Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Curse of the Albatross

Photographer Chris Jordan's images of albatross carcasses, bloated with the plastic bits that starved them to death, are easily the most disturbing testimonials of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch I have seen so far.

Images from Midway: Message from the Gyre, by Chris Jordan, via

These photographs remind me of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came ;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit ;
The helmsman steered us through !
Images from Midway: Message from the Gyre, by Chris Jordan, via

But the Ancient Mariner of the title senselessly slays the bird, which brings a curse on the ship and its crew. They are tortured with thirst before a visit from a death-ship, yet the Mariner survives to suffer:
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away ;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
The Mariner eventually makes penance. "He beholdeth God's creatures of the great calm" and "blessed them unaware." Then, "by grace of the holy Mother," he survives to tell the tale.

Coleridge's dead Albatross curses the Mariner with "a rotting sea;" today a similar trail of death swirls throughout the Pacific Gyre.

In a new profile in SEED Magazine, Jordan identifies our culture of consumption with the appetites of the Albatrosses:
"To me, the birds look like us: filling themselves with something that is not nourishing, thinking that it is, and killing themselves in the process. Isn’t that what we’re all doing as a culture? Our spirits are dying from our overconsumption of toxic plastic crap."
So: will the same death-ship that condemned the Mariner's crew visit us as well?

Or will we find the grace to save the oceans from a trillion plastic lighters and bottle caps?

Related: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, May 2008.


Rachel (Hounds In The Kitchen) said...

This post is a touching and powerful illustration of why we must pay attention to every part of the materials cycle. I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of Jordan's haunting photographs with Coleridge's poetry. Thanks for writing it.

Colin Woodard said...

Haunting photos. Carl Safina wrote a great book on the Albatross, Midway, and garbage. Here's my review in the Monitor entitled "Rime of the Modern Mariner":

C Neal said...

Thanks, all. Colin, you're the second person to recommend "Eye of the Albatross" since I posted this last night. I'll see if I can find a copy at the library.

Colin Woodard said...

Hurry before they shut the thing down again! Renovation is almost complete....