[This post is proudly brought to you by Yasser Amin, East Coast Beach Plan co-lead & illustrated Dorcas Tang @earthtodorcas, Climate Activist]
My whole journey in the environmental scene started relatively recently. It was on National Day last year that I had my first beach cleanup experience. It was put together by Samantha Thian who runs Seastainable, Li Seng from GreenNudge, and Qiyun @theweirdandwild. There were about 15 other individuals there that morning and we even brought out a Singapore flag, all in the spirit of patriotism. Even though we were in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was an undeniable sense of community spirit as well.
9th August 2020
I vividly remember thinking and asking myself if traveling down to East Coast at 7 am on a Sunday was worth it. Looking back, I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to my past self for deciding to join that cleanup session, for that was the gateway to a significant portion of the work I do and the person I am today.
Before that cleanup session, save for some pictures I’ve stumbled across, I had no idea how bad the plastic issue can get on our beaches. I was able to experience firsthand what trash being on a beach stretch is like and also realize that there are people who would come out here to do this in their free time.
In the weeks following that day, I started organizing my own cleanup sessions and decided to set aside every Wednesday morning for them. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who would join me every week. I had friends who reached out to tell me they were interested and even had working adults come down on a Wednesday morning. Furthermore, some of the people I have since met on the beach are now friends whom I consider to be close and have built meaningful relationships with over the past year.
This month of August makes it a year since I first started cleaning the beaches. Recently I've been thinking about feelings & emotions and what part they play in the grand scheme of things. This made me realize that at some point halfway through my journey, there was a period in time when I had grown numb to seeing trash on our beaches and told myself that it’s a normal thing by now. Only later I realized that I was not allowing myself to process the many emotions I had on the trash issue.
About two months ago, for a week, the trash at ECP came back and was pretty bad. One morning, I had to sit right front in of a pile for a good 5-10 mins just thinking about it and allowing myself to feel all the frustration, sadness, and fear. It surprised me that I was feeling all these emotions because we were already expecting trash to be back during this period. Besides, I have seen much worse and by now it should be a normal sight to me. Besides, I have seen much worse and by now it should be a normal sight to me - but it wasn't.
I had to remind myself that this is not what normal should look like.
Imagine for a moment you're at the beach. You see all that blue from the water, green trees, and yellow sand. You feel the wind, the sun's heat, and coarse sand beneath your feet. You hear the waves and the birds. Even the water's salty scent tells you you're at the beach. However, all of those sensory inputs get drowned out because of the pile of trash that's in front of you.
These beach stretches - in the picture - I know them really well. From Jan to May they were relatively clean and mostly clear.
It was pretty jarring to see that much trash back at the spot due to how unnatural it felt. There was also a bit of underlying despair among other emotions because I was there just a week before and it was clean. I knew exactly how it should look like when it’s clean and thus had to come to terms with the fact that trash is going to keep coming back no matter if we clean the beaches or not.
Being desensitized is a real process that anyone who does work for any cause goes through. Be it you’re an activist, a nurse, or even a soldier in war - if you experience something that's at first really unnatural but continue to experience it repeatedly, unfortunately, you get used to it. All my regular volunteers have grown used to the trash at the beaches. Therefore, while all my regular volunteers have grown used to the trash, a person cleaning up for the first time may think otherwise.
All of this eventually led me to the realization that setting aside time & space to process and acknowledge feelings & emotions is essential because they give weight to issues that matter. After all, important things are worth giving heart to.
If you asked me to reimagine what our beaches and oceans would look like, the obvious & easy answer would be that they are completely free of any form of pollution and support thriving bio diversities. Even more than that though, I would really love people to be more connected to our waters. There is so much disconnect because physically they exist on the outer edges of any landmass. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that Singapore is a dense urban city island.
I wonder, what if one day, we had to abandon the land and find ways to live with or in the water? Then, will we treat our water environments the same way we have been treating our land environments? Would being forced to connect with our waters bring about the same relationships with nature that we currently have?
Tak Kenal Maka Tak Cinta -
A Malay proverb (peribahasa) that translates to:
You Can't Love What You Don't Know.
It was Wan (@wansubinjournal) who reminded me of this saying when I was speaking to him about the intertidal and invertebrate issue a couple of months back. I feel that this can be aptly applied to any aspect of our interactions with nature. You can't tell someone to understand, appreciate, or love nature when they are in a classroom, lecture theater, or over a zoom call.
An individual has to stand in the middle of a forest alone (physically and mentally) to fully appreciate its beauty. The same goes for the beach, ocean, or wherever. It's this first interaction that then leads to appreciation, understanding, then eventually love. Beach cleanups are just one of many ways we make it easy for anyone to have that first step, and in turn, come to love the ocean.
Are there familial or communal cultures and traditions that have been lost through generations that came before you? Connecting with them could be a really meaningful way to build bonds with the ocean and learn of our past relationships with them. Many of our elders had significant ties to our waters, and this in turn goes the same for their elders. There is a high chance that hearing out their stories will allow us to unearth knowledge that we didn't know before.
“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
I invite you to take a moment and think about your everyday actions and how they lead to bigger things. Last year, I decided to take a leap of faith, registered myself for a clean-up session, and went for it with a bunch of strangers. Today, I can’t imagine myself missing even a single week being at the beaches to do my own cleanup sessions. I never would have come to love Nature & the beaches if I hadn’t gone down on that fateful day.
Look, I don't see myself as someone who is spiritual nor do I often speak spiritually. Here I am, however, feeling as if Mother Nature has opened her arms wide and helped me grow into the person I am today. I've felt so welcomed by several communities in the movement and have met incredible individuals who do great work in advocating for the environment. This past year I’ve felt purpose and belonging - both of which I’ve felt the lack of before. If you are feeling uncertain or inertia in doing more, let this past year of mine be a testament to how life just unravels itself before you once you’ve made your move. The environmental movement is here and it’s here to stay. It really is up to you how and when you want to join in.
What’s your leap of faith? How do you show up for Mother Nature?
Yasser is an environmental advocate, Co-Lead for the East Coast Beach Plan initiative and Clean-Up Facilitator at Seastainable. Co. He believes in the power of community in order to drive ground-up action and love for our planet
Dorcas is a climate activist who uses art and imaginative writing to tell stories that inspire hope, action, and love for God's good world. Check out her works on her Instagram page!