by Steve Bivans
His cloven shield, his broken sword, they to the water brought.
His head so proud, his face so fair, his limbs they laid to rest;
And Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, bore him upon its breast.
O Boromir! The Tower of Guard shall ever northward gaze
To Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, until the end of days. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, II:20)
The funeral of Boromir is one of the most beautiful scenes in Tolkien’s great story.
It’s a powerful image: the fallen warrior, in his mail, his battered weapons and broken Horn of Gondor clenched upon his chest, arrayed in an elven boat, encircled with the weapons of his foes, swept away down a great river past cities, farms and fields.
I awoke one night, in the dead of night, to this image, and a burning question banging around in my skull, “Where does ole Boromir end up?” and “What the hell does that have to do with the book I’m trying to write?” Then it hit me. It’s all about plastic!
I know, that was abrupt. Hang with me here people, and I’ll make the connection.
A little story might illustrate the point.
Let’s follow the path of two ‘objects’ if you will, down two different rivers, one fictional (Tolkien’s Anduin), and one ‘real’ (Mark Twain’s Mighty Mississippi). I’ll resist the temptation to argue that the Anduin might be more ‘real’ than the Mississippi, though I could probably stretch that into a chapter all by itself.
We have two rivers. Into one Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli gently nudged Boromir’s funeral canoe, piled high with his manly corpse, his gear, the bloodied and bent weapons of his orcish victims, a few cloven orc heads; use your imagination. After composing and singing him a song, he drifted off, down the Anduin.
Into the Mississippi you and I will throw a plastic milk jug. I know, it’s not quite as poetic, but that’s actually the point. Let’s say we drive over to Minneapolis and chuck one of my jugs into the great American river, the central character in Twain’s books. So, now we have two objects floating along great rivers. So hitch up yer Huckleberry britches and let’s float along with them.
Boromir and his funeral trophies were swept in the current towards the golden falls of Rauros, and by some miracle prone to warrior funerals, he, his canoe, and all its contents were not separated or crushed upon the rocks below, but continued in the elven boat, over the torrent and on to southern lands, his homelands of Gondor. At some point he passed through the smoking ruins of Gondor’s former capitol city, Osgiliath, recently overrun by hordes of nasty orcs and trolls. Perhaps some of his fellow Tower Guard glimpsed his shadowy bier as it slipped past in the morning mists.
At some point earlier, perhaps in a particularly jouncy rapid, the cloven remnants of his great horn, the Horn of Gondor, fell from the boat and drifted to the muddy banks of the great river, where his younger brother, Faramir, discovered them, and guessed that Boromir was no more. The vessel slipped ever on and on, southward leaving the gleaming white tower of Ecthelion in the distance, where his fretting father yearned for news of his favored son. Onward Boromir’s body raced, racing past the port city of Pelargir, the great Bay of Belfalas, and into the Western Sea.
Meanwhile, my milk jug bounces along over the not-so-impressive St. Anthony Falls, past the two towers of the University of Minnesota: the Social Science building and Heller Hall. Trust me, these are not Baradur and Isengard. Though to look at them, one might guess they were built by the modern Sauron, Stalin, during the cold war.
So the little jug jounces along past cliffs and parks, the great cities of St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg (which–like Osgiliath–was once a smoking ruin itself after the Yankees left in 1865, no I’m not comparing them to orcs or trolls, ok, just a little), past the moss-covered trees, and whiskey-scented streets of New Orleans, and out into the Gulf of Mexico.
There our little jug is picked up by the Loop Current, a mini gyre (a vortex current), eventually to be swept away by the Gulf Stream, around sunny Florida’s oranges, north past Georgia peaches, Myrtle Beach-es, the Hatteras Lighthouse, over the Graveyard of Ships, and eventually reaching what’s known as the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.
The NASG is a current vortex in the Atlantic Ocean. What it does, is collect an enormous amount of debris, especially plastic. How much debris? Such great volume that it is commonly referred to as the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, an area stretching from roughly the
latitude of Virginia to that of Cuba! West to East, it spans most of the Atlantic from North America to the Azores. This is not the only such ‘patch’ on earth. There are at least 5 major ones, the largest by far, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is about the twice the size of Texas, and lies between California and Hawaii.
So what happens to our two cargoes over time? Well, we can safely assume that there were no plastics in Boromir’s canoe, though I’m sure, given enough time, Sauron or Saruman would have developed such nasty things.
Boromir’s body began to decompose immediately after death, and within a few weeks at sea, what was not consumed by sharks, slowly dissolved and become part of the ocean. His clothing of natural fibers slowly rotted and joined him. His gear, especially the iron, sank to the bottom of the sea. His sword, covered in silt, probably lasted a very long time indeed, possibly centuries, but caused no real harm, and eventually, over millennia rusted and disappeared. His wooden boat sank in a storm, was crushed by the pressures of the deep and dissolved into nothingness.
On the other hand, our little jug, constructed of man-made plastic, will never truly bio-degrade. What will happen, over time, is that it’s structure will break down into smaller and ever smaller particles, much of which will be consumed by unsuspecting marine life: birds, fish, plankton, turtles. Many of these poor creatures will die a nasty death. Many will not. Instead they will be eaten by a larger creature, who may in turn be gobbled by a larger one, until one day, months or years later, they end up on our plate, in a seafood restaurant, in some quaint little sea-side town like the ones I love so much back home in North Carolina. Yuck.
The Moral of the Story…
My girlfriend, Patience, when presented with my Boromir funeral/plastic jug idea was completely confused at first, befuddled to the point where we ended up arguing in the kitchen, at 5:30 AM one morning. To be fair, it was too damned early in the morning for such discussions, and my presentation pretty much sucked ass. Instead of waiting for her to wake up, drink her ritual cup of coffee and let her read what I had written, I just blindsided her with it: a bolt out of the blue, “Hey! So Boromir is pushed into a river, and just like a plastic jug in the Mississippi, they end up in the ocean! Get it?”
Needless to say, she did not. She screwed up her face in a ‘whatthefuck’ look, while I was standing there dumbstruck, with an emphasis on the ‘dumb,’ wondering to myself, “What the heck is wrong with her? This idea is absolute genius!?” Then, slowly, I began to realize that while the idea might be clever, probably not genius, my delivery was, well, not so clever.
Part of the problem, as she explained on the way to work later, was that she, as an English Literature type person, was expecting more allegory, or some deeper meaning between the connection of Boromir and the plastic jug. After dropping her off at work, and on the way to mine, I gave it some more thought. After cogitatin’ on it for a bit, I came to the conclusion that she was right. Here’s what I came up with.
While there are similarities between the two events (both are ‘stuff thrown into a river that end up in the ocean’) there are far more differences, and they are significant, even crucial. The scenarios are different in two fundamental ways: intent and result.
The intent motivating both acts is very different indeed. Aragorn and company were performing a funeral ritual for a fallen comrade. The act is meant to pay respect for Boromir’s life, bravery, deeds and accomplishments. It is to remember him as the great defender of Gondor and its people, and his final stand against the forces of Saruman in a desperate, bloody defense of the two hobbits, Merry and Pippin. The funeral of Boromir is respectful and mindful toward the sacrifice the great warrior had made, and with a realization that they are returning him to Nature, where he will eventually become ‘part’ of Middle Earth in a very real way. The occasion is ritualized with ‘grave’ trophies, and with song.
On the other hand, throwing a plastic jug into the Mississippi, even if it accidentally drops from our trash can, lacks intent. There is no ritual, though one might argue, as Patience did with me, that taking out the garbage is a ‘ritual’. I completely disagree, and I think I convinced her in the end that the word has been abused for so long that ‘ritual’ has come to take the place of ‘habit’, and usually not a beneficial one. They are NOT synonymous.
The plastic jug reaches the river, not through ritual but by habit, the habit of tossing things that have been used only once. There is no ‘remembrance’ of the jug’s accomplishments, but an immediate forgetting of them. Where there should be mindfulness and respect–for Nature, if not for the jug–there is only mindlessness and disrespect: disrespect for Nature, and quite frankly, for our own future and the future of our children and grandchildren on this planet. Once our jug is tossed, it goes ‘away,’ never to be contemplated again. It is simply waste, disregarded, discarded, and forgotten.
The problem is, that there is no ‘away.’ All things end up somewhere, if out of sight and mind. If they are no longer in our backyard, they are in someone’s: your neighbor’s down the road, in the next state, or in the middle of the ocean. They will return to us in very nasty ways, quite possibly in our fish n chips.
What’s the lesson here? One, we need to be more mindful of those things we throw ‘away.’ Where do they go? Are they part of a cycle, or will they do harm to us, the environment, our children and grandchildren? Two, plastics suck ass. Do I still buy them sometimes? Yes, but I hate them. They are the products of Sauron and Saruman. If you have to buy them, make sure they are recycled, or at the very least, make it to a landfill, which still sucks, because they will be there, forever. Find ways to avoid plastics. Start today. I will post more on that soon, but in the meantime, look around your house. How much plastic do you throw ‘away’? Can you cut that back? The next time you throw away plastic, think about Boromir and the Plastic Milk Jug of the Mississippi.