focus on the element of water and take place in late July/early August All details here: https://dark-mountain.net/events/waterland/.