March Madness: mountain laurels, plastic ducks, and ‘roid rage

I apologize in advance if this post seems unusually grumpy; I’ve been in a lousy mood all week. The arrival of spring in Central Texas always has this effect on me. As the weather turns warm and moist and the redbuds and pear trees burst forth in clouds of colored blossoms, as the mountain laurels fill the air with the scent of grape Kool-Aid, as Heather and the rest of humanity get all goo-goo-eyed over the season of hope and rebirth, of pastel colors and eggs and baby chicks and bunnies, I grow ever gloomier, because I know what the sights and smells of spring really augur: the onset of another brutally hot summer. And in Texas, summer can last well into what would be considered fall, or even winter, in other places. To me, spring is the annual reminder that I’m about to spend six or seven months covered in a thin film of sweat. And did I mention the mosquitoes?

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a cool, even chilly climate, but after almost three decades in Texas I have yet to acclimate fully to the summers here. Heather, on the other hand, loves hot weather; our personal comfort zones have only about a ten-degree overlap, as once the mercury climbs above 90° I begin to melt, and once it drops below 80° she begins to freeze. Under the circumstances, I think it’s pretty remarkable that we’ve been together for thirty years and married for twenty-five.

Of course hanging over everything else this week is the dreadful news of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, and the grim aftermath, with threats of nuclear disaster. We can’t yet know the final outcome of these events, but I worry that they may be a harbinger of even more catastrophes to come. A story on suggested that climate change might cause more seismic and volcanic activity, as melting ice masses change pressures on the earth’s crust.

That’s scary all right. Equally scary are fears of massive radiation leaks from damaged nuclear reactors. We know that coal and oil and natural gas are all finite sources of energy, and that solar and wind power have limitations; nuclear power was supposed to be a sort of panacea, although we can wonder about the wisdom of building reactors in any place prone to major seismic activity. And then there’s that pesky problem of what to do with all that radioactive waste….

These gloomy reflections fit right in with the book I’ve been reading, Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. The light-hearted title and subtitle are deceptive; the book is actually a thoughtful, and frequently depressing, contemplation of the problems of industrialization and pollution, and, most germane to the grim news from Japan, of the unintended consequences of technological advances. Reading it has not improved my mood.

It does, however, tell a fascinating tale. On January 10, 1992, south of the Aleutians and just west of the international date line, a freighter sailing across the northern Pacific from Hong Kong to Tacoma encountered rough weather. Somehow, as the ship rolled and plunged, two columns of containers stacked on the ship’s deck broke free and fell overboard, and at least one of them burst open as it fell, setting 7,200 packages of plastic bath toys—each containing a red beaver, green frog, and blue turtle, in addition to the yellow duck pictured on the book’s cover, but who’d buy a book titled, say, Moby-Turtle?—loose upon the waters. As the toys began washing up in unlikely places, they attracted attention from various news media—who could resist such a story?—and Hohn became obsessed with them.

The book ranges widely, both geographically and thematically: Hohn’s obsession takes him from his home in New York to (among other places) Alaska, Hawaii, South Korea, Greenland, and China’s Pearl River Delta, the industrial zone where the bath toys were manufactured, and he manages to work in reflections on the plastics industry (with a nice shout-out to my old UT Austin American studies honcho Jeff Meikle), the changing definition of childhood, the history of American environmentalism, and more. He writes well and often amusingly, but the overall message of his book is dire: we are almost literally drowning in waste, and we don’t really know what to do about it. Apparent solutions turn out merely to mask, or perhaps exacerbate, the problem; sincerely well-intentioned people disagree violently about what to do. And more and more garbage ends up in the oceans.

There was a time when all of this might have been ameliorated somewhat by the fact that spring signals the return of baseball. “Spring training”! I used to consider those the two most joyful words in the English language, other than “peach cobbler” and “tax rebate.” But that was before the steroid-fueled nightmare of the last fifteen years, in which unnaturally swollen sluggers rewrote the record book and permanently distorted the shape and balance of the National Pastime.

Now baseball is all but dead to me, and spring is when Tito and I fill out our NCAA tournament brackets, an annual exercise which makes manifest the depths of my almost complete ignorance of college basketball. (I usually pick the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to win it all, because I’ve always been a sucker for their baby-blue uniforms, but this year, in case you’re wondering, I boldly picked Duke to beat Kansas in the championship game.)

I don’t know what it will take to pull me out of my annual springtime slough of despond. Maybe the Blue Devils will actually go all the way (or, if not, maybe UNC will pull off an upset). Maybe the endorphins and tryptophan in a megadose of Easter chocolate will jolt me into a more agreeable frame of mind. Or maybe I just need to find more cheerful reading material.

What we’re reading
Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Martin: Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

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3 Responses to March Madness: mountain laurels, plastic ducks, and ‘roid rage

  1. Cathy says:

    Gosh Martin, I am so sorry you are having such a rough Spring … I think it's all going to be okay … I suggest a prescription of sitting down to watch a good ol' toe-tapping happy-ending Disney movie with small children who still show wonder … I like to believe that even Grumpy reveals a hint of a smile at the end of Snow White! OR, a glass of wine with good friends outside in the springtime BEFORE those mosquitos arrive. I bet you'll feel much better!

  2. Heather and Martin says:

    Do you have such small children available for rental? Actually, I was thinking that maybe what I need is a good dose of the Marx Brothers. And I really should apologize (again) for being such a whiny complainer. I'll behave better from now on, I promise.

  3. Anne Province says:

    A friend today was bemoaning putting away her winter clothes for the same reason. "I might not see these again until December!" Never noticed how much Grumpy looks like Mark Shields.

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