That’s an old line. It applies in so many cases. On the beach, as we strolled admiring the scenery, we also filled a couple of bags with trash from around the high-tide line. I was basically digging through the winter’s worth of storm detritus looking for a specific piece of driftwood for a small construction, but we gathered up a bit of the beach trash because we had the time and the muscle. 

Much of what we carried off the beach was plastic residuals of lobster gear which had been wrecked by storms and was nobody’s fault. Then again, there were an awful lot of Gatorade bottles (also, “Five Hour Energy.” Is that the sternman’s breakfast of choice these days?). We pulled a couple of busted plastic lobster crates, an old boot (of course), and an armload of other junk up to the road. Soon we had a half a pickup full. 

“We’re pissing into the wind,” my companion observed, and although he was willing to help me, I don’t believe the exercise did much for his mood.

A few days later that last storm hit, and three neighbors tackled the mess around the ferry wharf, a serious pile of junk brought ashore by the “astronomically high” tides along with storm surge. You can be sure that was no small job. 

So here’s the dilemma: if we know we can never clean up the whole beach, not to mention the whole world, should we even bother picking up a little trash? It is beyond discouraging to know our efforts will be undone in a day. The work just makes our hands dirty, our stomach sour and our outlook gloomy.

Besides, such starry-eyed do-gooders as we couldn’t completely clean a beach even if we had an army of strong and eager volunteers, a long and agreeable summer weekend, beer and burgers, several trucks, a large excavator and a sky-crane. No one-time effort can reset a whole beach back to some earlier pristine, natural state. Beaches aren’t static; they move. When the sand shifts — and it will — more debris and trash will be exposed. The surface is only the surface. And, even if nobody ever tossed another thing overboard, there’s plastic both intentional and accidental enough in the waters to keep the shoreline sloppy for quite some time. At this point in human history, clean-up is well beyond a one-time, check-it-off-the-list project. It’s maintenance.

Refusing the straw, and remembering the reusable shopping bags, and returnable bottles and rope doormats won’t fix the problems — not the eyesore problem, not the marine ecosystem problem, not the storm drain and water treatment plant problem, not the landfill problem, not the waste of valuable petroleum problem. That does not mean we shouldn’t encourage those policies and small acts. Those efforts represent a start rather than the hopelessness of inaction, the malaise of “it’s never going to work.” 

At the very least, they represent not making it worse. That is something.

Maybe I am a sucker and a chump, naive and deluded. Maybe they are correct, those who see no hope, who argue that pecking away at a problem we cannot solve is useless, lame, even embarrassing. On the other hand, we might look at our Sisyphean effort as something akin to “painting the bridge.” The Golden Gate Bridge (and any important, corroding object that spends years out in the weather) is always under maintenance. Ships at sea, for another example, are floating rust factories, crawling with people who chip scale and repair equipment and paint everything. Maintenance is never finished. There is no satisfaction of seeing the whole job all nicely completed, no happy workman walking off the set, dusting off his hands. 

Engaging in some small act of regular maintenance on a chosen spot — a beach or local park or country roadside or bit of sidewalk — binds one to that land. Try cleaning up a small cove for a few weeks; it will become your own, deep down, regardless of who holds title to the property. You will soon wish to defend its honor.

This is not a job we can leave to the professionals (or to the chain gang); this is everybody’s task. One must do what one can, or the burden of sorrow grows too heavy. No, it’ll never get done, but people work anyway, because people are like that. You think I’m letting polluters off the hook with such words? Hardly. We were all children once, and we were all furious when one of the other kids would leave some big mess, and we’d be forced by a parent or teacher to help with the cleanup. “But this isn’t my mess!” we protested, quite correctly, to the deaf ears of some unsympathetic adult. No greater injustice was ever endured.

Eva Murray lives, works and writes on Matinicus Island.