We’ve chosen 1,000 yards of Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore as a keyhole to peer into 21st-century living. My wife, Judith, and I have rambled this one beach hundreds of times to gather plastic debris washing out of the Pacific. After carefully collecting and “curating” the bits of debris, we fashion it into works of art. Art that matter-of-factly shows, with minimal artifice, the material as it is. The viewer is often surprised that this stuff is the thermoplastic junk of our throwaway culture. As our practice has deepened we have found, like paleontologists, that each discovery offers a pinpoint look at the whole of human culture. Each bit has a story to tell. We have been doing this for over thirteen years, with over fifty exhibits of our work, most recently at the U. S. embassy in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, and in the SFMoMA Artists Gallery windows in San Francisco. Lately, we’ve taken the “show” on the road—to New York City; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Redding, California and coming up, Fresno, California and Dallas, Texas. We write little vignettes to tell about our adventures and make regular posts to our blog. The following is from spring 2010.
I am alone on the beach, without Judith. It is unusual that I am alone. This beach is the site of our first date back in 1999, when we discovered we had each been collecting plastic debris for three years, prior to our meeting. Cosmic, right? On the trail back—spine aching from the bent-over labor, two bags heavy with plastic swag—I pass the time saying aloud the Om mane padme hum mantra. A throwback to my counterculture days when Tibetan Buddhism washed ashore in California, this mantra attempts to distract the mind from effort, as if you could keep the mind from wandering back to the burn of pain. The bag handles pull into the putty flesh of my hands. I’ve been hard at it picking up plastic debris from a lonely 1,000 yards of beach. Gravity. Om mane padme hum. In the early seventies, when gurus were flooding the spiritual marketplace, I learned to chant om mane padme hum. It means different things to different people, but for me there is something about the jewel and the lotus, which I always took to mean, “The jewel is in the lotus.” The jewel is the fire of life aflame inside the meat of the body, the lotus. As I recite, I feel the burning cells in my sore back, burning all the way to when the first cells were kindled as autotrophs—self-sustaining creatures. I had drifted off to sleep last night reading about these pioneers of life; the fossils of these little beings were recently found in Archaean chert. Om mane padme hum. These oldest cells yet found, appearing as beads on a string, were blue-green algae from 3.65 billion years ago, locked in the glassy brown rock, sliced paper-thin to reveal themselves under a microscope. Om mane padme hum. Some time perspective is needed here: I’m musing, I’m schlepping, I’m thinking. What is one million seconds? Twelve days. Hmmm. What is a billion seconds? Thirty-one years. Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum.
So, I’m thinking of the jewel of DNA on planet Earth fired up so long ago and my personal “lotus” fired up just two billion seconds ago. And I’m imagining my new granddaughter’s little ear, which is a shape so fine, it is art, like fine-grain porcelain poured into slip molds made on the savannahs of Africa. And her fire is a conflagration of cells mad-dashing it to make a whole, thinking creature. She is a bonfire. Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum. I return to these bags of plastic lugged down the trail, full of polymerized hydrocarbons, hydrocarbons made from that same fire, hydrocarbons scooped up for burning coal, natural gas and petroleum. And the plastic becomes a by-product of all that energy transformation. Fossil fuels are a by-product of life, and our synthetic energy transformation to plastic, a by-product of our industrialized worldview. Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum. I concentrate a vision of the glowing jewel sitting in a lotus blossom within my chest. Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum. Huffing in oxygen to power the effort . . . whew! . . . I’m almost there.
I’m almost where?
Two short films about the Langs’ project have been on the film festival circuit. Here is a link to one, an eight-minute video called One Plastic Beach.