Every Day = Earth Day to Me

What is it about Litter?

I am a walker. Mostly, I walk outside in the vicinity of my home, in nearby woods, along secondary and industrial roadways and some hiking trails – all with permission, special dispensation, and respect for privately owned property.

Few people, I hope, have seen me leaving my home along a rural route north of town, heading toward the woods and environs to the west.   I’m often donned in tall rubber boots, a fishing vest turned hiking vest, to carry all of the accoutrements deemed potentially needed in the woods (cell phone with notepad and camera at the ready, tissues, antibacterial soap, binoculars, whistle {I’m a little old-fashioned as to self-defense}, pepper spray, sun glasses or shooting glasses if it’s not sunny – to keep bugs out of my eyes, plastic “mackintosh square” for sitting on cold, wet, dirty things, lip balm, hair band, and the jury is still out on a small caliber hand gun – don’t judge me until you’ve almost run into a bear, fox, coyote or rattle snake while gaily trouncing along a trail minding your own business); and carrying a walking stick and in the summer, a small sabre-like stick, to whip away cobwebs crossing the trail. This costume is not intended for public consumption so I apologize to the few of you who have had to see this particular display of country charm, eccentricity, or kookiness – whatever your characterization might be.

I frequently pick up litter when I walk. No need for applause – I don’t “live for the applause…plause” – like Lady Gaga. Often, I’ll take bottles, cans and other recyclables home to include with my family’s recycling. I give golf balls to my neighbor – yes, golf balls. Sometimes, when there’s a plastic grocery- or fast food bag among the litter – or rarely, a black plastic garbage bag, I’ll fill it and discard it in a nearby commercial dumpster belonging to an industry I have permission to “police” for such disorder on their property; as it’s along my familiar walking route.

The thing about litter, discarded into natural spaces – for me, is that it doesn’t belong. You know, like those tests we took as kids when we were shown pictures of an orange, a pineapple, an apple and a bird – what doesn’t belong? Well, picture a brown bed of leaves, a rock-studded path, twigs and branches haphazardly strewn about, moss covered stones, trees in a dozen varieties, rotting logs, wild flowers, streams, butterflies; and an Aquafina bottle, a Galliker’s chocolate milk bottle, an empty pudding cup, a Budweiser can, a plastic takeaway bag, a Styrofoam coffee cup, an energy drink can, and a cigarette box – what doesn’t belong?

I’ve been startled and deeply unnerved more than once, when trouncing along in the woods, to notice all of a sudden, a dried-blood-coated deer carcass with accompanying hooves and unmentionable innards, almost taking my breath away. Even more disturbing; I’ve rarely, but surely seen a dog’s body, crudely shoved inside a black plastic trash bag. Those, I wait a year or more for decomposition and scavenging to take place before picking up and disposing of what has now become a torn up plastic bag.   Shudder. This gives a whole new meaning to seeing animals in the woods.

I once sat down on a big rock in the woods to ponder just what it is about our Pennsylvania woodlands that gives me such peace and momentary joy. I wrote in a text to my sister-in-law: “The bark on the tree I’m sitting next to is so smooth and beautiful. I’m meditating on the layers and textures that abound and compound in chaotic, natural randomness. When I leave my office-world and come to the woods I can just breathe and relinquish all control to God and appreciate the uneven, unexpected, natural terrain I encounter. It’s quiet.   It’s unplanned, un-manipulated and untrained; it just is.”   I think the woods teach me to just be.

When litter is strewn about in a natural setting, it really sticks out. It doesn’t blend in like the sometimes chaotic naturally occurring mess made by nature – dead things, jagged or sharp edges, misshapen growth or broken things.   Litter is a disorder of another kind.

Then there’s the litterer. Who are these mysterious individuals? I say this because rarely does one actually witness said littering.   They must be stealthy night-crawlers, driving about in the wee hours of the night, incognito, leaving the evidence of their existence behind them, at the curb of the woods. Because they litter under the cover of darkness; does that mean they know it’s wrong?

Can a person’s character be determined by the fact that they are a litterer? When I was growing up, there was a missive about people who litter or dump trash along roadways; or people whose property is strewn with junk – “Were they born in a barn?” In fact, I’ve mumbled that to myself on occasion when I’m picking up someone’s litter.

When I’m picking up litter, I sometimes wonder about what a person is thinking when they toss a bottle or cigarette carton, a can or a bag out of their vehicle window to the natural berm and beyond. And, I wonder what very real human drama precipitated someone balling up a necktie and throwing it alongside the road!

I know when I was around nineteen years old I tossed a nearly full pack of cigarettes out the car window, assuaging the guilt at having smoked a few of the dastardly tubes of tobacco.   But, then on the other hand, I believe on that same car trip, my toddler nephew stood, unrestrained, on the passenger seat – it was the seventies and thank God, we survived them. I’ve heard it said that you can determine a person’s character by what he or she does with empty grocery carts in the supermarket parking lot – what does littering say?

On the other hand, I’m no judge, priest or preacher and I wouldn’t want my young nineteen-year-old lapse taken as the sole indicator of my own character. I, therefore judge not the litterers of which I refer herein. I forgive you; please forgive me.

I get it that sometimes litter is disbursed into natural areas by the wind. In fact, we’ve lost more than one grill cover and tarp – never to be recovered; I found one grill cover in the nearby woods, recovered and recycled it, to be lost again and never found. Things like cardboard boxes, Styrofoam packing material, single work gloves, tie-backs, and similar debris is probably unintentional litter.

Without getting into a diatribe on the commercial history of the United States, I will say that the case of roadway litter began in the 1950s simultaneous with the buy new, throw away the old manufacturing slogan along with its non-renewable packaging ideal. Keep America Beautiful was a 1953 campaign of the packaging industry. Ladybird Johnson spearheaded the Beautification Act of 1965, further attempting to police American roadsides of ugliness, including litter.

Pennsylvania anti-litter laws, effective in 1977, are incorporated into the Vehicle Code (Title 75, Chapter 37 – 3709). The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (DOT) considers intentional litter – a “behavioral choice based on apathy, lack of social pressure to do the right thing, ignorance of the law and an absence of realistic penalties or consistent enforcement, or it is a social rebellion and a disregard of authority.”

Some studies have shown that people under the age of 30 are particularly at risk for littering and in locations where few receptacles are available and accessible. I’ve thought of creating some sort of basketball-hoop equipped trash receptacles at a couple of spots at the secondary/industrial roadway intersections of my walking path – who doesn’t love tossing a bottle or a can through a hoop, to test one’s aiming talents – especially from a slowly moving vehicle?   Of course, this no doubt presents more legal obstacles than I’m interested in fighting – an activist, I am not.

I’ve also thought about why it is that I’m so moved to concern about litter and others clearly are not; and what’s the difference between us? I mean, there are moments when I really can’t understand what moves someone to throw an object of litter out of a vehicle. Why? Were they never taught that it’s wrong; not to mention illegal? Are littering laws ever enforced? Why not hold on to that object until you get to a location – work, home, store or somewhere where there’s a trash can? Are their vehicles immaculately tidy and they can’t tolerate trash in them even for a finite moment in time? I don’t think so. What do they think happens to that discarded item? Do they know that I pick it up?

I think surely, litterers don’t walk. They don’t see, up close and personal, like me, what their litter looks like against a wooded landscape. Their focus is instead, on getting back to work from lunch break or getting home after a long day at work. Litter, to them, I hope is just an unthinking, reflexive or even distracted act – not at all an intentional affront to nature or the law.

A litter conundrum confronted me recently. It was a slide-lock bag with what looked like feces inside. I’m guessing – hoping actually that the contents of that bag were bequeathed by a dog, its owner’s attempt to be conscientious and pick up his or her pet’s excrement, in an effort to be responsible. However, how did it get left behind as litter at the entrance to a hiking trail? I drew the line at picking up that little dainty at that time – a bit of shock momentarily precluding the good deed. However, a day later, armed with a plastic bag and a tank of antibacterial soap, I picked it up and discarded it in the trash.

Why do I care? Sometimes I don’t. I can walk by without picking up stuff I see, but not always. I’ve said this before, part of the joy of not owning the property I walk, is I don’t have to take care of it, police it, defend it, possess it, or clean it up; but I also can, if I want to – as a favor, kindness, generosity of spirit or principled stewardship of the earth. Occasionally it’s none other than OCD tendencies – neatness, order, tidiness, perfection, and control over something which I can do something about.   Ce la vie.

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