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‘Leave it Better’, the Ponnek eco-manifesto, is actioned in part by brand co-owners Scarlet and Sam’s continued plogging events along Cornwall’s coastline. Plogging is a portmanteau of the Swedish term plocka upp, which means ‘to pick up,’ and jogging. The latest event, on September 4th, cultivated a family-centric atmosphere to encourage a multi-generational effort in tackling plastic pollution on Cornwall’s coast, as well as raising youth awareness in the preservation of our dwindling sealife.
There is such a thing as a spark bird: it’s the first bird you see that you see with your own eyes that inspires you to love birds. I remember being eight, holding my dad’s hand as we crossed an Argos carpark and pointing to a grey, mouse-sized bird, and my dad telling me it was a sparrow. Sparrow, I repeated, and I thought of the bird being pierced by the arrow in its own name. It was not a spark bird. In the end, my spark bird was a bald, geriatric seal at Gweek’s seal sanctuary, with eyes like overturned bowls of milk. I leaned on a railing and, as a volunteer squelched haddock into its yawning mouth, I could smell the rotten cavern of its throat. When it wanted more, it let out a noise like a foghorn. It was my spark-bird-seal – the seal that made me love seals.
I think of that seal now, in the carpark where we assemble, where there’s a sign imploring beachgoers not to throw ring frisbees. Below it, a cartoonishly glum seal wears a plastic ring around its throat. The moon is bold as a pill on the blue sky above Hayle Towans and, beyond it, the sea, wrinkled in the wind, is unzipped by a single sailboat.
It’s a Monday evening, unseasonably warm for September, and we’ve gathered for a sprawling loop of the dunes and beach, armed with the tools to collect trash as we go. There are more children than adults, sword fighting with their litter pickers in the carpark, keen to get going as the wind picks up.
Sam and his eight-year-old son, Jasper, take off through the dunes, and the rest of us follow in a languid line, feet sinking in the deep sand. With litter pickers aloft above the clumps of marram grass, we jog between the sandy mounds, poking around in the weeds and scanning for litter, but it’s so scant that there is a scramble to be the first to grab the solo Calippo lid or bottle cap, the scrap of tissue that skids along in the breeze, the brown paper bag with grease spots on the seam. Our sacks flap in our hands, almost empty. One of the younger children laments that he hasn’t picked up a single piece yet. I’ve long resolved to no longer refer to places as ‘paradise’ if locals can’t afford to live there, but the word swims in my mind anyway as the oily sun slips down the sky and the sun-bleached grasses are golden in the slick of it.
We run on, and I hear one of the women ahead, telling her son that jellyfish have been thriving in the warming seas and that they even invaded a nuclear power station, causing it to shut down. I’m not sure how to feel about this. The collective noun for jellyfish is bloom, and that’s what I imagine now, this mute swarm of ghostly jellyfish unfurling like petals within the walls of a powerplant.
After a mile and a half, we escape the maze of the dunes and shuffle down a steep bank, shoes filling with white sand, and scatter onto the beach. The chatter dies away and for a moment, everyone stands and stares, hands on hips, catching their breath. The quiet is punctuated only by the white noise of the sea. At the high tide mark, the ocean has dumped out a thick wall of bladder wrack – dried and crackling in the sun. The length of it stretches along what’s commonly dubbed as Cornwall’s ‘three golden miles’. The seaweed is thick with fishing net - an ominous mix of green and yellow twists that stretch further than we can see.
The trash picking sticks are soon abandoned and we’re on our knees, pulling the lengths of netting out of the seaweed that hums with sandfleas. Jasper and I are at the back now – as we often are on the Ponnek runs – we both like to stop and look at things. Jasper grabs pieces of net and whirls them around, shaking the seaweed loose, while I hold a sack open for him. I want to tell him the statistic for how much plastic in the ocean is caused by fishing but can’t remember the figure – only that it’s a lot – that the weight of it is quickly vying against the collective weight of fish in the sea.
“Look out for these,” I tell him, holding aloft a plastic straw. “They get stuck in turtle’s noses.”
“I didn’t know turtles have noses,” he says sceptically, and he spins around again, showering us both with seaweed.
“Yep, they do. And one of these can pierce their brains.”
“Oh. Sad …” he says quietly.
“You know a group of turtles is called a bale?” I say. Collective nouns were my preschool obsession, the way dinosaurs or the Aztecs or car models are for other kids.
But he’s quiet, touching a finger to his own nose in thought, and I suddenly worry that I’m casually pulling him into a grim version of eco-disaster that’s beyond his years, siphoning him away from the safe world that other adults have curated for him. I remember being the age that he is now, seeing photos of gulls mired in oil, their feathers glued to their hairpin bones, then the hammerhead shark, throttled by fishing net ‘til its eyes popped, then the dolphin pulsing weakly on the end of the spear in the Japanese cove, and then Tilikum, seething and miserable in his toy-size tank in Florida, teeth worn smooth where he’d chewed on his concrete walls. I’d been unable to look away from the news reports, and then, unable to sleep at night, sweatily holding onto my stuffed seal cub from the gift shop at the Seal Sanctuary. I think of the name for a group of hammerhead sharks – a shiver.
We continue to pick our way through the seaweed until Sam says we’ll be here all night, and tells everyone that we need to just pick up the biggest pieces. We continue to jog alongside the wall of seaweed, thick with its unnatural colour, until the air fills with the unmistakable smell of death. We run on and find a dead seal. I pass it with my sleeve over my nose and mouth – it’s been there for some time – its eyeballs long gone – its head opened like a flower where seagulls have ravaged it. It is less than lifeless. I try not to think of the spilled-milk eyes of my spark-bird-seal. Jasper, curious, edges closer until Sam calls him away, and the stench of it follows us up the beach until we climb the steps to the carpark.
“What’s the word for a lot of seals?” Jasper asks me.
“A rookery. Or a bob,” I tell him.
“I like bob,” he says, and I decide he’s right, that there’s something good in the simple roundness; the fatness of the word.
Back in the carpark, we lay down our sticks and our bulging sacks of fishing net and sit on benches, hoods up against the dust brought in on the evening wind. Scarlet hands out slices of vegan cake. Jasper announces that the dead seal’s face looked as though it had been “slammed in a door”. It’s an accurate description – and I remember my own frank account, again, at his age, when I found my hamster cold and stiff on a school morning and came downstairs to tearfully announce that it was “dead and smelled of rotten fruit”, to my dad’s bewilderment.
Even with full sacks of plastic, everyone is talking of returning, of trying to finish the job. The children seem unfazed by the scale of the scene on the beach. One of the girls asks how long it would take to collect it all, and someone else starts basic calculations, trying to estimate how many more people we need, who else they might bring. Someone else tries to Google how quickly the fishing nets are being washed in. Scooping the remains of buttercream off his plate, Jasper announces he’ll be back, and I envy his easy optimism. Sam, too, is confident, armed with apps and reports of plastic hotspots, shifting ocean currents and westerly winds, plans of more plogging events going into Autumn.
The families with children leave. Jasper, with his boundless energy, sprints to me to say goodbye. I stand alone in the deserted carpark and suddenly can’t face the drive home, so I opt to dig a wetsuit and goggles out of the boot of my car before walking barefoot back onto the beach, then, to avoid the decaying seal, I run into the sea. It’s colder than I expected. Kicking off from the beach, my toes graze a rock. I hold my foot aloft on the surface of the water, watching the sea lick away the crimson, feeling the playground sting, and the blood that springs up to the tiny cut again, and I’m almost undone by the precarity of this moment – sure now, that this expanse of sea and everything in it is already slipping away. I think of Jasper, growing up curious and astute, how his first solo sea adventures could be marred with ocean acidification, microplastics, a looted seabed, floating garbage patches the size of cities. No hope of a spark bird. I think of the fragility of the sunfish, buttoning and unbuttoning their eyes, the salt and pepper backs of the whale sharks, the seahorses spewing pin-size babies from their navels, the dwindling blue whales with their corduroy throats, the dreamlike choreography of the octopus retreating to its den.
Recklessly, I decide to try and swim to Godrevy Lighthouse. I duck low under the water, my ears muffled in the pressure, and turn over to watch the pulsing ocean’s surface above me. I say the collective noun for octopus aloud – consortium – and a silver ribbon of bubbles unspools from my mouth. I resurface and let out a small scream of surprise, sucking in seawater, as an enormous seal pops up next to me. I cough loudly and the seal retreats and disappears, but then he pops up again, only ten feet away, brightly lit in the evening sunglow. There is the spark bird feeling all over again.
His head is a charcoal colour, with splashes of dirty white as if old snow has been dumped over him, and with brown tear marks tracked from his eyes to his snout. I feel an urgent need to absorb every detail of his face. His eyes are a blaze of attention; these volcanic eyes that go from a rocky brown ring of fur on the outside through to a middle layer of sludgy magma before they pull me into these fat black orbs at the centre. He’s close enough that I can see my reflection in his eyes – the dot of my head above the rolling waves. I try to tumble down through the layers, the membranes, and lenses of his eye, down the nerves and into his brain, hoping I will find something here, some meaning, some reassurance that this hasn’t all slipped beyond our reach, that it will be worth coming back here and trying again and again. But he turns and disappears again, and his dive leaves a white ring on the surface of the sea, some trace that promises his warm body remains below out of sight. This is what we risk ourselves for. The word bob – the best word for a group of seals – floats to the surface in the shape of a bubble and bursts – the word that means there will always be more.
By Eleanor Walsh