The "Big Island" of Hawai'i is formed entirely from volcanic activity. The island's largest active volcano, Mauna Loa, rises almost 14,000 feet above the sea, and a total of 30,000 feet from the sea bed, making its total rise greater than Mt. Everest. It snows on its summit, even as lava, steam and smoke pour from its vents and the three other active volcanoes on the island. Lava flows on its hillsides define the landscape, offering views of solidified rivers of odd-shaped rock that pile up on top of and alongside one another.
Due to its position relative to the north pacific trash gyre, the island receives a large amount of plastic debris on its remote southwestern shores. Efforts to remove the debris have been fairly successful over the years, but the supply of trash swept onto the beaches continues unabated, so the task to keep them clean is Sisyphean, at best.
And what to do with the trash once it is removed? Where does trash go on an island? Does clearing the beaches of it, only to bury it elsewhere, help? Or does its removal make people less aware of the problems of the gyres and plastic debris, just as out sight usually means out of mind?
I became interested in plastic debris on Kamilo Beach on the Big Island when I read an report in the New York Times about a Geological Society of America (GSA) paper that claimed that the debris, when melted or otherwise combined with rock on the beach, would become a horizon marker for the Anthropocene, or, in other words, fossils that will proclaim our presence on the earth millions of years from now. Evidently, it is human action, both the inadvertent and purposeful burning of the plastic, that caused it to melt and fuse with the rock on the beach.
The geologists coined the term "plastiglomerate" to refer to these hybrid "stones," and attempted to make the case for how their prevalence, location and composition make it likely for them to survive for thousands of millennia. They will form portraits of us out into the unforeseeable and unending passage of time.
I contacted the lead author of the paper, a Canadian geologist, to see if I could access samples of the plastiglomerates, with the idea of possibly photographing them. She referred me to the last of three authors on the paper, a visual artist, whose role in the research received no mention in the GSA article and whose listing as an author puzzled me. When I contacted her, the visual artist kindly responded to my queries but was not willing to share the samples saying that they has already been incorporated into her work as "readymades" and were slated to go on display in a few art galleries. This irony that plastic debris fused with volcanic rock from a Hawai'ian beach, an anathema to sunbathers and environmentalists alike, would be serving as a rarified piece of "art" was not lost on me - and serves as an abject lesson on how context is everything.
My short correspondence with the visual artist in possession of the GSA article's plastiglomerate samples made it clear that if I wanted to see and acquire plastiglomerates myself, I would have to go and get them. As she said, the article was clear as to where and how they could be located. So I went to Hawai'i.
With the help of a wonderful person who lives in the town of Volcano on the Big Island and who has years of experience of beach combing and trash removal, I managed to pilot a Jeep over some rough territory to find myself on Kamilo Beach almost two years after I first read about it.
I photographed the plastiglomerates and various other views with two cameras to provide stereoscopic images that can be viewed with a 3-D effect. These images are the ones with three vertical panels. The left and center images can be viewed using the "cross-eyed" method, which is explained here and is also needed to view stereo images elsewhere on this website. The center and right image can be viewed with a conventional (parallel) stereo viewer, as the center image is the left eye view and the right image is the right eye view.
Scientific expeditions employ stereo imagery to provide deeper, more robust data about what is depicted in the photographs. A geologist friend of mine tells me she was trained as an undergraduate to cross her eyes to view field imagery in stereo as a skill necessary for her research.
The juxtaposition of the newest form of earth, volcanic rock, with the newest, most prevalent and durable human-made material, plastic, deserves attention. Plastic comes from petroleum, extracted from deep inside the earth, itself the result of fossilized life forms. Lava flows are the innards of the earth expelled and exposed as tectonic plates shift and move across the earth's surface. Plastic is commonly heated and extruded into forms to then solidify as it cools, mimicking molten rock as it emerges from a volcano to eventually cool and become terra firma. Now, as conjoined "stones" the plastiglomerates are poised to return to the earth from which they came. In a million years from now, their immutable nature will indicate to future beings our current moment at the edge of the next geological era.