For the Love of Dirty Jobs

Published: Dec 8, 2021

Every morning and evening, Roxann Brooks Motroni visits her cattle, not just to offer treats but to check the herd for a limp, some pinkeye, a calf that’s not thriving.

First Mate Alex Barnard ’09, American Studies spends many mornings high atop the mast on the 150-foot sailing ship Kwai, watching the bright horizon of the Pacific Ocean through binoculars for the shimmer of an abandoned fishing net. When she spots a clump of plastic waste, she guides the captain toward the tangle of fishing nets and the garbage they accumulate. 

Then sailors on deck throw grappling hooks into the floating trash. A hydraulic crane hauls onto the deck the dripping hunks of degrading plastic nets—sometimes the size of Volkswagen Bug, sometimes 100 feet long. Barnard and the crew stumble through tangles slick with algae and seaweed, throwing the trash’s resident crabs and fish back overboard. Those moments are cathartic, Barnard says, as if they’ve just pulled a rotten tooth from the mouth of the ocean.

“I just think about that moment as beautiful. I love seeing that net up on deck,” Barnard says. “It’s so toxic and then to watch it come out. Just to be able to do that all day every day. It’s pretty amazing.”

Walking down a steep hill on her family’s farm, Roxann Brooks Motroni ’06, M14, biological sciences is searching for her cattle.

“Hey mamas! Hey cows!” the veterinarian calls. A fuzzy black head pops up over the next hill and bellows. The cattle gallop toward Motroni and her bucket, which rattles with hay cookies.

She steps into the pasture and is mobbed by her family’s cattle, the flies clustered on their backs in the late autumn heat. Cookie, the black Lowline Angus most fond of the treats, pushes to the front of the herd. The cow’s foot-long tongue curls around Motroni’s forearm, leaving bubbly trails of slobber and grass bits.

Ignoring the fresh cow patty her black boot has just stepped in, Motroni hands out cookies, then tosses the rest of the nuggets into the scrum. She swipes off her freshly slimed arm and continues naming the cattle—The Hereford, Valentino the bull, and her favorite, Nellie, named for a great-grandmother because they’re a bit alike.

“Sweet, but a little suspicious of new people,” Motroni says and wades out of the herd distributing scratches all around, oblivious to the flies and slobber and excrement.

Stephen Bradley, associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts, hauls on a braided cord connected to a white lifesaving ring that bobs on the water of the Jones Falls in Baltimore. A Doritos package, two latex gloves, a slick of oil, and some liquor bottles float nearby. And that’s just what’s visible. Other ingredients in the toxic stew flowing toward the Inner Harbor are heavy metals, fertilizer, microbes, pesticides, and sewage, as well as industrial sound pollution.

Bradley, an artist who adds video and audio sensory layers to his sculptures, pulls out his dripping hydrophones and fiddles with their connections. Then he lowers the receivers back in, to record the underwater sounds of mussels, gizzard shad, and blue crabs, along with the urban noise of HVAC systems and traffic.

Chatting away, Bradley pulls out his sketch pad to show some drawings, then licks his thumb to turn the page. He stops to grimace at his thumb, which was just mucking about in the murky water.

“Guess I shouldn’t have done that,” he says.

Making a difference in the world isn’t always a neat endeavor. Hard to keep your hands clean when you’re raising cattle humanely and safely, pulling communities together to pick up trash and make art, or hauling tons of plastic waste from the Pacific Ocean. These three Retrievers all find immense joy in work that is sometimes smelly, usually dirty, and always requires an intrepid spirit. 

Sustainability sparked Barnard’s quest

Alex Barnard wrote her UMBC honors thesis on her attempts to live sustainably in Baltimore. “Extremely challenging,” Barnard summarizes, with a wry chuckle. “It completely changed my life. I see everything through this lens now.”

For nearly 10 years, she traveled, trying to live lightly on the planet. She worked in an eco-cafe in Fiji, labored on an organic farm in Hawaii, sailed on eco-tourism voyages in the South Pacific, and biked New Zealand.

Now, she has her captain’s license and sails as a chief mate on National Geographic voyages to Costa Rica, Alaska, and Baja with Lindblad Expeditions, a company known for its green approach to travel.

Alex Barnard (top, center) poses with her team. All photos of Barnard, courtesy of Ocean Voyages Institute.

Barnard’s schedule of two months on, two months off gives her time to volunteer on the Kwai for the Ocean Voyages Institute. The institute partners with companies that turn the trash into fuel, shoes, clothing, and building blocks for construction.

Through overconsumption and improper trash disposal, humans have created five garbage patches in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, where trash is concentrated by currents. 

Courtesy of Alex Barnard and Ocean Voyages Institute.

Discarded nets and lines from fishing boats now make up 46% of the waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Dubbed “ghostnets” or “ghost gear,” the fishing waste kills marine life by the thousands—turtles and whales and dolphins tangle themselves in the nets that are tossed off fishing boats. But because oceans are vast, and the nets sink and bob in the waves, they’re difficult to find. 

“It’s not like wading through trash,” Barnard explains. “There are big spaces in between. If you were at sea level, the nets are hard to see. We could be sailing right by one and not see it until we’re past it. The plastic breaks down in UV light. A lot of it is microplastic, which is deadly to the ocean.”

Last summer, Barnard and the Kwai crew hauled 170 tons of plastic from the ocean, a fraction of the 17 billion tons dumped into the world’s waters every year. Other organizations, like Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Greenpeace, The Ocean Cleanup, and the 5 Gyres Institute, are also focusing on ghostnet removal. Many environmental groups are pushing the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, a collaborative effort by the fishing industry, NGOs, governments, and researchers to regulate plastic dumping. 

“This work is possible and successful,” Barnard says. “The idea is to show that we need more boats, a fleet of vessels doing the same thing. It feels like a starting point more than anything.”

Temporarily on land, in a remote cabin in Michigan where she’s doing some writing for Lindblad, Barnard hikes often, always with a trash bag.

“It’s my dream to go somewhere and not have to pick up trash,” Barnard says. “I could spend my whole life picking up trash everywhere I go. That’s not very efficient. It has to be bigger than just one person. But it’s better than not picking it up.”

A family farm affair

Every morning and evening, Roxann Brooks Motroni visits her cattle, not just to offer treats but to check the herd for a limp, some pinkeye, a calf that’s not thriving.

Her family started 804 Cattle Company in Upper Marlboro in 2016 with three cows. They now raise 25 cattle on 33 acres. A vet married to an agricultural business expert, Motroni works the farm with her parents, John and Chantal Brooks, both retired doctors. And while Motroni has a day job as a National Program Leader for Animal Health for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, focusing on research solutions for livestock diseases, she begins and ends her days on the farm. 

“This is a family affair. My mom is the chief cow operator. I do the vet work, my husband does the finances and handyman work,” Motroni explains, plus he’s the beekeeper.

The farm is also devoted to teaching the next generation of farmers and veterinarians. Today, two interns hoping to be veterinarians are chasing Nutmeg the goat and grooming horses. The family brings in veterans seeking help getting started in agriculture, through the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. The farm also sells at the Capital Market, whose mission is to provide quality food, produced by businesses and farms run by people of color, to residents of Prince George’s County’s food deserts.

A Meyerhoff Scholar, Motroni quotes its motto, “To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected” and says she lives by it.

Their farm prides itself on their humane and safe practices with their cattle. The animals and their health comes first.  No hormones or steroids go into their cattle and they limit antibiotic use to only sick cows. Their chutes and corrals are designed to reduce their cattle’s stress. All animals spend all their lives on grass pastures.

The family also uses regenerative agriculture practices to improve soil health and combat climate change through carbon sequestration while limiting fertilizer and pesticide usage. Motroni crouches in the pasture to show off the shoots of radishes, hairy vetch, turnips, oats, and rye that she interplants with grass, to aerate and fix nitrogen and carbon in the soil. Plus they offer her herd fine dining.

“I didn’t know when I became a cattle farmer that I would also become a grass farmer. I’ve come to realize how magical cow poop is. Every year our pastures get better and better,” she says, laughing. “All those plant physiology classes at UMBC really served me well.”

She hikes up the hill again, squelching through the mud around a water pump.

“Wow, now you can really smell the cow,” she says and smiles at the odor and the view.

Traces of life fuel his art

As an artist, Stephen Bradley sees and hears things a little differently. From the pop of color of a blue plastic container handle to the squelching clicks of the mussels underwater, the evidence of life is fascinating to him. 

For more than 12 years, he has labored in the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay area of Baltimore, partnering with the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the National Aquarium, the local Boys and Girls Club, and the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center to clean up the alleys and streets and to make art, from sidewalk paintings and murals to trash sculptures. 

Right now, he’s bent closely over a pier in the Inner Harbor, lowering a round lifesaver strung with microphones and chum to attract fish into the water. He occasionally catches the attention of passersby and eagerly explains his artistic vision to them.

The project that inspired his recording in the Jones Falls waterway is a collaborative biodiversity study with the National Aquarium and the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). IMET has sunk a biodisk in the same areas Bradley is recording, to track biodiversity in the waters by collecting DNA samples. Those findings will be paired with Bradley’s recordings to provide a fuller picture of what’s living in Baltimore’s waterways. Bradley’s Inner Harbor’s soundtrack is run through a spectrograph to determine what species made the sounds, most of which can’t be heard by human ears, such as the mating songs of water bugs. 

“With these recordings, it’s almost as if I have my ear to the water,” he says. “The gift is going home and listening.”

Bradley’s portion of the IMET project, called Bio-Buggy: Ear to the Harbor, will draw attention to the harm that human-generated noise pollution inflicts on aquatic species, including disrupting mating and growth. 

In the fall, Bradley was recording at Marshy Point Nature Center and heard explosions coming from his underwater recorders, from the direction of Aberdeen Proving Ground, nearly 30 miles away. 

“Hundreds of small minnows leaped out of the water each time there was an explosion, and there were nine huge discharges,” Bradley says. But in between, he heard the complex harmonies of bubbles and critter sounds, something he calls “musical marshlands.” 

He has also built an exhibit, called the “Oh, Murky Waters Chorus,” with trash compositions, an aquarium with teeny water critters still living on one of those IMET DNA sampling biodisks, and an interactive video of microscopic creatures paired with their noises. The art installation showed at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture in 2019, and Bradley hopes to exhibit it again, as a work-in-progress later in 2022. 

“The trash-filled sculptural elements in the art installation…are there to represent the stress and urgency for us as a society to gain control of our waste before we drown from it,” Bradley explains. Baltimore has taken recent steps, including banning polystyrene and taxing plastic bags, to reduce the trash in the Inner Harbor enough that if it hasn’t rained in 48 hours, according to Blue Water Baltimore, some areas are swimmable.  

At the IMET open house next spring, Bradley hopes to show a prototype of the Bio-Buggy, a mobile science and sound collection lab, which engineering students at UMBC will work to design with him as their capstone project. The Bio-Buggy exhibit will also feature Bradley’s sound compositions based on the Inner Harbor and other Chesapeake Bay recordings. 

“I have no aspiration to be a scientist, but I am inspired by science, the tools, the rigor, the process,” he says and tucks his headphones back on, listening for evidence of life in the waters. Perhaps, Bradley hopes, if people hear and see the life below the surface, they’ll pocket their Doritos packages and recycle their water bottles, instead of tossing them in the gutter for him to find later. 

People who care about change must be willing to plunge their hands deep into the mess of this world. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

— By Susan Thornton Hobby


All photos courtesy of Marlayna Demond ’11 unless otherwise noted.

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