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The Humble Humboldt Roots of the World's Largest Coastal Cleanup Event 

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When you stand on the Earth's surface, it seems infinite, a place beyond dimension. A human is less significant than an ant fallen into the mid-Pacific. Nothing.

From space our world is less expansive.

Those are often the youthful perspectives when one appraises the future. Nothing seems so fraught with possibilities, yet enmeshed with such futility. There's so much to do, so much to change. Maybe, if one is driven, one has an idea and a place to start. But for the rest of us there's a question of luck and enthusiasm.

I was born in Eureka. Although I've been happy these past 27 years in Chico, if asked where's home, without hesitation my heart answers Humboldt County. I hunted and fished in my early years, played ball and found work in a couple lumber mills, the Public Guardian's Office, the Public Health Department, the Humboldt State University Foundation on an alumnus-donated vessel. But I never had the feeling that I'd landed. Maybe that's characteristic of being young, in my 20s, a time for gathering experience and information. Knowledge comes of processing those experiences and shaping them into the whole person.

It's difficult to pinpoint a genesis and I certainly didn't recognize it at the time, but when I was a teen a couple seeds were planted that would take some years to germinate. And that even those moments are fixed in memory seems curious.

Underage, 17, four friends and I parked on our usual dirt road outside Eureka to drink beer. Typically, we broke our empty bottles on the roadside. So what? Everyone else's garbage went the same way. That was how Friday or Saturday nights began before we drove into town to look for fun. One night an older friend decided he'd seen enough to "kick the ass of the next guy who threw a bottle," and he was serious. The thought startled; it wasn't about "ass-kicking" but the strange notion, the first time a peer was concerned with litter. And he was (is) a friend whose words are worth considering. But really, who cared if you threw your stuff around?

A couple years later, in a biology class circa 1968, a College of the Redwoods instructor mentioned the word "environmentalism," explaining it would be a significant scientific field in the future. He explained the interconnectedness of all systems and said we would become increasingly aware of natural and human influence on them. Basically uninformed, I scoffed but made note of the word and eventually had occasion to mull the thought of human influence on wild places.

Strange that I remember and combine those moments, an indication of their impact when I did become aware of litter. The stuff was all around me. It was everywhere and I hardly noticed. These days it's difficult to comprehend oblivion when confronted by the garbage people leave lying about. It disgusts most of us. But in the 1960s, despite national "litterbug" campaigns, the stuff seemed a normal part of the landscape to a teenager. It was essentially so ubiquitous as to be a natural component of human presence.

Provincial attitudes and youthful ignorance aside, I did stop throwing around beer bottles and most other trash, though into my 20s I smoked and littered Marlboro filters every day, selectively ignoring that litter on the basis of size.

But ideas evolve. With time came a growing antipathy and I began to detest the garbage and environmental degradation I was seeing. In-your-face piles of broken bottles and garbage left at beach accesses. Old appliances. Mattresses. Possibly individuals were littering less than in previous decades but Humboldt County's beauty attracted a population influx that seemed to coincide with litter piles. That became an impediment to enjoyment of, particularly, beaches. Humboldt was my home and these other people were ruining the place.

I was living in a friend's beach house in Manila, which was then an impoverished area where rich people would live if it were any place other than Humboldt County. I began to burn while dodging broken bottles and trash in my bare feet as I ran 4 or 5 miles on the beach every morning before work. Then a manifestation of my frustration: action! My new girlfriend and I began carrying away beach litter we encountered on walks. We became somewhat obsessed. We were like the boy in John Updike's "A&P" — it's fatal to take moral action because it's impossible to retreat.

In 1977 I had the idea for a grant application to clean Humboldt's beaches. The idea now seems absurd — a young hippie finding federal funding to clean beaches — but youth and naivety were puny compared to enthusiasm. Besides, my girlfriend, now wife, Ann Morrissey, had experience: She worked at the North Country Women's Clinic on a grant that she'd written. Ann knew how to set out a financial prospectus. Working together, we finished the application in one long evening, I composing the justification and plan, she budgeting the grant. The beach cleanup proposal was conjured on a 1950s-era Tower President manual typewriter. I still have it but haven't used it since.

I approached the Northcoast Environmental Center, an Arcata-based nonprofit advocacy group committed to all causes environmental, and met Director Tim McKay to pitch the concept of a grant-funded beach cleanup project. McKay was dubious but said the center would sponsor the project if I could find funding. He proposed labeling the grant application the "Beach Beautification and Restoration Project," a more professional sounding title. The plan was simple: A three-person crew would scour litter from the entirety of Humboldt County's accessible beaches. I wrote the grant with the intent of doing community outreach to locate volunteers among juvenile offenders, schools, civic groups and whomever we could convince to help. At the time there was no plan for the project to continue past the two years the grant would fund.

McKay was pleased when the grant was accepted for $29,000. I had been convinced we would be funded. A young woman was hired as crew leader while Sid Dominitz, journalist and writer/editor at the Econews and eventual NEC director, and I were crew. We "rented" my 1953 Chevy pickup, paid me mileage and filled the back with gunny sacks. 

There was little planning other than to do it. It was that simple.

Arriving at Dominitz's Trinidad house the first morning, I honked the horn several times and Dominitz, coffee cup in hand, casually wandered out the door. Annoyed with my honking, he asked, "What is this, high school?" That set the tone for mornings we cleaned north of Arcata and stopped to pick him up. Seemed like he was always having a smoke and coffee or sitting on the can when we arrived. His timing was perfect.

Comes to mind the morning when Dominitz came outside with boxing gloves and asked if anyone wanted to spar. I was game and went at it with him. He cleaned my clock. Seems Dominitz had Golden Gloves experience in New York City. Pretty funny, though I was furious. Hard to remain composed when you're getting pounded. If Dominitz was still alive, he'd laugh to recall that morning. Working side by side, I wound up loving the guy's razor-sharp humor. He was cynical in the best ways, clever and quick-witted company on even bitter cold or rainy mornings.

In time our crew grew. The new guys rode in back without seatbelts under my homemade hippie canopy. That casual approach could never occur now and even then was an OSHA nightmare. Winter was miserable for the crew and the trip home smelled of garbage — mostly "clean" garbage that had drifted ashore, but sometimes nasty party leavings or disposable diapers. But ours was a committed crew, the way groups faced with futility sometimes bond in determination.

We had occasional juvenile offenders working short-term and were supplemented by two work-release crewmen from San Quentin State Prison. In the summer most of the regular crew worked without shoes, and the former prisoners thought that was a bright idea and got their chalk-white toes, hidden from sunlight for years, scooting along the shoreline and dunes. Except, that first day barefoot, both got terrible blistered sunburns on their feet. They weren't happy.

Once, one guy asked me what "my angle" was for working so hard: "Joe, what's in this for you?" He didn't understand we did the cleanup for the right reasons, since the pay was decidedly inadequate. By that point I was the crew leader and no one worked or pushed harder. I was a convert, driven to keep the beaches clean, influenced by the presence of other devoted environmentalists.

In addition to the adult and juvenile offenders, we worked large beach cleanup projects with several schools, scouts and assorted other groups. A Girl Scout council selected me its "Environmentalist of the Year." I was charmed and honored.

We started at Prairie Creek and worked south at every accessible Humboldt County beach. One afternoon in Shelter Cove, I found a $20 bill, a pair of new tennies in my size and a rigged fishing pole along the sanded logs, though most recovered material consisted of plastic, glass and tires. And diapers. Lots of disposable dirty diapers, particularly along the Clam Beach frontal road. What kind of pigs left messy diapers to spoil the beach experience for others? At the end of every day we sorted our haul, recycling what we could at the Arcata Recycling Center, and recorded our tally of weight and recyclables (the BB&R Project occurred prior to California's container deposit legislation; non-deposit recyclable containers accounted for more than 25 percent of our load for the year and a half I worked at NEC).

As expected, there were plenty of interesting finds, including glass floats and fishermen's effluvia, such as marker buoys, and I remember at Big Lagoon a fine rainbow-enameled cigarette case I found that contained rolled joints. Not hard to see how it had been forgotten. There were countless clothing articles and baseball caps and a Czech fisherman's hat I still have. We conducted a weekly avian fatality count for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory as part of the Beautification Project, and a marine mammal mortality survey for the Sausalito Marine Mammal Center. For the Econews front page, we once photographed a dead western grebe with its neck in a plastic six-pack band.

While the crew worked beaches Fridays, Sid and I solicited volunteers from schools and civic clubs to sponsor beach cleanup events. We discovered even conservative groups opposed to government spending shared our enthusiasm for clean shores, especially when they learned the frugality of our efforts. Put in the context of tourism, we were quite appreciated and became the subjects of local newspaper and television stories.

We knew grant funding would expire after two years. We had taken more than 21 tons of waste and garbage (and accursed abandoned tires — toted over sand, sometimes for miles) off Humboldt County beaches, all lugged on our backs to our parked truck. From experience we knew that dirty beaches attracted more filth and clean beaches stayed that way considerably longer. But we were aware the beaches would eventually revert to pre-cleanup messes.

About this time, I was leaving the crew. Ann was accepted at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and I was headed east with her. I wasn't anxious to leave: We had almost a half-year left before the grant would expire. McKay and Dominitz wouldn't surrender what we'd accomplished and came up with the all-volunteer Adopt-a-Beach concept to continue the work. I believed the cleanup effort required financial stewardship to remain successful but we commenced outreach while I was still at NEC.

After my departure Dominitz took over as crew leader and, until grant funding expired, the remaining crew loaded trash bags into the trunk of his old Plymouth. He and McKay continued the effort at what became an NEC legacy: Adopt-a-Beach, a 1979 project that, modeling Oregon's later launch of its statewide campaign, became the California Coastal Commission's California Coastal Cleanup Day. Eventually, CCCD morphed into the largest single-day marine environmental volunteer activity in the United States and the world. According to a past Coastal Commission report:

"In 1993, California Coastal Cleanup Day was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the 'largest garbage collection' ever organized, with 50,405 volunteers. Since then, the reach of Coastal Cleanup Day has steadily spread inland. Most of the marine debris that we find on our beaches actually starts as urban trash or street litter, so this continuing effort to 'stop trash where it starts' has actually increased the amount of trash picked up per person each year."

These days the highly successful California Coastal Cleanup Day is part of International Coastal Cleanup Day. Figures for 2015 show the United States contributed more than 200,000 volunteers; worldwide there were almost 800,000 from 47 countries removing more than 18 million pounds of trash. The international cleanup program counted 11.5 million volunteers by its 30th anniversary.

Adopt-a-Beach in Humboldt County, indeed, and everywhere else, too.

That this program — annually supported by hundreds of thousands of volunteers worldwide — had its inspiration seeded by broken beer bottles and a College of the Redwoods biology lecture leads us to believe in many things. That small acts, right ones, can evolve; that it's possible the ideas and idealism of the young can bear fruit.

Ann and I are proud to have written the original grant, proud to be a part of an effort we can all support. We appreciate McKay and Dominitz (both now deceased) and their devotion to Arcata's NEC. We admire the many, the millions, who volunteer.

Joe Abbott is a recently retired language arts instructor at Butte College. His novel Dickeyville was published in London, 2013; he has published short stories and articles in various publications, including the Chico News and Review.

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