Running along Cable Beach very early this morning I passed a couple who carried small plastic bags of a primrose colour. The two peered and bent repeatedly, picking up small items unseen and popping them into their yellow bags. I’d seen people at this before, collecting pippis, also known as cockles. Some collect them for bait (whiting love them) while others eat them cooked in garlic and herbs and wine. I sang to myself as I ran one of the old songs Dad used to sing with us kids as we travelled by boat or by car:
She was a fishmonger
And sure ’twas no wonder
For so were her mother
And father before
She wheeled her wheel barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying, ‘Cockles and muscles
Alive, alive O…’
I ran a long way before retracing my steps. On the return I passed the cockle collectors. I changed course to inspect their catch. ‘Are these to feed you or to feed the fish?’
‘They would have fed the fish, but not now,’ said the woman, a person in her early sixties, her skin fair beneath her tan. ‘Take a look.’ I looked into the bulging bag she held: no pippis, just sandy cigarette butts, scores of them. Her husband held his bag open. More butts, many more.
‘He collected 160 of them today,’ said the woman, ‘Same number yesterday.’ I stood and mused for a bit. The woman explained: ‘People sit on the beach and smoke and drop their butts on the sand. Later the incoming tide washes the butts out to sea where fishes see them and take them for food. After a fish swallows a butt it swells up in the belly of the fish and the fish suffers and dies.’
‘Look at this, and this’ – her husband pointed out filter tips – ‘These filters catch all the poisons and toxins, and if the fish happens to survive you might catch it and eat it.’
I looked at the man, his build compact, his face a scrotum. The white hat he wore had seen better days and even the best of those days wouldn’t have been much good. I liked the cut of his jib.
‘Are you locals?’
‘No. Bunbury’s home for us.’
I pictured the couple walking the beaches from the south of the state all the way north to Broome, collecting cigarette butts. One hundred and sixty butts a day.
And I recalled Jonathan Sacks, the immediate past Chief Rabbi of the English-speaking world (by which term I mean to exclude the USA), who quoted a vignette of two men strolling along the seashore which was littered with starfish washed up and freshly stranded on the sand. One of the two bent repeatedly to pick up the starfish and to throw them as far as he could out to sea. His companion watched and mused and finally spoke: ‘There are so many, hundreds, probably thousands. You can’t possibly save them all; even if you labour all morning, your effort won’t make any appreciable difference…’
The first man paused, starfish in hand. He regarded the creature, still alive, then threw with all his might. He said, ‘To this one it makes a difference.’