In Praise Of Decay (and against plastic)

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

I walk each morning in some woodland near my home and especially savour in this late autumn, early winter season, the damp carpet of fallen leaves, now decaying and forming  rich mulch that will feed the soil for future growth. Even in their decay, losing edge and shape, melding and blending together there is in this carpet of leaves, a kind of grace and beauty. The other morning though, these meditations were interrupted by a sudden intrusion. There amongst the gold and mottled leaf mould, like some harsh alien excrescence, was a discarded plastic bag. It was totally out of place and told its own tale of indifference and carelessness; not just the carelessness of the person that dropped it, but the carelessness of the culture that produced it. The trees shed their leaves, and in that fall and letting go  achieve a new grace, the leaves themselves let go of shape and colour and in that change and decay become something rich and nurturing. That plastic bag will just persist in unchanging ugliness, and we who make and discard that plastic will continue to be maimed and made ugly by our accumulations, we who might have learned from the trees something about the grace of  diminishment and renewal.

But the plastic in our lives does much worse than just disfigure the occasional patch of woodland, it literally chokes the life out of other living things and then returns, in the food chain, to poison us from within. The morning’s Guardian has a harrowing piece about how prevalent and deadly discarded plastic is in the world’s oceans. you can read that here. One of the most distressing consequences of this plastic accumulating in the seas is being fed to young albatrosses by their parents as a result of which the birds, their bellies full of indigestible plastic cannot retain enough real food and starve to death. This has been chronicled with great power and pathos by Seattle Photographer Chris Jordan, one of whose pictures I have included after the poem. You can read more about that and see his film about it Here.  As so often, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was prophetic when he made the destruction of an albatross a sign of our wanton indifference to other life and our disturbance of a balance in nature which will eventually wreak havoc on us.

My morning walk, and the wider awareness of the damage caused by plastic’s bleak persistence led me to write this sonnet in praise of decay and praying for a return to older and wiser ways of living. As usual you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title. Do feel free to share this with other people.

In praise of decay

So much is deadly in the shiny new,

Persistent plastic choking out our life,

The landfill of each ego’s empty stuff,

Where poison and possession still accrue.

So praise Him in the old and mouldering,

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge,

In mottled compost rustling and rich,

From which the stuff of life is still unfolding.


Change and decay is what our plastic needs

To break the bleak persistence of our waste.

Pray that we learn the lost arts of our past,

The arts of letting go and sowing seeds,

That secrets of the lowly and the least

Might save us from the dreadful things that last.


 Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan's bleak picture

Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan’s bleak picture


Filed under Current affairs, literature

217 responses to “In Praise Of Decay (and against plastic)

  1. Ohhh, yes. All this. I have been thinking of these things in regard of Christmas and all the wrappings and cardboard and plastic containing things with no real meaning or lasting value, and my heart breaks. It makes me think of these words by Cummings,
    “You have played,
    (I think)
    And broke the toys you were fondest of,
    And are a little tired now;
    Tired of things that break, and—
    Just tired.
    So am I.”
    I fear my children will never understand the desolation of trees for mcmansions that need more things to fill them, more energy, more chemicals to clean them and keep their grass like a putting green, more work instead of play to sustain their shiny cars traded in every three years . . .all to what end?

  2. It has taken far too long for people to become aware of the problems with plastic, but many bags are now made of a type of plastic which is “biodegradable”. They decompose in sunlight. I’m not sure what the products are.
    The three R’s are now Reuse, Reduce, Recycle. Fleeces and plastic bottles are the same kind of plastic. Some pens bear the words, “I used to be a plastic cup”. The amount of plastic in the oceans is a disgrace.

      • Hm, “biodegradable” just means it breaks back down into little pieces, the same stuff that ends up floating microscopically in the oceans being swallowed by fish instead of krill. The plastic that should be more available is “compostable” meaning it breaks down into something that the planet can reuse and grow on. It’s usually made of something like cornstarch and is great for vege purchase and storage, kitchen scraps and so on.

  3. I was thinking just along these lines the other days as I strolled through the University parks. It seems sometimes like our culture is so afraid of death—even of a plastic bag’s death— that we would rather cause death to keep ourselves shiny and new, than accept the grace of decay.

    • malcolmguite

      Yes exactly so. Its as though we think we can have a proxy life in plastic when in fact its the plastic thats killing us

  4. Burl Horniachek

    Reminded me of this:

    “I sing to you of the deities of the Dictyostelidal slime molds, sexless and strange, at once a thousand voices and one song united. I sing to you of hard times when the wood has rotted away and the sun bakes the earth, and while as individuals we die, together we thrive. The divinities ask for sacrifice, the thousand voices demand it. Those who die to give life to the others, who raise up the new generation so that they may spread far and wide–these become a part of that sacred host, their voices immortalized not in cells but in spirit.”

  5. “The bleak persistence of our waste…” Yes. I often congratulate myself for refusing those bags — yet still I have a collection of them. And just because I refuse them, the same amount are still there in the store waiting for the next customer. Sigh.

  6. Burl Horniachek

    And, of course, from a Christian perspective, this is a type of death and resurrection. These things are broken down to their original elements, but only to come back as new life again.

  7. Dianne Mosley

    “The dreadful things that last” spoke to me of far worse things than plastic—-bad memories, hate, unforgiveness. These can last and kill, also, not just the individual who harbors them but whole societies.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Dianne that is certainly part of what i meant as earlier in the poem i suggested the ugly litter was a sign of inner ugliness

  8. Oh yes, fantastic. You say so much so clearly. I am a huge fan of composting and making leaf mould and have never understood quite why it appeals so much. But I think you have nailed it here – that and, yes, the sheer brutishness of our addiction to plastic.

  9. Eric

    Reblogged this on Long Distance Cycling Cleveland and commented:

  10. That picture really stirs my insides. Plastics technology is incredibly valuable, but we definitely need improve accessibility and awareness of recycling facilitates.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks for your comment, yes it is an astonishing and disturbing image. We will always have technology but we need to think about it in a much more long-term, imaginative, and compassionate way

  11. Just watched Winged Migration and tears came to my eyes when I saw this old woman who fed the birds that landed twice a year on her lands out of her hands. I think this is returning to the old ways, knowing that by feading these birds we maintain the circle of life. Can we have a life without polution? Can we remember that this is our home we are neglecting and destroying? Can we use our brains and hands wisely in the years to come? Clean up the mess for the sake of the lives of our children’s children and for the beauty earth provides?

  12. lalamooningxx

    I love this so much !! Thank you 🙂

  13. I am just starting my own blog to include many topics. But I just finished a project presentation about plastics for a sustainability class. It is a desperate situation we are presently in for something we thought would revolutionize our lifestyle. It did, however, never did anyone suspect that this revolutionary invention would cause so much harm to our oceans, marine life, our ecosystems and human life. We need to reduce, reduce, reduce wherever we can. In this global supply-demand economy, the only way to truly affect change is to reduce manufactures’ revenue stream significantly enough to make them stand up and listen to the people. I will soon be posting statistics of ocean plastics and ways we can reduce. So check out my blog on in a few days. Thank you for your website.

  14. I live in a town where people throw waste wrapped in plastic bags on the sideways. Can you believe it? All they care is keeping their home and sarroundings clean but not about others. Such a shame!!!
    Loved what you wrote, Sir. Good job!

  15. ihelver

    Reblogged this on ihelver.

  16. gregjoder

    What a statement the dead albatross photo makes! There are still carcasses of last years fledglings filled with bottle caps laying in various places here and despite passing by them every day it’s still a shocking reminder. Thank you for the beautiful meaningful sonnet and blog post…

  17. An indictment on our throwaway society

  18. Thats really powerful. Awesome.

  19. Reblogged this on bazibukatende and commented:
    this is a pivotal issue as regards the resources in our seas and that needs to be addressed critically.

  20. This poem and article are very thoughtful and the photograph of the decaying bird really brings home your message. Thank you for calling attention to this widespread problem in such a simple and beautiful way!

  21. Reblogged this on thetdarrisblog and commented:
    Check out Malcolm Guite’s thoughtful article and poem on the way we carelessly treat the natural environment.

  22. Reblogged this on #frei- und quergedacht and commented:
    Die Auswirkungen unserer verplastinierten Lebensweise kann hier gut nachgelesen werden. Schauen wir gemeinsam gut hin, wo Plastik gut vermeidbar ist und setzen wir dieses Material zurückhaltend und sinnvoll ein.

  23. If only plastic was biodegradable. But it is not and the crime of man against nature continues.

  24. A Powerful Post. Thought provoking and this subject makes me mad and sad with equal amounts. Progress or Regress?! Indeed one wonders if when the world at large wakes up to their ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude (wanting more to try to find happiness) it will be too late for our beautiful planet.

  25. Reblogged this on dwelling hound and commented:
    Malcolm Guite’s piece on the indestructible destruction of plastic and the beauty of decay was the perfect mindfulness piece this morning. I share it with you all in the spirit of keeping our beautiful world a place safe for us to call home. Sometimes I look at city living, with its train systems and shared utility lines as an almost greener way to live. An improvement to the nuclear homesteads seen everywhere else in the country. But our addiction to convenience and necessity for cleanliness produces the “individually wrapped” culture, where nesting packaging within packaging, brings us more disease and health issues down the road. An excellent piece. Enjoy!

  26. carolinajones100

    Reblogged this on Scrambled Legs.

  27. govindthefuture

    Reblogged this on govindthefuture.

  28. katherinejlegry

    My plumbing needed to be replaced in my 1953 house… all the plumbers use plastic pipes now… they don’t corrode… is the thinking. I asked, does the plastic chemical leach into my drinking water? I was told no… or not much, and use a water filter, everyone is doing it. And I live in a place where our Bull Run watershed is envied for how pure. But I can’t get the pure water. A lot of it is sold to Techtronix company to make computer chips… or something to that effect. And although they said the tech industry would help eliminate the paper waste, the landfills we ship tech waste to are toxic. The recycled copper from computers, and all of our recycling programs where Chinese or east Indian children sift through our disposable culture has only shifted the decay but we have not solved any of the problems. Monied interests are in the way.

    But I love your poem and all of your beautiful intentions.

    I hope people try to do better as the climate changes insist we must… but if we don’t… Mother Nature will make her necessary adjustments and we can be grateful we were ever allowed a part of it.

  29. I came across this in my Reader today, and I’m so glad that I did. A bit of an environmentalist myself, although getting progressively worse at it as I turn to disposables because washing dishes in my small NYC apartment is next to impossible (AND I HATE DISHES), this spoke to me. Especially as I’m horrible at throwing things out (besides the disposables), and instead, keep it until I can properly reuse it or find an acceptable place to recycle/compost/thrift/give away whatever seems like it may still have some life in it. This actually has helped me want to go through and take the morning tomorrow to actually drop off my compost and cloth waste at an acceptable disposery. Does anyone know of one in Brooklyn? Living a sustainable life in the city should be easy but really isn’t.

    • malcolmguite

      Many thanks for this. Im
      So glad that my postbinspired you to kerp going at the difficult and unnecessarily complex task of recycling. But the more if us do it the more we put ptessure on govornments and companies to make it more simple for us all to do. Thanks for your part in the continuing struggle M

  30. Reblogged this on hanahappylife and commented:
    Wish plastic dissappear!!!

  31. Reblogged this on Daily Journal and commented:
    Jangan buang sampah sembarangan. Nanti dimakan binatang. Malu sama ayam. Petok petok petok.
    Jangan buang sampah sembarangan. Nanti banjir datang. Malu sama bebek. Kwek kwek kwek.

  32. Reblogged this on butterscorch and commented:
    The picture is powerful at and the same time disturbing.

  33. Reblogged this on becomingwildman and commented:
    After reading this article, I could not resist to share this. Our ras is so destructive to all that is good and beautiful and it’s good to raise awareness about how our polluting lifestyle inflicts on everything that lives.

  34. Malcolm big thumbs up on this article

  35. I think the bird ate the things which are from our earth

  36. Sad and shocking and scary what we do to the world…

  37. A very sensible post against the plastic that is tormenting our life.

  38. Nice poem, Chris. Well done.

  39. Thank you. Very beautifully put, and reminds us all to think more about the future. Not just ours, but our planets as well. I still don’t understand why they can’t make “plastic” bags more easily biodegradeable OR recyclable.

  40. thats horrible, the sad thing is.. trash cans are never really that far away.

  41. its crazy trash cans are never really far away..

  42. Reblogged this on A Momma's View and commented:
    Maybe this plastic eating mushroom is not a bad idea after all (see my previous reblog…)…

  43. independentdiscovery

    Reblogged this on jessicarusz.

  44. “To break the bleak persistence of our waste.” This is my struggle. I, like you, adore spending time in nature. I am in awe of the natural beauty of this world. But how do I reconcile that with the practical challenges of being a mom of 4 young kids? I try to but it’s so hard. Plastic is a sexy, sneaky vixen. Tempting me with her easiness. I will keep trying to find ways to resist her and keep your photograph in my mund.

  45. I saw the film at Maine Island Trail Association’s FilmFest. Thanks for sharing what you had to write about it.

  46. I have been living part of each year in India and the problem is compounded there. There is so much beauty in India and it is literally being trashed by the influx of our Western plastic culture. They are even more unaware of the long term dangers of plastics and so not only throw it down everywhere but then they periodically gather it together in a pile and burn it! Millions of lungs, in both the very young and old are being destroyed by the gasses emitted. This is a crisis of worldly concern and yet there is no current attention on it. The amount of plastic that India produces alone now is staggering and that amount is growing exponentially. It is heart- wrenching to watch.

  47. heartestabillo

    Reblogged this on Your Existence and commented:
    What plastics do to us.

  48. heartestabillo

    This is a powerful post where we can see how plastics destroy every creature on Earth. In our area, there is a campaign for using paper bags instead of plastic bags when you go for grocery or shopping.

  49. Interesting that a supposedly ugly plastic bag was carried by the winds of fate to the horizon of a poet’s eyes and gave rise to a meaningful poem: and thus the beauty of the human experience was yet again affirmed.

  50. Now i know where does Santa disappears during Christmas.. He knows we misuse his every Christmas he sledges up with lots of brooms for a cleaner world:(

  51. ramoursnet

    Reblogged this on ramoursnet.

  52. johnberk

    I agree with the author that plastic is a new plague. We should reconsider overusing it. And if we do, we should recycle and take care of our environment as much as possible. It is not just about walking around and complaining, it is about a direct action – anyone can stop and collect some of it and put it into a trashcan. Another thing would be to really think about our needs. Do we need a plastic furniture? Do we need plastic everything? Can’t we just use something second hand? Internet is full of DIY ideas that make old things new again. Hence, we can change our ways of consumption.

  53. Saw a news story just this week about how much of the plastic trash floating in the oceans is now finding its way to the deep seafloor. Sad to see this, as there’s so much damage done when we don’t find another means to deal with this scourge of our times.

  54. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | sadmamablog

  55. This is a really important statement about plastic and the real life processes which decay to give further life. Tremendous image of the bird.

  56. Reblogged this on NavasolaNature and commented:
    Let’s hope after a busy Christmas we can all recycle especially the plastic and understand nature’s cycles so we can protect rather than continue this careless and ignorant destruction of our beautiful planet.

  57. Thanks for posting. Eye opening.

  58. Persistent plastic, purely poison?
    Decayed dreams dropping death
    Environmental eclipse
    Societal scourge.
    Wasted wares, wasteful ways.
    Conserve! Caution! CARE!!

  59. Reblogged this on wezzie1975313's Blog and commented:
    This is sad

  60. If others only cared as much as you to even have this as a thought in their mind.

  61. I’ve had just this experience about which you write so wonderfully. Thanks for giving words to my experience.

  62. So horrible if only more people cherished the nature and animals we have. If it continues like this we wont have them for much longer..

  63. Reblogged this on freedomsky2889 and commented:
    Save the world and animals.

  64. Miss Baileyvally

    That pic is really horrible. It is a shame what we do with our nature.

  65. Miss Baileyvally

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Eine Schande was wir der Natur und den Tieren mit unserem Plastikkonsum antun.

  66. I feel like a traitor to my own beliefs every time i dispose of a plastic wrapping that has no place to go, but to the garbage where it will end up in our land fill because there is no recyclability for it.
    We put it away far from our eyes and only pretend, that is its place.
    I am hoping that a bright mind will save the day and create its recyclability

  67. Plastics are poisioning our lives and our future. We need to reduce our use of plastics where it is possible. In order to get manufacturers to learn to use more eco friendly substances, they need to feel the pinch in their revenue stream. Then they may start seeing what we see. Like the 110 million tons of plastics in our oceans and the typical results of marine life similar to your photo. I am an avid supporter of ways to reduce our use of plastic wherever I can. I buy boxed laundry soap, absolutely NEVER buy styrafoam anything. Check out my blog site category plastics.

  68. Reblogged this on tailstale and commented:
    So sad….

  69. That was amazingly touching

  70. lol… daily dose is over and all 5 articles got only poems today… !

    BTW, nice one!

  71. Earth Whisperer Conservation

    Excellent piece, clearly stated.

  72. Reblogged this on itsaghostcat and commented:
    Please spread this news.

  73. How can one join an activist part to fight against the cruel truth that is destroying our world?

  74. Reblogged this on jamaicamocha and commented:
    What an awesome photo of the bird. It tells everything

  75. So sad and disgusting. 😱😱

  76. Plastic isn’t bad. People carelessly discard plastic are certainly damaging the environment. But plastic? I love it. I love that my medical device — a continuous glucose monitor — is made of plastic. The thought of not having it and being limited in my daily activities doesn’t sit well with me. Plastic allows the possibility of my glucose test strips. I use and discard 6 of in my daily quest to manage my diabetes. Before plastic testing blood glucose required blood extraction. Not pleasant. I love the plastic tubing that connects my plastic covered insulin pump and the electronic parts that regulate my blood glucose. Do you know what people with diabetes did before these things? They lived very short lives. Thank goodness for plastic.

    • malcolmguite

      I agree plastic can be well used in special circumstances. I am protesting agsinst the widespread and wasteful misuse of plastic. Im very glad it has found an entirely right and proper use for you

  77. Plastics generally improve the quality of life. I don’t want to see plastic bags and bottles at the beach, either. But to me, that’s not a plastics problem. Those plastic bottles and bags are completely recyclable. It’s people.

  78. Reblogged this on lovemylandbag and commented:
    We really are a short minded species… Don’t worry, the planet will be fine without us.

  79. rajkumarreddy.sadi

    Reblogged this on Technocrats and commented:
    Avoid Plastic be protect nature

  80. colourmeclueless

    People need to realise that their rubbish that they litter is killing innocent animals and wrecking the environment. People that intentionally litter make me so angry.

  81. Plastic is not the problem, stupid uncaring people are. I am an avid saltwater fisherman and it sickens me to see all the garbage that people just throw overboard. If you say something to them, they scream at you and threaten you…

  82. Reblogged this on Nadira's Locs and commented:
    Just thought this was worth sharing. Peace.

  83. Amen! As an art teacher, I have a regular outlet for non-biodegradable rubbish, – the kids at school make some quite remarkable art out of all sorts of junk. As well as all the sculpture, we have just finished some lovely colour wheel collages on the walls outside the art room, made entirely with sweet and other food wrappers they collected themselves. Another teacher organises an annual Recycled Fashion Show, – some stunning plastic bag creations, amongst other things. It’s important to teach young people a ‘reuse’ culture, – they generally don’t learn the consequences of a throw-away society on their own, and they are our earth’s future custodians.

  84. And how about those disposable diapers… I remember cloth diapers and a pail to soak them in. Can we ever go back?

  85. I read your post fearing it would just be depressing, but it is a beautiful picture of the situation, and I’m glad that so many people are finding words to express their frustration with it.
    I find another aspect of the plastic problem is that so much is made of plastic that should be something stronger and better. I had a wonderful video camera, with a great lens and great design. When it broke down, I was told it couldn’t be repaired because the plastic motherboard and other (plastic) mechanical parts had “turned to dust” after ten years of use. I’d still be using it otherwise.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks for these reflections. Yes plastic in one sense has the wrong kind of longevity. The substance itself persists for far too long but the things made out of it brake too easily

  86. Yes, the word “biodegradability” has an image which I think we assume is fine to acknowledge, when perhaps it really isn’t. Biodegradable still implies that we can continue to live in a very consumable society. If modern products could dissolve back to the Earth harmlessly in a short amount of time, then how come it has taken millions of years for organic creatures to fossilise, one could say that essentially, even these forms have not even fully biodegraded. We find products from 10,000, 6000, 3000 years ago. Just as well or we would not be able to track history. But we should be finding ways to make things last a lot longer, and really have a wider consciousness of our actions when sourcng materials and creating products. Plastic does have some great attributes, but we have diluted the positives with too many harmful side effects. Thank you for your poignant post. (Sorry if response is a little lengthy)

  87. Oh my goodness that should never happen. This is why littering is bad. If i saw that i would bary that bird and name it.

  88. I remeber as a child learning about not littering and All….still to this day 20 yrs later, i cut the pastic that holds cans together and recycle! I seen an image as a child of an animal getting stuck in those things. The scar it left on my memory.

  89. aaderinto2014

    Reblogged this on randomthot101.

  90. Pollock of Light

    Reblogged this on Pollock of Light.

  91. this is something i have just learned about and it very upsetting! but only us humans can change this ..please research the plastic patch .

  92. Very sad. We can all do a little to reduce plastic use. Bottled water and plastic soda water has been eliminated from my groceries completely. Recycle everything.

  93. Reblogged this on ilovemymeme5457 and commented:
    So very sad

  94. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Things like this only make people want to take care of the environment, but if it weren’t for these pictures people wouldn’t even care.

  95. It is a huge struggle with two little boys to keep plastic out of our house…walk through the toy store sometime and envision those toys being played with for a couple of months and then being thrown away. Most of our family and friends know that we prefer wooden toys or books for presents but the plastic always creeps in.
    Thank you for sharing the beautiful photos and poem…it makes my resolve stronger!

  96. Reblogged this on Claude Martel and commented:
    Marine bird and plastic: a strange cocktail. Cool photos.

  97. What’s nice is that we have come to our senses. This includes corporations too oddly enough. Cardboard, paper “brown” bags are popular now in boutique type stores and luxury stores alike. Certain supermarkets and newsagents charge extra for plastic bags too as a deterrent. So long as we praise and pressure as necessary, we’ll get there!

  98. Julia?

    My fault? For feeling trapped in a culture of death, my brain deprived of oxygen, overwhelmed by the poisons of the urban agenda?Reaching out for help and being dragged under? What should We or could we do?

  99. Reblogged this on TheKingsKidChronicles and commented:
    Thank you for a thought-provoking sonnet. God gave us a planet of beauty to inhabit and it is taken for granted by uncaring, unfeeling people, who pass those negative qualities on to their progeny. If people are going to go hiking/camping, biking, etc., they should carry trash bags with them and carry them back to a place where they can be properly disposed of.

  100. Pingback: Decay | synthetic authentic

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