Plastic Sea

The thin ribbon of water that flows
down to Hamburg beneath
locusts and ash trees, but mainly
old birches, where ducks live and coots
that dart off mutely, smelling of the swamps
in the quiet old woods of Stormarn and Holstein,
is called the Alster, and is and always was
a river. It was made into two lakes in the middle
of the great Hanseatic city only when Adolf
III returned to the city from the crusade
in the Holy Land and ordered a miller
to dam the stream with mighty dikes
that would have stopped even the Elbe’s
flow. Then a northern sea spread out
amidst the wooden town; all the Holstein waters
of the Wöddelbek, Rönne, Wischbeck and Lankau,
the Sielbek and the Tangstedter Mühlenbach
flowed and could not drain; within weeks
the relentless element, flowing
on and on, grew vaster and
broader, grimly unstoppable,
until first the Outer, then the Inner
Alster (not cut off until much later), became
two lakes, turquoise green today and turquoise
blue tomorrow, and almost always roughened by
the west winds, hemmed by belts of dense reeds and
by now beloved for more than eight hundred years.

Die Alsterseen

So it winds its way, the darkly glittering water-
adder, past bushes and paths, through
the banks’ red-branched thickets. And
is utterly silent. A trickling, a softly purling
whisper is faintly heard when it has wood in its
mouth, stones in its bed, polystyrene panels washed
from a construction site somewhere or a spindly
bramble bush that got in its way and that it
drags along for a time as though
the winter-Alster claimed that
none need die as long as
they can play. It is black and half
a man’s height higher when it floods.
Over Christmas 2014, after weeks of heavy
rain over the Feldmark and the last scraps of
deciduous woods between Kaltenkirchen, Bad
Oldesloe and Duvenstedt, the Alster’s tributaries,
otherwise so idyllic, poured into the river with
unprecedented force and transformed it
within hours into an unpredictable
flood necessitating barricades
of sandbags to protect
the housing estates, and crowds of
rubberneckers were sluiced onto the shifted
shore of the Alster exactly like, as cynics said, flotsam.

Die schwarze Welt

Each black meter of water, rolling past ominously
mute, had the momentum of over three
hundred stacked-up fuel tankers,
by someone’s calculations.
Meadows, playgrounds, riparian
woodlands, the paths and many streets,
as well as bridges, lots, docks, a big shed at
the foot of the railway embankment holding God
knows what long-forgotten junk were
submerged and sank for days
and for weeks. Children
asked whether the water would
stay like this now, so high, so dark, and
so, so bad. Yes, I said to a little girl
with an eye patch, it looks like
it’ll stay like this from
now on. Ah well.
The world is
turning black.
And the neighbor,
arm in arm with his wife,
dog invisible, gazing at a bend in
the Alster where the river used to come
around the curve and fling its gold-brown
glitter at the bank, eyed the nightmarish
immensity of water and said hollowly
that never in his life, since he
sailed boats here as a
schoolboy, had he experienced
the like on the Alster, never had it
happened before, not even in a dream,
in which everything is possible, was it
possible. Too quickly for the darting pupils
to follow, the river rolled under the Fuhlsbütteler
railway bridge southward to the Free and
Hanseatic city. I saw three plastic
canisters and pictured a raft
you could build with them.
High water, said the stunned
neighbor. Floods. They’d always
happened, summer or winter,
in the fall or especially in the spring,
as soon as the snowmelt descended on Stormarn.
But this here, the black water masses, such
a draggled park, never, really, no.

Der Alsterlauf

Forced into stone embankments, the Alster
flows past the Rödingsmarkt and the Herrlichkeit
and joins the Elbe between Hamburger Neustadt and
the Portugiesenviertel. Six hours it takes for steamers,
freighters and tankers to reach the sea along the
deep-dredged channel. The three canisters,
a raft that will never be built, since I am
not Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn
and my favorite river is not the Mississippi, but
a stream by which I often linger to gaze at the water
and reflect on the meaning of poetry, these three
pathetic empty plastic containers drift for
weeks from the railway bridge into the
brackish Elbe between St. Pauli,
Finkenwerder and Glückstadt.
Their plastic, cast, molded,
punched and glued in a factory in,
let’s say, Hangzhou, before being shipped to
Hamburg along with millions of identical milky white
canisters, requires, unless it’s ground to bits,
around 850 years to decompose and
vanish from the earth, as long a span of time
as the two Alster lakes have existed in the middle
of Hamburg. Though no doubt what is true
of the soul is true of plastic. Never,
never does it vanish for good.


In a poem in his collection Rare Earths,
Arne Rautenberg, from Kiel, transforms the
oceans’ infestation of plastic into art, into his art,
for which he expresses his thanks (to the tides, the
motion of the waves, and to the ultraviolet light, as well
as to the plankton and the great ocean gyres), his
thanks for being an artist who can play upon
all the continents. Long live art. Long live
the one and only, eternal joy that is
artistic freedom! This means, too,
that everything wants to be art, just as
everything that is at all alive wants to be free.
Plastic, in the year 1800, for Friedrich
von Hardenberg, who called him-
self Novalis, the one who clears
new land, was an aesthetic term,
when he wrote that music, plasticity
and poetry were inseparable elements,
existing together in every free art, just combined
in different proportions. Novalis thought these thoughts
in Burgenland, in Weissenfels on the Saale, which
together with the Mulde, the Müglitz and the
Vereinigte Weisseritz forms a river-land
that he loved, and where he spent
his whole life. All four rivers
flow into the Elbe,
and so, at Barby,
does the Saale, where
Novalis went swimming as a boy,
naked, and often long into the night.


In his whole life Hardenberg never once
held a thing made of plastic. No wonder! There
were no synthetic materials, not even in the hair-
band of a tiny little doll, nowhere in the entire old
world filled with the murmur of the endless
forests, the stillness, the ringing of
bells and the stink of cloacas.
Yogurt cups; lids; clocks; cling wrap;
shopping bags; bags of all colors, sizes and
shapes; toys of all shapes, sizes and colors; cigarette
lighters; disc jackets; pens; car mats; disposable
razors; hub caps; combs; clips; ballpoint pen
cases and cases for cases; bottles; bottle
caps; automobile, tractor, truck and
harvester tires; bowls; plates;
eating utensils; bread bags
and card cases; cases for card
cases; cases for mirror frames; canisters;
disposable chairs; disposable bowls; disposable
tables; plugs; sockets; disposable socket boards; endless
lengths of wires, wires, in sacks and bags, stuffed into
disposable cases; nothing, nothing at all, not the
least little bit of it existed in the as-yet
undestroyed, unwired quiet world,
when Novalis swam in the Saale
without a thought for burning fat,
building muscles or steeling his
chest, but perhaps instead reflecting
whether the bosom is the breast elevated
to a state of mystery, and physics
nothing but the teachings
of the imagination.

Kupferstich Alsleben an der Saale

For the most part, the plastic
trash which the Elbe sweeps into
the North Sea vanishes there in the sea’s
dark abysses. The sediments of the long-since
ravaged sea floor contain inconceivable
quantities of tiny bits of microplastic
particles, mainly fibers, the sum
of which, according to the British Royal
Society’s trade journal Open Science, exceeds
by ten thousandfold the larger fragments of plastic
that drift in polluted water gyres, agglomerating
into veritable continents of trash, larger than
Central Europe. If each square kilometer
of the ocean floor were a lake, all
these lakes would be clogged,
one could almost say: shat full of
quadrillions of plastic fibers, all the way
up into the tallest treetops on their shores.


Nowhere on this Earth, at the North Pole,
in the Black, Red or Dead Sea, the
Caribbean or the Antarctic, is there a
large body of water, a coast or a beach with-
out plastic residue, report London scientists
headed by Lucy Woodall from the Natural History
Museum, outside whose façade of noise-insulating
windows the Thames sloshes past, regulated and
polluted. Floating in the world’s seven seas,
according to calculations, there are nearly
two hundred and seventy thousand tons
of plastic trash, a horrendous number,
but well-nigh absurd, for it is mysteriously
small compared with the galactic quantities of
plastic trash that all of us actually dump into the sea,
namely an estimated six and a half million tons, for
who can calculate the true weight of the plug
with which we are stopping the world?
Where does it go, all the crap of
affluence, you have to ask. Only
a fraction of the trash, it seems, floats
on the surface in the form of visible particles.
Larger particles break up in the swells, are ground up,
shredded, in part by UV light, into microparticles
that can barely be seen. If algae or microbes
settle on them, they go under, sinking
like ships, airplanes or a corpse
down into the dark
at the bottom.


Lucy Woodall’s team analyzed
twelve sediment samples from the ocean
floor collected over the course of twelve years,
up to 2012, in the southwestern Indian Ocean and
in the northeastern Atlantic. Four coral samples, too,
were studied under the microscope and in the
infrared spectrometer. All the sediment
samples contained microplastic
particles, mostly fibers, generally two to
three millimeters long, but often less than tenth
of a millimeter thick. The samples contained
an average of thirteen and a half particles
per fifty milliliters of liquid. More than
half of the particles were viscose,
which is not a plastic, but an
artificial fiber made from
cellulose and used in cigarette
filters, and increasingly in clothing.
Fish, skates, sharks, wales and turtles have
no use for the stuff; for them viscose is poison
from which they will perish, like anyone
who finds nothing left to eat but
plastic. The second most
common material found in all
marine creatures across the globe
was polyester; indeed, one could speak of
polyester fish, polyester water snakes,
polyester octopi. And perhaps,
once the particles are ground smaller
and smaller, until they condense
with the seawater vapors
and rise into the air, one will speak
of clouds of polyester or viscose: plastic clouds.
Due to the small number of samples, it was
impossible to compare the frequency and
composition of the sediments. But fibrous
microparticles seem to be found through-
out the deep sea, ten thousand times
more prevalent in sediments than
in the contaminated ocean gyres.
According to projections, just
one square kilometer of sediment
from the Indian Ocean’s deep-sea mountains
contains around four quadrillion plastic fibers. And
studies of the deep-sea valley, the sink for the whole
world’s plastic trash, have not yet been undertaken.
Darkest night reigns there. It is lightless and void
of stars. Nothing sparkles. And yet even there
breaths the vast world of the restless stars
that float in the sky’s blue ocean.


Photos: Inner and Outer Alster (lakes) in Hamburg (1), a black swan in a blinkered world, the Alster in Hamburg-Klein Borstel (3), the plastic pollution of the oceans and coasts (4, 5, 7, 8), copperplate of Alsleben an der Saale in the 18th century, as Novalis knew the town and river in his childhood (6).

(Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole)

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