by Glenn Reed
(Swans - June 2, 2014) There are a lot of lessons to learn about people and societies from their garbage. I suppose any archeologist will tell you that. There's also a lot to learn about yourself.
No, I'm not a dumpster diver and I don't sneak out at night to pick through our neighbor's trash bin, placed out for the weekly pick-up. But it's something I thought about last weekend when I spent a few hours volunteering to pick up roadside trash as a participant in Vermont's annual Green Up Day.
This event, always held the first Saturday in May, was begun back in 1970 by then state governor Deane Davis. It was proposed by a journalist named Robert S. Babcock, Jr. and the governor, an old-fashioned Republican who was very proactive with environmental legislation, jumped at the idea. (1)
Anyway, because of my work schedule and my partner being out of town, I decided to make a solo effort volunteering last Saturday. I went out to the town common and checked in with the woman who was coordinating the effort here in Fair Haven. She asked where I would be picking up trash and how many bags I would need.
After some careful thought, I chose a small section of back road where we frequently ride our bicycles. It's a scenic stretch that passes a small stream, abuts an extensive swamp in one section and a smaller swamp in another. It also includes open fields looking towards New York State and where we regularly see a deer or two grazing on the edge of the woods and wary woodchucks scrambling to their holes upon our two-wheeled approach.
It was somewhat overcast and pleasantly cool when I parked my car at the side of the appropriately named Swamp Road. Pulling out my green, Green Up Day trash bags, I scanned the section on which I'd decided to focus my efforts. On one side of the road is the small swamp that is only about fifteen feet downslope from the asphalt. On the other side of the road is a feeder stream for the swamp, lined with sumac and some young red maples, with open field beyond stretching to patches of woods.
It's a beautiful landscape, encompassing a variety of environments -- hence my desire to rid it of a bit of the blight of human arrogance, indifference, greed, and slovenliness as represented by the profusion of trashing lining the roadside.
Where to start in such a task? I guess one of the lessons of picking up roadside trash, as with everything in life, is to take things one step at a time. I wasn't going to clean up the entire road that day and I certainly wasn't going to save the whole planet in this effort. In fact, I quickly learned to "pick my battles" with the array of garbage that faced me and not think that even a 50-foot stretch would be perfectly litter-free at the end of my efforts. In fact, the strategy I employed was kind of like triage.
First, I focused on picking up items that were the least biodegradable, including plastics, Styrofoam, and glass refuse. There was certainly no shortage of these items and they quickly fill up a garbage bag.
Anything that was paper or cardboard and already pretty decomposed I chose to ignore. I did grab things like cardboard six-pack containers due to the visual factor. Biking through here, I just didn't like to see that prominently-colored garbage. I also couldn't resist picking up some of the smallest pieces of foil, such as that used to wrap chewing gum or that is inside cigarette boxes. It was the flashy visual factor again.
Then I had to set limits with how far off the road to go to get litter. When I noticed a prominent slew of trash down the banking and on the edge of the swamp, I made the effort to negotiate my way down and get it. Then I often noticed more trash, inconveniently lying too far out into the swamp.
Triage again. I wasn't wearing rubber boots and I didn't want to sink into swamp muck to get at it. Still, it truly annoyed me because when you're up close and personal with a swamp, you understand what an amazing and beautiful environment it is and you notice details.
Spring has come late to the northeast this year. Usually, various wildflowers have appeared at least a week to ten days earlier than they did this April and May. While picking up trash, I quickly spotted the first of several spring wildflowers finally coming out that day, which I hadn't seen up to that point. There was the aptly named bloodroot, with its delicate white petals and stem that if you break, leaks out a liquid that is the color of blood. Beneath the graceful limbs of a white pine, I spied the buds of several trillium, pregnant with bloom on the verge of opening their burgundy colored three petals. Then there were the yellow petals of the trout lily flower (also called the dogtooth violet), downward facing to attract the earth-bound ants that pollinate them.
Often, when I made a bee-line for some recent trash, I would find bits of bottle poking through the ground. Or old, completely rusted cans. It's then that you realize how much we as humans, especially in our "disposable" culture, have impacted every inch of land, water, and air around us. Our trash is like sediment, combining with the soil, the sand, the grass, the decaying vegetation, an integral part of the layers that slowly accumulate.
That was another lesson. No matter how much I worked to clean up the visible part of this environment, there was nothing I could do about what was out of sight.
Then there were the larger items. You know, stuff that can't fit in a trash bag. These made me accept my limitations again and try not to be frustrated.
Large groups who participate in this Green Up Day do pull out bulky things like old mattresses, computer screens, decrepit easy chairs, loads of tires, and countless other large items. These are picked up by volunteers who go around in garbage trucks and pick-ups on the Monday following Green Up Saturday and take the trash gathered by the sides of Vermont roads to transfer stations and recycling centers. However, being by myself and with back issues, I was not going to lug out such large items, as much as seeing them dumped across the landscape irritated me.
That porcelain toilet lying on its side in the leaf detritus, in the grove of white pines and struggling red maples, though I can see it as a planter in someone's yard, will have to await someone's strong back on this day.
It ended up taking me a couple of hours to fill just three large garbage bags. I probably covered less than a half-mile stretch of road, including both sides.
Riding my bicycle down this road an hour later, I quickly spied stray plastic jugs and glistening Keystone beer cans that I'd missed earlier. Sighing a bit with frustration, I forced my focus to return to the melodic call of a chickadee off in the swamp and scanned the upcoming expanse of field for the woodchuck that we often saw scamper back to its hole.
We don't live in a world of Johnny Appleseeds anymore. No single individual can wander the once wide spaces of this continent and plant seeds of hope.
Now it's less a matter of adding beauty than of removing the ugliness and the despair. One plastic container at a time. And hope that at some point, many more will join in this effort so that we can focus on planting once again.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)