As I pulled the rusty bedspring up from the “beach” along the Schuylkill River in Port Clinton, the metal coils kept catching on the rocks imbedded in the trail, yanking my arm back like it was dislocating from its socket. My other hand held a heavy, unruly garbage bag of crap that was unearthed from the land around the beach. It twisted and slipped, the yellow ties digging into my gloved hand, cutting off my circulation, whacking my calf with a sharp metal protruding piece that punched through the plastic.
We’re on a riverside clean-up with the Schuylkill Headwaters Association, the non-profit that my daughter Sierra is Outreach Coordinator of. We’re cleaning up a notorious trash hole across from The Rock- a graffiti-decorated rock that inner-city Reading folks come to recreate on and under throughout the warm summer months. “The Beach”- a gravely wide bank that has more glass shards than stones sits across from this jumping-off point.
What were they doing with a bed down there? Actually, I pulled three coiled box springs up this morning, and parts of a television. Did they drag them down to the river one summer night- and perhaps a generator to watch TV- a ¼ mile from the road with the roar of a highway nearby? If they were merely looking for ease in ridding their lives of trash, a convenient steep-roadside bank would have served better.
I stayed up by the Appalachian Trail trailhead for the first half hour to direct late stragglers to the river site. In the meantime, I cleaned up the pull off and steep bank of the mountainside where the trail switchbacks up. Condom packages, take-out containers, beer bottles, very few aluminum cans thanks to the recycled program. A diaper loaded with contents that appeared as though the baby ate an entire box of graham crackers. I handled that one by a tiny corner.
I went up the steep slope, sliding backwards in the loose wet soil to grab a bottle- Once I lifted the first, more and more appeared buried in the soil under a rock. The hole had to be excavated in order to bury them- so much work besides struggling to get up here. There is a Wawa gas station with trash receptacles right down the street as well as a huge recycling headquarters opened 24-7. I don’t get it.
Down at “The Beach” a group of beach-goers moved in with their stadium chairs, tent (no camping allowed) and half a dozen garbage bags of stuff/gear!? We hoped as they watched us bend down and pick up, fill bag after bag of trash, they would choose to take all of their stuff out with them when they left. Maybe it would make believers out of them, one at a time.
Hauling the crap up to the road, I found myself wondering about the people whose cast-outs I struggled with. Who they are, what are they like, what are their homes like? Do they trash their homes like they trash the natural world they are guests in?
We hauled 50 garbage bags up that trail to the road, where Penn DOT will come and pick them up. This was left over trash which Sierra’s clean-up crew could not get last November- they filled 50 bags then too. It was exhausting work .
We managed to keep a few trash bags of bottles separate so we could at least recycle something and prevent everything from ending up in a landfill. People in developing countries make their living from picking trash like this, we reminded ourselves. Sierra and I talked about what possessed people to trash like this. We thought of North Philly where Bryce lived – I’ve never seen any place that trashed outside of a developing country like India or Katmandu, Nepal. Do you become insensitive to it? Do you stop even seeing it? I drive down to Bryce’s apartment and find myself aghast and exclaiming, “How can you live in this environment and not want to do something?” He is just managing to get through art school. Is everyone JUST managing in North Philly with no energy left to dispose of their trash the right way? Is that the case with every poor person who trashes their world, whether its North Philly, the Beach at the Rock, India or Nepal?
When we were cycling the Yucatan Peninsula, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Trash and empty plastic bottles were strewn around the perimeter of the open-air café. When we were finished our meal, I asked the owner where I could put the bottles. He motioned for me to toss them onto the ground. I refused to. So he extended his hand for me to give them to him. Without breaking my gaze, he tossed them into the air so they landed on the ground at his restaurant.
I felt disheartened after a day of cleaning up a dump in nature. Sierra said she felt good- for the good work that they’ve done, for the students who contributed and made a difference, for the fact that forever she will be grateful when she sees a clean stretch of road or trailhead or riverside beach and never take it for granted. She is right. We can become insensitive and blind – whether it is to trash or to cleanliness. Or we can appreciate the lack there of.