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Soul Searching

Tom Saretsky


Of garbage and the albatross around our necks

In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The idiomatic expression, “wearing an albatross around your neck,” originated from this poem. It’s an expression that suggests how guilt becomes an obstacle to success. According to maritime superstition it is considered unlucky to kill an albatross — a graceful large white sea bird. In the poem, the mariner kills an albatross. When their ship is becalmed near the equator and the crew runs out of water, his shipmates, in anger and frustration toward the mariner, force him to wear the dead bird around his neck.

It’s a fascinating expression that should resonate throughout our world today because we, as residents of this planet, are collectively wearing an albatross around our necks. Not long ago, the CBC Radio program “As It Happens” featured an interview with the director of a new documentary film called Albatross. The film hopes to attract attention to the alarming calamity of dead and decomposing albatross chicks on the remote island of Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific.

The birds are being fed plastic by their parents, who soar out over the sea collecting what looks like food to bring back to their young. On a diet of plastic garbage, tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on this island every year from starvation, toxicity and choking. The carnage is horrifying. In the midst of decomposition, the plastic retains its vibrant colour. The plastic could still be re-used. The dead chicks, not so much.

It is incomprehensible that tons of garbage ends up in the bodies of albatrosses on this island every year. Piles of our bottle caps, plastic bags, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, find their way to the stomachs of baby birds on one of the most remote islands on earth.

Because of this calamity we must ask the question, are we harming our planet’s ability to support life — including our own? Is the message conveyed by these dead and dying creatures alarming enough to awaken us to a more sensible relationship with the earth? If the answer is no, then what more will it take to awaken us?

Environmental clubs, organizations and public awareness campaigns exist to raise awareness for environmental concerns. Unfortunately, the stigmatization of those who champion environmental causes remains. They’re either branded as “tree huggers,” or dismissed as irrelevant, because “pollution is simply the price you pay for progress.” It’s insane that this mindset still exists despite the overwhelming climate-altering, species-vanishing, habitat-destroying evidence that continues to pile up.

Unless we literally change the way we are living, we are heading toward an environmental catastrophe. Plastic in the stomachs of dead birds on a remote island in the Pacific — dead albatrosses around all of our necks.

The words of Elizabeth Tapia, Philippine environmental missionary, say it best:

“I believe in the sacredness of the earth, the integrity of the whole of creation and dignity of all people and creatures. We believe in a gracious God who created humankind — male and female, and gave them the responsibility to take care of the earth. We need to care.

“I believe that when we destroy the earth, we eventually destroy ourselves. We must protect and preserve the earth not only for our own survival, but for the sake of our mother earth. The time to change is now. I believe we need to change our ways, values, lifestyle and ways of relating with creation. We need to live in the sense of people and creation. For I believe in the inter-wovenness of life. Creator and Creatures. Cosmic and Individual. West, North, East, South. Rest and Prayer. Food and Freedom. Theology and Ecology. I therefore commit myself, together with you, to take care of mother earth. To advocate for peace and justice. To choose and celebrate life. Amen.”

Perhaps we should adopt these words as our new creed.

Saretsky is a teacher and chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Norma, have two children, Nathan and Jenna.