Sunday, February 12, 2012

Moby, Duck

Behold the rubber duck. Plastic.  Bright yellow. Wide-eyed.  Buoyant.  Innocent.  Squeezable.  Sensuous with its bright tumescent lips.  A modern icon of the rituals of childhood bathing.

The very first picture I ever posted on my Tumblr blog, Mixed Messages, was of three little rubber duckies, each one riding in an empty cat food tin floating over our kitchen counter. That was on May 8, 2007. Amazingly, nearly 5 years later, these duckies in their protective cans still grace our kitchen, survivors of countless cleanings and purges.  Why haven't we tossed them into the garbage?  I wonder what mysterious rubber duckie enchantment has enabled them to survive so long.

Twenty years ago last month, somewhere in the vast Pacific ocean, a huge ship piled high with containers (containers are the business end of a semi-trailer truck which, divorced of chassis and cab, hitch rides on trains and boats and can be filled with anything; the essential tool for providing Americans with cheap foreign merchandise) endured a powerful storm.  Containers fell overboard disgorging their innards into the water.

And so it happened that out of one such fallen container spilled 7200 boxes of plastic Chinese-made children's bath toys destined for sale to parents of American children in need of bathtime amusement.  Each box contained a red beaver, a green frog, a blue turtle and, yes, a yellow duck.  These critters proceded to follow a new destiny as they floated away on the ocean currents.  The toys had found a bathtub rather larger than anyone might have imagined.

Eventually some of them washed up on beaches where they were found by humans.  Certain of these humans become obsessed with tracking the toy's voyages.  One such human (Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer) is shown in this picture with a full set of the escaped toys on his arm.

A different human chose to detail his obsession in a book called Moby-Duck.  The subtitle reveals much:
The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them
To me this sounded like it might be an interesting read.  I had heard stories of these drifting bath toys from my resident marine biologist, Leslie, who mentions them in her talks on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - an area of the North Pacific not far from the toy spill where, thanks to ocean currents, vast amounts of human trash reside permanently.  Leslie has even travelled to the area on NOAA expeditions.

Herman Melville published Moby-Dick just about a century before I was born.  It is a story of obsession and revenge.  Poor Captain Ahab obsessively sets sail on the dangerous oceans seeking revenge on the white whale, Moby Dick, which had stolen his leg, eventually allowing the colorless beast to get the rest of him as well ... and not a moment too soon.

I first encountered excerpts from Moby-Dick in my hated high school English class.  I immediately, and accurately, predicted that I would never have the interest or patience to read the whole book.  I suppose this was an early example of my lifelong dislike of interminable nineteenth century art.

The author of Moby-Duck, it turns out, was not an avid beachcomber, a professional oceanographer nor a life-long environmentalist.   He was, instead, a high school English teacher who chose to cast himself in the role of Ahab and to play his part against not a white whale but a horde of plastic ducks, frogs, turtles and beavers.  Turns out that the author himself is the real subject of his book.

Instead of setting forth on a whaling vessel the author of Moby-Duck seeks his quarry by voyaging on
  • a coastal ferry in Alaska on his way to beachcomb for toys, 
  • a research catamaran documenting plastic contamination off Hawaii, 
  • a refurbished yacht on a mission to clean garbage from remote beaches, 
  • a container ship braving Pacific storms as it brings us more crap from China, 
  • a research vessel studying ocean currents off Greenland, 
  • and finally, because the poor floating toys just might have found their way through the Arctic into the north Atlantic (but probably didn't), on a Canadian icebreaker as it traverses the Northwest Passage.
Along the way the author picks up trash.  He attends a toy convention.  He visits the very factory where the toys were made.  He discusses ocean currents, our wasteful society, photographs of bald eagles, types of plastic, maritime law, childhood.  He tells stories of his family, his health and his students.  And he writes about other books besides Moby-Dick - books which I certainly will never have the interest or patience to read.

Along the way he meets many colorful characters, whom he describes colorfully.  He carefully details his many largely adventureless adventures.  He wanders off topic.  He tries valiantly to tie everything together.  He weaves a seemingly endless tapestry of verbal flotsam and jetsam.  Or, possibly, he creates a huge garbage patch of beautiful literary tapestries floating on endless waves of words.  So many words, in fact, that the author's most meandering asides are banished to footnotes at the back of the book where they are set in smaller type presumably to shorten the book by a few pages without leaving anything out.  There are no pictures save for the cover - which shows a familiar rubber duckie, not one of those lost-at-sea ducks which the book was ostensibly about.

All in all, I came to think of Moby-Duck as the worlds longest magazine article, bright and cheery, plotless, nearly pointless, perfect for coffee shop or doctors' office reading.   I could pick it up briefly and then put aside for days or weeks during which time I found myself wondering why I didn't put it back on the shelf and read something else.

Confused about why the title, Moby-Duck, has a hyphen in it?  That's because Melville's book, Moby-Dick, has a hyphen.  Confused about why Moby-Dick, the title, is hyphenated but, Moby Dick, the name of the whale, is not?  Read this.

Moby Tags: . . . . . .

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