Art and Design

The Man Who Sees the Trash

January 6, 2014

Richard James, the subject of our January 2014 magazine First Person Q&A, finds the imperfections in one of the most flawless landscapes on Earth. Without his obsession, the rest of us might notice them, too.

Out on the wild beaches of Point Reyes, Richard James once came across a badly injured brown pelican, which he decided to call Sparky. James gently wrapped the dying bird in a sheet and carried it up to the nearest house. From there he hitched a ride back to his car, and with Sparky on his lap, drove for the safe harbor of his home. As he drove, mites poured off of Sparky and onto Richard. Sparky pooped promiscuously on James’ pants, seat and dashboard. James hoped to take Sparky to animal rescue in the morning, but sometime around midnight he came in to find Sparky dead in the tub, head lolling on the floor, body still warm. So in the dawn light he repeated the process in reverse: folded Sparky back in the sheet, drove to the beach and gently unwrapped the pelican to let nature take care of the body. He left a few poop stains in the car in Sparky’s memory.

Out on the wild beaches of Point Reyes, containers bearing human ashes wash up sometimes, occasionally with a request to bury them where found. Sometimes they include an email address; Richard James is the kind of person who honors the requests he finds in containers of ashes that wash up. He buries the ashes, takes a photo of the spot, and emails the photo to the family.

Out on the wild beaches of Point Reyes, Richard James once found the wreckage of a fishing boat that had capsized in heavy surf. Four fishermen had died; coolers, beer cans, fishing supplies and boat pieces ended up in James’s collection of beach trash. Among the wreckage was a Ziplock bag full of quarters — “Somehow it managed to float,” he says, “I’m certain it must have come from that boat” — and until the quarters ran out, once a year on the anniversary of the wreck James took out a few of them and bought a coffee in honor of the deceased.

Richard James carries several cameras with him at all times and through their lenses he charts a remarkable, contrary course through the seashore. Sometimes he photographs the savage glory of the windswept edge of the Earth: pelicans soaring over surf spray, godwits darkening the sky above Tomales Bay, the sun melting into the seething Pacific. Mostly, though, he photographs the savage nature of the human species as it manifests in his corner of the universe: high-tech boat detritus washed up from the America’s Cup, birds wrapped in fishing gear, discarded oyster mats sunk deep in eelgrass beds.

For years James, a park volunteer, has patrolled the coast looking for trash to pick up and interesting things to photograph. He comes home and pours it all into his blog at rants, bird photos, litter photos, philosophy.

I met him at the beach and we drove out to one of his major trash collection sites, and yes, he has collected so much beach litter over the years that he now stores it in caches up and down the coast for future hauling. The cache is neatly organized into departments: light bulbs, heavy stuff, baseballs. He tries to always take the lightweight plastic stuff out on the same day he collects it, so it doesn’t blow away.

Beach trash imposes itself on James. He cannot avoid it, cannot escape it, cannot help seeing it. “You could say I was obsessed,” he says, “but it just disgusts me.”

The beach, today, looks lonely. A glowering fog hangs over Point Reyes and the wind is kicking up whitecaps on the gray ocean. James walks the emptiness and he notices the trash. A buoy, an old friend, that is growing beautiful barnacles. Some car parts. A Christmas tree. A squeeze bottle of mustard.

You can tell the seasons, he says, from what you find washed up here. Spring means water bottles. Summer means graduation balloons. Winter means crab fishing gear. Salmon season means beer cans, fishing line and exploded coolers.

James tracks almost all of his beach visits with a GPS. The map looks like a diagram of the circulatory system: a huge artery where he regularly arrives and leaves the beach, then a starburst of white capillaries stretching for miles north and south.

The cold west wind blows as we walk. Long ocean swells roll in and crash on the deserted beach. Gulls wheel and cry. On a gloomy morning it is still heart-breakingly beautiful.

But Richard James is cursed to see the trash.

“Sometimes it’s very depressing,” he says.

He tries to come out and ignore the trash, but the temptation is too great. “Take smaller bites,” he says, of the advice he gives himself but too often ignores, because “there’s so much to bite out here. There’s so much trash.”

Out on the wild beaches of Point Reyes, plastic bottles wash up by the hundreds. They come from all over. Richard James is the kind of guy who picks up a faded piece of plastic and says, “Oh, that’s an Indonesian water bottle.” You learn strange lessons when you try to pick up after the world.

Pick up Bay Nature’s January issue and read about him in his own words.

About the Author

Eric Simons is a former digital editor at Bay Nature. He is author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans and Darwin Slept Here, and is coauthor, with Tessa Hill, of At Every Depth: Our Growing Knowledge of the Changing Oceans.