s a c h a    s i s k o n e n

The Gentrification of the Void


The ad on the train says, “Experience it.” Step out of the hut and you’re in the water. Occasionally a palm tree drops a coconut right through the thatched roof of a guest’s room. That’s how authentic it is. Everyone sleeps on bamboo pallet beds. Egyptian cotton sheets, soaking tubs. The accommodations are five-star. Gourmet meals served around a fire pit. The mini-bar stocked with Coca-Cola products.

But no one goes for the beach, or the huts, or the coconuts. You go for the gyre. The tour boat departs from the dock at 10am sharp every morning. It takes three hours to get to there. Two and a half to get back. Over the ship’s loudspeaker, a pretty, young woman in a white polo recites facts about the gyre—its exact size (no one actually knows its exact size), the currents that feed it, the trade winds’ effects on it (you don’t really understand how currents work, or what trade winds are). She gives a brief biography of Charles P. Moore, the man who first discovered this place where so much of our garbage collects in the Pacific Ocean.

Certainly there are other garbage patches in other oceans to see, but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is widely recognized to be the largest and most glamorous. For the American or Japanese visitor, the GPGP has particular significance as the ocean currents shuttle trash from those country’s coastlines directly into the Patch. It can take five years for American trash to travel from the west coast to the gyre, but the more efficient Asian trash makes the trip in a year or less.

And of course, there is always the hope that one might see a piece of one’s own trash afloat in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth. Many people come in search some particular thing: that beloved toy forgotten one summer at the shore, the retainer balled up in a napkin and accidentally thrown away, a long lost prosthesis.

When you go, if you go, you will wait patiently on the boat’s viewing deck, up against the rail. Rocking on the waves, unsteady. You will expect the patch to appear before you, large, colorful, a mass of interlocking plastic wrapped in fishing line and ropey, green and white nets. You’ll expect to see things you recognize, products you have purchased or decided not to purchase or couldn’t afford. When the captain announces you are close, you’ll peer out at the open water, straining to see the first floating thing—a flip-flop, a gallon jug, a truck tire. But when you arrive, you will find, just as you did when you first saw the Colosseum, the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, that it is much smaller than you had imagined. In fact, there is nothing there.

You will see the gray-blue water, the blue-gray sky. If you are lucky—and you’ve always felt you were—you will see a bottle cap, or a shopping bag, perhaps even a piece of net, frayed and unraveling. If you are truly blessed—and you don’t even believe in such things—you might see some creature caught up in that net. But probably you won’t see anything at all. The trash in the gyre, broken down by seawater, waves, bleaching sun, has disintegrated into microscopic bits. On the tour boat, staring out at an ocean full of invisible plastic and sludge, a little boy near you will take the Matchbox car in his hand and attempt to throw it overboard. His mother will catch his wrist just before he lets go and say, “No, no, Aiden, that’s not how it works.”

Across the world, on Staten Island, the largest landfill on the planet has been leveled, seeded, turned into a park. You read about it in the paper. A landfill so large it could be seen from space erased. After September 11th, the rubble from Ground Zero was ferried to the island, sorted, picked apart. What could be salvaged was. What couldn’t be salvaged lives there still, a mangled office chair, an empty shoe, a tiny fleck of a skull. Leveled, seeded, built upon. A playground, a fountain, a memorial. You can go and play and mourn.

When you see the gyre, or don’t see it, you’ll snap a picture. You’ll look at the shot on the tiny screen of your digital camera. You’ll wonder if it will look different on your computer. Different when you get 4x6 prints from Walgreens. Different when you show it to your friends. They’ll ask you how your trip was. They’ll ask you what you saw. You’ll have to tell them something. They’ll expect a good story. They won’t ask to see the pictures. But you’ll show them anyhow. You’ll pass around prints of the empty, steel-colored ocean. They’ll say they expected something else. They’ll say, it’s never like you think it’s going to be. They’ll say, that’s it?

You’ll take as many pictures as your memory card can hold. You think you’ll make up a good story for your friends. You’ll tell them whatever they want to hear. Out in the middle of the Pacific is an island of trash. Thick enough to walk on. You’ll tell them you saw sea lions sunning themselves on the bottles and grocery bags. It’s the new Galapagos, you’ll say. In the end, you’ll tell them the truth. You’ll tell them you were going to tell them about an island of trash—with walruses and condor nests. They’ll say they would never have believed you anyhow.

To really experience the gyre—to have a meaningful experience of it—you must don a wetsuit, a mask, an oxygen tank, and immerse yourself in the water, swim through the scratchy pieces of plastic. Commune. Of course, that will cost extra.

On the ride back from the gyre to the island hotel, you’ll think about all the things you haven’t seen: the empty habitat at the zoo, the Little Dipper, electrons. You’ll think about whale watching and widow’s walks and astronomers. You’ll ruminate on the act of seeing, perspectives, the spectrum of visible light. Does your gaze affect the gyre? Have you altered it simply by looking at it? Can you change something you cannot see? As the gyre disappears in your wake, the guy next to you will say, “That was intense.” And you’ll wonder if it’s you. Maybe you just missed it. Maybe you need glasses?

You recently heard the story of an industrial designer who spent six months—a year—designing a new kind of toothbrush. The fat kind for little kids. All pink and green and blue, something that would make a little kid want to brush its teeth. More like a game than a tool for dental hygiene. When he was done, and the toothbrushes were hanging in the sundries aisles of every store in the first world, he took a vacation. Went to some remote resort on an island a million miles away from any place to relax. As he walked to the lagoon, to put his toes in the sun-warmed water, he looked down and saw his toothbrush washed up on the beach all cracked and colorless. The things had only been out for a month. He couldn’t believe it. A year of his life so little kids wouldn’t get gum disease and this is where his toothbrush comes to die? So he quits his job that day and starts an ecotourism company. Oh, that’s where you heard the story—it was in the brochure.

Back at the hotel, in your hut, on your pallet, privately, you will allow yourself a moment, a minute, half an hour of disappointment. There was nothing there. Well, there was something there, but you didn’t see it. Perhaps you should rent the gear, take the lessons and pay the extra to submerge yourself in the gyre? To be in and of it. To feel like a crumpled piece of waste afloat in this vast, seemingly endless lap pool. But. You’ve always had a fear of open water. You saw that movie with the shark as a child. And the lessons would be a hassle. You wanted to spend some time on the beach. And you’ve spent so much on the trip already.

At dinner, when you talk to the others around the fire pit, as you are served by the locals for whom your presence has created a job, those who have swam in the gyre will say it has changed them. Like a Baptism. They have emerged reborn as if from the Earth’s primordial womb. They are no longer the same. You’re not sure you’re ready for such a change.

On the beach, as you stand at the shoreline, the sand will rush away from your heels as if the Earth is crumbling in your wake. The sunlight will sparkle under the water. A breeze will rustle the palm fronds behind you. You’ll let the wavelets lap over your feet. Tangles of seaweed will twist around your toes. You’ll find the irregular crash of the waves on the shore a little annoying and wish you could mute them, or at least turn them down. If you go.

As you walk back to your hut, you’ll run into the owner of the tour company, the man who found the toothbrush. He’ll ask you how your trip has been, if your pallet is comfortable, if your mini-bar needs restocking. You’ll express your gratitude for the opportunity he’s created for you. You’ll say this experience you’ve had has left an impression on you—though you will not be sure exactly what that impression is. Yet. He will thank you for experiencing it. He’ll explain his plans to bring the experience home to the mainland. He will tell you of his dream to build a facility in California where a piece of the gyre can be housed in a large saltwater tank, where anyone can go and experience what you have just lived through—in a way. Like Sea World? you’ll ask. And he’ll say, yes, but without the overhead.

When you return home, assuming you left at all, you will unpack the spoils of your trip. Seashells picked fresh from the Pacific, postcards you never mailed, clams with googly eyes, a vial of ocean water purchased for $19.95 (part of the proceeds of which go directly to an appropriate charity). You will place these things around your home. You will give them to the friends and family members they were chosen for. You will send the postcards from the mailbox on the corner of your street. They will be tacked up on refrigerators, perhaps even with magnets from your last trip.

You click through the pictures you took, upload them, pick up the prints. A hundred photographs of blue water and blue sky. But one stands out. A choppy shot of the gyre, rough and foaming, contrasted with the matte azure sky. Flat-bottomed clouds float above the horizon. The sunlight slants down at just the right angle. The water glistens. You blow it up. Find a frame. Hang it in the hallway by your front door. Everyone admires it when they visit. Your father says, you always had an eye. Your friend, Linda, tears up when she sees it, breaks down right there in your hallway. It’s too much, she says. It’s too beautiful.



SACHA SISKONEN's poetry chapbook, Turbulence, is forthcoming from dancing girl press. Her fiction has appeared in Word Riot and Qwerty this year. Her poem about the state of Delaware, and the impossibility of its existence is forthcoming from Crab Orchard Review. Her work will also appear in Fast Forward Press’s fifth anthology, Flash 101: Surviving the Fiction Apocalypse (due out in October). She blogs at http://saskatchewanreview.wordpress.com/

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