By KATHERINE HAFNER The Virginia Pilot
When you hear of a message in a bottle, the term may conjure up distant images of someone stranded on a remote island or writing love letters centuries ago.
But they show up more often – and closer – than you might think.
An environmental organization has come across dozens of them while cleaning up US rivers: everything from treasure maps to loneliness-fueled appeals to the universe, stuffed into glass bottles or even Gatorade containers.
See what’s inside Nauticus’ ‘Message in a Bottle’ exhibit in downtown Norfolk. It runs until April 24.
The traveling exhibit is in partnership with Living Lands & Waters, an Illinois-based nonprofit that has performed approximately 1,400 major river cleanups in 21 states since its launch in the late 1990s.
Founder Chad Pregrake said he started the organization after growing up near the Mississippi River. He was in the water all the time, diving for mussel shells, among other activities, and constantly coming across trash.
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“I wanted to do something about it because it bothered me,” he said. “I thought people would care and want to see it cleaned up. …and I was right.
Pregracke now spends long periods on a barge used to clean up the Mississippi and other rivers, as well as on tugboats, workboats and cranes.
Volunteers encounter all sorts of things – bowling balls, kitchen appliances. But “the top of the pyramid”, the top, he said, is a message in a bottle.
“If you find a message in a bottle, you’re some kind of king or queen,” he said. “They are fun to find.”
When one is found, the crew takes it back to the barge and opens it to reveal the message.
“There’s this intrigue,” he says.
In some cases they were not necessarily meant to be found, with the author writing to a higher power. Others include contact information and addresses.
Pregracke was sometimes able to connect with the people who wrote them. He also tried to investigate the occasional treasure map, to no avail.
Some bottles travel hundreds of miles from their origin, crossing streams to end up in a large river.
Pregracke has a few favorites over the years.
One is a glass jar that contains a presidential portrait of President Bill Clinton.
“I thought it was pretty cool because it’s so random,” he said.
Another of his favorites was a guitar score found in a 40-ounce Budweiser bottle where the Wabash River meets the Ohio. It was called “Lavender for you”. After a national newspaper published an article about it several years ago, a man called to say he had written it for a girlfriend who had broken his heart. The man also accurately described the location where he was found, which had not been mentioned in the story.
Stephen Kirkland, executive director of Nauticus, said the museum contacted Living Lands & Waters about a year ago when staff heard about the traveling exhibit.
“We are a museum literally built on the banks of a river,” he said. “It is important that we share these messages of conservation and environmental stewardship. »
Although the bottles travel, Nauticus built the displays – a more artistic endeavor than what the maritime museum usually handles. The screens describe the location, time and content of each message in a bottle.
A soda bottle found in Washington, DC, contains strands of human hair. A group of three vegetable oil bottles contains Bible pages dipped in oil.
“Why? Who knows,” Kirkland said. “There’s a human element to it that’s just cool.”