The Modern Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Plastics, the Ocean, and the Albatross

A baby albatross, which are fed the plastic by their parents. A chick can have an ounce of plastic in its belly and remain healthy; the dead chicks have twice as much. From the Smithsonian Laysan Albatrosses’ Plastic Problem,  photo by Chris Jordan.

"He prayeth best, who loveth best, all things both great and small;" ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When I was a boy, my parents had a worn hardcover book of poetry. In it was the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I remember my father reading it to me, the words thick and archaic, but with enough references to ghosts and sailing ships to make it appealing. A few years later I was a teenage male entranced by heavy metal music, and one of my favorite bands, Iron Maiden, penned a song about the poem. It begins with this verse:

Hear the rime of the ancient mariner
See his eye as he stops one of three
Mesmerizes one of the wedding guests
Stay here and listen to the nightmares of the sea.
And the music plays on, as the bride passes by
Caught by his spell and the mariner tells his tale.

Iron Maiden's modernized retelling helped me reconnect to the story, where it remained melodically embedded in the depths of my subconscious. Decades later I find myself revisiting the tale, for in it there is a lesson for us all.

He holds him with his glittering eye— the Wedding-Guest stood still, and listens like a three years' child: the Mariner hath his will. 

The poem begins with the mariner stopping a wedding guest to tell his tale. The guest is at first reluctant, but the Mariner's gravitas mesmorizes, and he cannot help but listen.

The mariner's tale is of a ship and crew leaving from an unnamed port, and soon thereafter being chased by a storm, south into the Antartic. The ship passes through barren landscapes of ice and water with no creatures anywhere to be seen.

The ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around: It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, like noises in a swound! 

And then the albatross appears. The crew sees the bird as a good omen, and indeed the wind begins to blow them northward as the albatross follows. Then, inexplicably, the mariner kills the albatross with his crossbow. The crew is first aghast but afterwards celebrates the act of violence, as recounted in the lyrics of Iron Maiden:

The mariner kills the bird of good omen
His shipmates cry against what he's done
But when the fog clears, they justify him
And make themselves a part of the crime.

Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean. 

 "The Albatross about my Neck was Hung," etching by  William Strang . Poem illustration published 1896.

"The Albatross about my Neck was Hung," etching by William Strang. Poem illustration published 1896.

Cursed by the murder of the albatross, the mariner and the crew find themselves motionless in the sea, as their supplies run out, including their supply of fresh water. This is rendered starkly in a famous line from the poem; "Water, water, every where, and all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink."

The "slimy sea" crawls with "slimy" creatures, and the crew of 200 men become so parched they can not speak, as if they are "choked with soot." Though they can not speak, they each gaze upon the mariner with accusing eyes, and hang the dead bird around his neck to remind him of his crime.

Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung. 

After days passed on like this, the mariner sees a speck in the sky that becomes a ship. The ship sails towards the crew without any apparent wind to guide it, and becomes larger. The mariner bites his arm to drink his own blood so he can cry out, "A sail! a sail!"

The joy of the crew is short-lived, as on board the ship "are Death (a skeleton) and the "Night-mare Life-in-Death", a deathly-pale woman, who are playing dice for the souls of the crew. With a roll of the dice, Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the mariner, a prize she considers more valuable. Her name is a clue to the mariner's fate: he will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross." (Wikipedia)

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon, too quick for groan or sigh, each turned his face with a ghastly pang, and cursed me with his eye. 

After giving the mariner the evil eye, the members of the crew fall one by one, lifeless to the deck. Their souls fly by him like "the whizz of my cross-bow!" For seven days and nights the bodies lay on the deck with lifeless eyes staring at the mariner, while the slimy sea and her slimy creatures surround him. At first these creatures invoke only horror, but as he watches them his heart begins to change, and he sees their beauty.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare: 
A spring of love gushed from my heart, 
And I blessed them unaware: 

The self-same moment I could pray; And from my neck so free, the Albatross fell off, and sank like lead into the sea. 

The mariner falls into a deep sleep, and awakens to rain. It soaks his clothing and his body drinks it in. It pours down from one dark cloud, lit by the moon beside it, as a wind in the distance blows. The ship moves supernaturally without being touched by the wind. The crew members, still corpses, become animated by spirit and work the sails as their zombie helmsman steers the ship.

The body of my brother's son
Stood by me, knee to knee: 
The body and I pulled at one rope, 
But he said nought to me. 

As the ship moves on without a breeze, the "sweet" sounds of the crew mix with the singing of birds and the sounds of sails and ocean. The ship becomes still for some time, and then suddenly springs forward. The mariner falls to the deck and lays unconscious; in a trance he hears two voices. One voice asks "'Is this the man? By him who died on cross,  with his cruel bow he laid full low the harmless Albatross."

The other was a softer voice,  as soft as honey-dew: Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done, and penance more will do.' 

The mariner awakens at night to see the crew staring at him with moonlight in their eyes. A gentle breeze blows on his neck, and after some time he makes out the shapes of the shore of his homeland. Mesmerized by the sights he watches until he is sure it is not hallucination. He then notices the bodies of the crew laying prone on the deck, each with a ghost standing above it casting light.

A small boat comes out to greet them, manned by a pilot, his son, and a hermit. The ghosts of the mariner's crew disappear and the pilot and his son become afraid, but the hermit stays cheerful and encourages them on. As they near the ship a rumble from beneath the water sounds, and the ship splits apart and sinks. The mariner remains afloat, like a corpse. As the trio take him on board their boat, the pilot and his son lose their grip on sanity. The mariner takes over and rows the boat back to shore, upon which he tells his tale to the hermit, his first captive audience. He finds redemption in the telling of the tale, relieving him temporarily of his suffering.

Since then, at an uncertain hour, that agony returns: And till my ghastly tale is told, this heart within me burns. 

The ending of Maiden's song captures the spirit of the ending of the poem, wherein the mariner is bound to wander the earth telling his tale:

The mariner's bound to tell of his story
To tell this tale wherever he goes
To teach God's word by his own example
That we must love all things that God made.
And the wedding guest's a sad and wiser man
And the tale goes on and on and on.


The Albatross Around Our Necks

 Laysan Albatross ( Phoebastria immutabilis ) - Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauai, Hawaii.

Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) - Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauai, Hawaii.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a cautionary tale, reminding us to respect the natural world. The idiom "an albatross hung around your neck" has become a common metaphor for a heavy burden of guilt that becomes an obstacle to success.

For the human race, there is an actual albatross hung about our metaphysical neck, and we should pay heed. Laysan Albatrosses are large seabirds that live in the North Pacific. They "have a wingspan of more than 6 feet, soaring vast distances without flapping their wings. They can go years without even touching land, live for more than half a century, and will often stick with a single mate for their entire lifespan." (ocean.si.edu)

The habitat of the Laysan Albatross is near the Great Pacific garbage patch, a vast "island" of plastic and debris caught by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre (itself the largest ecosystem on Earth). Located between Hawaii and San Francisco, estimates place the patch somewhere between the size of Texas and Russia!

Located on the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, Midway Atoll is one the oldest atoll formations in the world, providing a nesting habitat for millions of seabirds. Each November about 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses return to the Midway for nesting.

The Laysan Albatross finds food by skimming the ocean's surface with its beak. They inevitably scoop up plastic, often mistaking it for food. The adult bird is able to regurgitate the plastic from their digestive system, but their offspring are not so lucky. The adult birds unknowingly feed their young from beaks filled with plastic waste. Unable to process the plastics, the young birds die of starvation with bellies full of garbage.

Albatross: The film by Chris Jordan

Photographer Chris Jordan has been visiting the Midway Atoll since 2009 and documenting the atrocities visited upon Laysan Albatrosses by our plastic consumption. Jordan's photographs show the decomposing skeletons of the birds; feathers and bones surrounding colorful plastic debris where their organs once were. In an article in The Guardian Jordan is quoted, "This is a grief ritual. My intent is to help viewers reconnect on a universal level with living beings... Grief happens when we are losing love and it liberates us to feel it fully and therefore we can arrive home back to our core state of wisdom. Here, nothing stands in our way.”

His revelation is like that of the Ancient Mariner:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

A documentary about the Layan Albatross and Jordan's work, Albatross, is available as a free public artwork for individuals everywhere to host a free screening. See the beautiful yet haunting trailer below:

Alone in the Sea of Plastic

I find it daunting to know where to begin in healing the world. Living in NYC, I need only step outside my door to see plastic littering the streets, bags blowing in the wind, styrofoam packaging crushed on the sidewalks. Every time I go to a grocery store or bodega there is inevitably a person in line in front of me that accepts a plastic bag from the cashier, themselves on autopilot, to hold one or two easily carried items. These items already bound in plastic.

As the mariner learns, the spirits of nature will one day prevail, with or without us. Japanese scientists recently accidentally created a mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles. A Dutchman, Boyan Slat, invented a method of cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch, involving a 100 km clean up array, deployed for 10 years, that will passively remove up to half of the island of waste.

It is comforting to imagine that technology will save us and we can go on as we are, using up resources and forgetting about the waste we create. The wise, however, do not live like this. We should instead be conscious of our consumption and take only what we need. This begins with loving the Earth and all her creatures, ecosystems and offerings. Once we truly learn to love, every act of harm becomes an albatross around our necks.

Things You Can Do: