Shaping Beauty from the Dying World

This is a short post, really just a place to think out loud.


What am I thinking about these days? Garbage.


How am I thinking about it? In terms of aesthetics.


Exactly a year ago, the New York Times published a story using images from The Ocean Cleanup Foundation about the crap found in our oceans.


The photos are devastating. They’re also beautiful: the contents of a sea turtle’s stomach photographed so that you could hang it on your wall.

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation

A ghost net, brilliant and sculptural against the bright blue sky.

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation

A Styrofoam buoy, exquisitely detailed against a flat gray background.

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation

A lot of my novel, Pigs, is about garbage. And I took great pleasure in writing lists of things we throw away:


There were plastic sandwich bags with half eaten salami sandwiches, and shoes from K Mart that had never fit anyway and were tossed into the garbage with their tags still on. There were peace treaties in broken frames, covered in ketchup from the tons and tons of single serving packets that get thrown away with empty bags of fries. There was advice that came whispering ashore, the words of parents to their teenage children—use protection. Make sure he loves you. There’s nothing wrong with waiting. There were cars that had worked until they’d hit their 200,000 mile mark, and then had just turned over once more and died. There were bathtubs that no one realized could be re-enameled, and hypodermic needles that really should be thrown away and were exactly where they belonged, and there was spaghetti and sauce left over from all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinners. There were birth control provisions from health care plans, and moldy rice, and moldy bread, and moldy cheese that was supposed to be moldy and had been thrown away by mistake.


When I was making the lists, I was thinking about how much we waste, but I was also thinking about rhythm, and ways to arrange items so that they formed a kind of tapestry of sound. I wanted to write the discarded world as beautiful.


But, looking at the Ocean Cleanup images, I’m not sure how I feel about creating beauty out of ruin. When you look at these photographs, do you first see art objects, or do you first see the way we’ve ravaged our oceans? Does it matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts on my Facebook page about the question of using beauty to wake the world up.