Thought for the Week – On a beach in Cyprus

Brian Curnew, Coordinator of St James’s International Group, shares his experience of plastic pollution whilst vacationing in Cyprus.

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Church Window Mask

Tessa and I have been walking with a group in Northern Cyprus. We walked in the Besparmak mountains, to crusader castles perched on the peaks. We went where the land slopes to the sea, happily protected as a large nature reserve. Our genial Cypriot guide shared with us his love of tree shrub flower and herb, and the air bore their scents. Even as the soil turned to sand, flowers coloured the ground.

We came to the beach, and one and all we were appalled. The wide sands along a bay miles long were strewn with plastics and other debris, up as far as the sea’s currents could carry and then leave them. Paradise Lost.

Earlier this year I saw the opera Rusalka by Dvorak. A water nymph longs, for love, to be human. Her wish is granted, but she has to stay silent. If her prince rejects her, for him it will be fatal, and she will be left neither truly of the lake nor human. We are all familiar now with “director’s take”.  This staging drew out an ecological motif which may indeed be lurking in the opera’s mythic sources. The human world she enters turns out hedonistically to be polluting the lake she has left. The story is one, unsurprisingly, of redemption, sacrifice on her part and final realisation on his. This time we were meant to take home a bleak ecological message.

Writers, composers, directors – preachers too – seek to inform us, change our thinking and our stance. How much more powerful to see that litter strewn beach. Confronted by the horror of what the sea throws back, we were appalled, and one and all we wanted somehow to act. Might not each member of a walking group like ours be given a sack, and invited to fill it?  Should not the conscript army (they still have national service) be set to clear it?  ‘Useless’, said our botanical guide; ‘it would be as bad again tomorrow’.  But we in our different conversations could not accept that.  That after all is argument for never using a duster. If the stuff keeps coming, it accumulates, more and more.

I do not know the faith stance of most in the group.  There and then we had been not just appalled but upset, and angered. What messages others will have taken away, I don’t know. But some were pleased when I said I was minded to write where people might read. For me as a Christian the response begins in what I have received from words in the Bible. Here I will look to the Psalms to say it simply:  ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it’ (Ps.24.1).  And this: ‘The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth he has entrusted to his children’ (Ps. 115.16).

I am left then with these further thoughts. One about the pull just to do something. Our sacks would, on the face of it, have made little difference. But the impulse matters, and so in ways unknown to us does acting on it.  This is the case not just about plastic washed up on a beach, but in relation to whatever issue. Further, that our thinking, outlook and stances, however formed, may come to have an import over time which is beyond our present imagining.  Casually dumping stuff at sea is for combatting, and who knows how or by whom it may be stopped.

Meantime, the rubbish on the beach alas accumulates. Our actions can be cumulative too.