In the Eye of the Beholder
May 4, 2006
Nothing illustrates the adage "one man's trash is another man's treasure" better than the art of beachcombing. When David surveys a windswept beach, he mostly sees a lot of junk. Eileen, on the other hand, sees myriad priceless objects, their inherent beauty obvious to anyone with a discerning eye. This is why Eileen can spend hours walking slowly along the shoreline with her head down, while David gets bored after 15 minutes and begins thinking about what's for lunch.
The best locations for beachcombing are the windward coasts of remote land masses. In populated places, all the good stuff gets picked over pretty fast. The Jumentos archipelago in the extreme southwestern corner of the Bahamas -- where we are at the moment -- is about as remote as you're going to get within easy cruising range of North America. The eastern shorelines of the rocky little cays snag the flotsam that's swept across the Crooked Island Passage by the prevailing Easterly winds; these are primo conditions for a dedicated beachcomber like Eileen.
The other day we beached the dinghy on the sheltered side of Water Cay, picked our way through the brush and scrub to the windward side, and walked the three mile length of the island. Most of the shoreline is rough limestone, perfect for trapping anything that washes up. And a lot of stuff washes up, forming a tangled mess stretching from one end of the island to the other. The most common objects here and on most beaches we've visited are plastic containers, polypropylene rope, and footwear. The plastic bottles and rope we understand. Discarded soda bottles are found everywhere; and ropes and nets are widely used in fishing and commercial shipping. But why the great number of single shoes and sandals? We can only conclude that world wide there are millions of partly shod individuals limping around, scanning the horizon for their missing sneakers.
Of course, many types of plastic -- whether in the form of sandals, bottles or rope -- float, which is why they end up on the beach rather than on the bottom of the ocean. Before the advent of synthetic materials, the beaches of the planet must have been relatively bare -- not littered with all manner of plastic things such as children's toys. When we walked the coast of Water Cay, we kept on stumbling upon dismembered doll remains. A headless torso here, a leg there, an arm somewhere else; it was pretty gruesome. Eileen is convinced there's some psycho killer out there slaughtering unsuspecting Barbies and Kens. "How depraved can you get?" she asked as she spotted yet another battered victim among the rocks, staring blankly at the sky.
Eileen searched for interesting pieces of driftwood hidden among all the plastic trash. She picked up a twisted specimen and said, "Hey, guess what this is?"
"Uh, looks like a chunk of wood," David replied.
"What? Are you blind? It's obviously a horse. See, here's its head and the curve of its back and its flowing tail."
David looked at the wood more closely. "Your horse has only three legs."
"Don't be so picky," Eileen sniffed. "It's a perfectly good horse if you have the least bit of imagination."
Within twenty minutes Eileen had recovered a crippled dragon, a lopsided bird, and a deformed porpoise. David had found a plastic milk crate. "Perfect for storing my paint tins on the boat," he said.
"I've got a better use for it," Eileen said. She put her menagerie in the crate and handed it back to David. "I should have known better," he said.
With David carrying her driftwood collection, Eileen turned her attention to other forms of treasure. There were several plastic fishing floats lying around. She picked up an orange one about the size of a volleyball.
"We don't need a fishing float," David pointed out. "We don't have any fish nets."
"We can hang it up for decoration," Eileen said. "What could be more nautical?" She balanced it on top of the wood in the crate. She found a matching yellow float and added it to the pile.
"That's it," David said. "No more room." He pressed his chin against the top float to keep it from rolling off the heap.
Eileen took a plastic shopping bag out of her pocket. "No problem, we're going after sea beans now." Sea beans are the seeds of tropical vines, or lianas, that are washed into streams by torrential rains. They are carried out to sea where they may ride the ocean currents for months or even years, eventually landing on distant shores thousands of miles away from where they originated. By the time one ends up on the beach of, say, Water Cay, it might be looking pretty scruffy from its long sojourn at sea. Once it's polished, however, the bean will take on a deep chocolate lustre.
The most common of the seafaring beans is the sea heart that is produced by the monkey ladder vine (Entada gigas), which has the distinction of being the world's largest legume; its bean pods can grow to be six feet long. As its name suggests, the bean is vaguely heart shaped. Sea hearts also have a long nautical association. Because they're capable of surviving major ocean passages, early mariners kept them as talismans. In fact, legend has it that Christopher Columbus pocketed a few on his voyages of discovery; to this day, the Portuguese residents of the Azores apparently call them "fava de Colom" or Columbus beans.
Water Cay turned out to be good sea heart territory and in no time Eileen had half filled her plastic bag with beans. Even David found a couple to add to the cause. But Eileen really wanted to find some hamburger beans and, if she was lucky, maybe a Mary's bean or two. Hamburger beans are smaller than sea hearts and look, well, like miniature hamburgers. They're relatively rare; a cruising friend claimed that she could get $60 for a polished hamburger bean pendant. Mary's beans are even more elusive. They're about the size and shape of hamburger beans, but have a cross-shaped groove on one side. In her entire bean collecting career, Eileen has found only four Mary's beans. After three hours of searching Water Cay, Eileen came up with five hamburger beans, but no Mary's beans. She figured that was pretty good, all things considered. David tied his previous record by finding no hamburger beans and no Mary's beans.
When we got back to the boat David asked Eileen what she planned to do with her beans. "I'm going to polish them," she said. "It should be kind of relaxing, almost therapeutic."
The next morning, Eileen got out several sheets of sandpaper, ranging from coarse 80 grit to very fine 1200 grit. She took the sandpaper, her beans, and a cup of coffee up into the cockpit and started polishing. After half an hour she said, "I'm bored and my fingers hurt."
It took the entire morning for Eileen to polish a single bean to a passably shiny state. She stopped polishing when all of her fingers were blistered. She handed the bean over to David to inspect. "That's beautiful," he said. "What about the others?"
"I've decided the best way to highlight a polished bean is to surround it by a bunch of unpolished ones," she said.