Trash, Walls, and Trees
I was almost to the lake when the car pulled up beside me. In the summer, I would have continued and walked the three-mile loop through the woods, but this was winter, so I was planning on going around the block a couple of times. The woman in the car signaled to me, and I pulled off my headphones, thinking she would ask for directions. Instead, she jumped into a rant.
“Did you know that there are truck drivers dumping trash off the side of the road here?”
It took me at least three seconds to process that. Finally, I said, “Yes.”
“It’s just awful!” She looked like the stereotypical rude customer: short bottle-blonde hair and a puffy vest over long sleeves. There was a small dog in the back seat of the car standing on top of a box, looking at me. It was also wearing a vest.
“Do you live around here?” She asked me accusingly like I was deliberately obstructing her anger with my lukewarm reaction.
“I do,” I said.
“If I lived around here, I would do something about it!”
“I would build a wall along the highway,” she said. “That way no one would throw their trash here.”
I should have said, “You do that then.” Or “Good luck!” I should have said, “And cut down all these trees to do it?” Instead, I just shrugged and walked away. That was about all the crazy I could take for the day. I felt sorry for the dog.
I didn’t tell her that it wouldn’t make any difference whether or not there was a wall along the freeway, that to build such a thing would cause more pollution than the trash would create in a hundred years. The trees were the heart of the matter: the pine trees allowed to stand between the freeway and the residential road would have to be cut down to build a wall, and they are too important to be discarded for something like that.
I didn’t tell her that it was willful vandalism that drove truckers to throw their trash out of their cabs, not just convenience. There is a gas station one mile farther on the highway with plenty of trash cans. Pulling off one exit sooner and chucking your fast food bag into the forest isn’t just laziness: it’s malicious.
Being in the woods makes people go a little crazy. It turns on a part of the brain that doesn’t get any exercise in an urban or suburban environment. Instincts that most people never use come into play, survival instincts turn on, inhibitions drop. This is why the forest scares people and why it calls to us. We go there to find pieces of ourselves our ancestors dropped millennia ago: hypersensitive hearing, acute eyesight, adrenaline rushes at the slightest sound, an awareness of the color green. And, of course, there’s the fact that no one can see you.
Most people stick laws against littering not because it’s the right thing to do, but for fear of consequences, and we’d rather just continue to stack trash on an overflowing garbage can than take it with us to somewhere it won’t blow away. In the forest, surrounded only by the trees and the silence, they forget about this societal standard. When they don’t think anyone is watching, they lose the motivation to obey the law. Or they could be experiencing that type of fear that only comes from being isolated in nature, which reorders one’s priorities, and is the reason why there’s so much litter in third world countries and on the slopes of Mount Everest. Fear makes even the most righteous of us into animals.
The solution then is to enforce the law, isn’t it? Remind everyone that society is still watching. Build a wall to prevent laziness: just like the anti-trash crusader suggests. Prevent inhibitions from dropping, keep everyone’s sanity intact. Or call the authorities on anyone you see littering and fine them. Failing that, put up signs! As if a sign ever stopped anybody in the woods. “No Littering” signs might work in areas where trash is picked up regularly, but in areas where trash isn’t picked up, they can actually increase the number of people who litter. Unfortunately, we have no one who regularly cleans the streets, as very few rural communities do. Building a wall along the freeway, aside from destroying the trees there, will encourage people to either pull off and drive through the neighborhood, make marksmen of all the litterbugs as they hurl trash over the wall, or only move the problem to the asphalt of the highway. That last option is the worst in some ways because on the highway even fewer people care about the trash blowing down the road. There is no easy solution.
I walked home that day carrying at least ten bottles, cups, and cans that I found while walking around. My fingers were numb with cold and fading from red to blue by the time I got back inside, and I ran warm water over them until the pins and needles subsided and I was able to properly grip a mug of tea. There was a bit more trash than usual that day, and I was more annoyed with it than usual, but I gave thanks that at least there wasn’t snow yet. The snow brings litter just as predictably as downed power lines and snowplows.
After the first snow of the year, the off-ramp from the freeway is clogged with families. They are heedless of all dangers and concerns: letting toddlers run around without supervision near a freeway, throwing snowballs that could contain rocks or ice chunks, walking into the forest without heed for the peril of tree wells or thought that they might be wandering onto someone’s property. These people don’t intend to leave behind trash, but people with good intentions can do bad things, and the snow offers the perfect place to hide your misdeed. Just throw it out: the snow will cover it. No one will ever know!
But the snow melts, and all the plastic baggies, disposable water bottles, beer cans, and McDonald’s bags rise up from their frozen graves. Three months later, my family and I are walking up and down the road picking up everything left behind by these people. Or, if the snow doesn’t melt right away, the snowblower will come and chop it up, and tiny pieces of plastic will get mixed in with the snowflakes, and the next year the plants will have a little extra oil in their diet because throwing out your trash right where you parked was more convenient than taking it to the nearest trash can.
All of this is what I’m thinking whenever I tell unwelcome tourists to go elsewhere and when I’m cursing them from the safety of my car as I try not to hit any of the children that are running back and forth across the road, their parents oblivious on the sidelines.
So yes, Ma’am, I know that people are throwing their trash off the highway, and it makes me just as mad as it makes you. I wish I could repay those people all the minor inconveniences I’ve had, all the walks that ended with me collecting armfuls of trash, all the pleasant days that have been derailed by their garbage.
But I also know something that you don’t because I live here. I know that every time someone throws out a bottle or a can, the animals drag away into the forest. This happens especially with anything that even smells like food. We have a problem with black bears. I know that, unlike vacation beaches, city streets, landfills, and even some national parks — with their concrete walking paths and hotels — the forest is alive.
When I was seven or eight, one of the tenants in my family’s rental dumped a sofa on a dirt road that we hiked on, and we watched it fall apart and decay until only a metal frame was left, and then that too was swallowed by the leaves. Today there’s no sign that a sofa was ever there at all. Man-made substances are more resilient; my sister takes pleasure in wandering off the trails and locating old dumping sites. She brings home corroding tin cans that must be older than our house, crumpled bottles squeezed to death by the roots of trees. I have pictures of houses left unattended: rotting and full of bats. Anything we leave behind, the forest is capable of making disappear, and the trees are the bones of the forest on which everything else grows.
So forgive me if, despite my anger, I’m not that enthused about cutting down trees to build a wall, even if it will prevent littering. I’m more concerned about keeping the trees alive than I am about keeping truckers from throwing out hamburger wrappers.