"OK, we need more kitchen stuff ... "

The oldest of three girls straightened up, put her hands on her hips and surveyed the scene. Where would she find kitchen stuff? Hmm. She wiggled her toes in the sand and considered.

"This can be a dust mop," suggested her youngest sister, waving a frond of grass.

"Perfect," she said. "Why don't you start by dusting off all the furniture we have so far?"

"Got it," said the little one. Humming lightly, she began wafting her frond across the primitive structures the girls had built using lengths of gray-white driftwood.

The middle sister was crouched nearby on the beach, meanwhile, carefully placing small pebbles in a semicircle to show where their fire pit would be.

It was a gray April day on a deserted beach on the Eastern Shore, a place where man and nature seemed to be collaborating in making spectacular gray arcs. The beach itself formed an arc, as did the chilly gray water, as did the vast gray sky, as did the distant gray sweep of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

A stick flew through the air toward the water, making another arc that was swiftly followed by a dog bounding and splashing in pursuit. His golden head and shoulders seemed to be the only color in that gray, gray place.

It wasn't, though. As the children and their mother prowled along the beach, looking for kitchen stuff and interesting building materials, it became distressingly obvious that there was, in fact, a great deal of color.

It was garbage. The beach seemed at first to be clean and fresh. A closer inspection revealed it to be sprinkled along the high-water mark with garbage, some of it fragmentary, like bits of candy wrappers, and others larger, like ripped Styrofoam cups. The quiet grays and browns and sandy beiges of the natural world were, in fact, littered almost everywhere with the garish and man-made.

The children didn't seem to mind; they were focused on building their house ("Hey, this log can be our sofa!"). The air was cool and soft, the waves lapped pleasantly, and birds sang in the trees. The girls' mother, however, began to feel that she couldn't enjoy the beach until she had cleaned it up a little. So, carrying a plastic bag she'd happened to bring along, she bent over under the gray sky and set about performing some disagreeable beachcombing.

Amid the driftwood, sand and bird feathers was an astonishing variety of trash. There were cookie wrappers and candy wrappers and crinkled tinfoil; water bottles and juice bottles and green shards from plant pots. There were blue, green and red bottle caps, a chewed-looking cigarette lighter, and a pink and yellow pen from Big Boyz Bail Bonds in Baltimore. There were juice packets and plastic forks and a tub with a grinning monkey on it that had held yogurt; she found the pump part of a soap dispenser, the plastic visor from a baseball hat with a few strands of thread still attached and drinking straws in four colors. At the edge of the woods, she found a dead bird beside an old burst diaper and hoped there was no connection between them. She couldn't quite bring herself to pick up the diaper. Anyway, her bag was full.

"Mummy, come help us build!" the girls were calling.

"On my way!" she called back.

The woman looked out at the bay and at the little gray waves that had brought all this trash to shore. Like King Canute trying to hold back the tides, her garbage-gleaning on a small beach didn't make the slightest difference. But perhaps, if only for one day, it was a very, very small improvement.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.