Archive for the 'Beyond the Beauty Strip' Category

Jul 05 2012

Beyond the Beauty Strip: More Trash Talk

Nobody admits to getting off on garbage. Well, nobody I know, anyway. But if your backcountry haunts are anything like my home waters, you just can’t get away from it. With apologies to the Troggs, garbage is now all around us. And no, I’m not talking about the Big Issues here: huge gyres of eternal plastic waste swirling ceaselessly in the mid‑Pacific, endless tailbacks of creeping cars belching carbon dioxide, methane clouds bubbling up from thawing permafrost, gender‑benders dumped in lakes and streams insidiously transforming bull gators into meek momma’s boys… These things all have profound implications for the continued well‑being of our own species, of course, but they are (mostly) invisible. So we find them easy to ignore.

And I’m ignoring them, too. Instead, I’m talking ordinary, everyday trash. It’s right there for all of us to see and (often) smell. In your face and up your nose. Like I just said, it’s all around us. Still, when I allowed my feelings on the subject to spill over onto these virtual pages a while back, I figured the column would elicit little or no response. Or, if anyone did bother to write, the letter would likely be something of this sort: “Eww! Why do you have to talk about such negative stuff, anyway? If you can’t say something nice…”

I’d have understood that. I’d even have sympathized with the writer. I don’t enjoy talking trash all that much, to be honest. Given my druthers, I’d rather natter on chirpily about sleek boats, glorious sunsets, singing birds, and dancing waters. Who wouldn’t?

Of course, the garbage would still be there, whether I talked about it or not, and as I explained in my earlier column, I haven’t learned the Art of Not Seeing. Nor am I interested in trying. So the bile that rises in my gullet whenever I confront the trashing of my home waters eventually bubbled out into virtual print, though when Farwell asked me about it, I confidently predicted I’d be talking to myself. But I was wrong. The article generated a lot of mail — the most mail I can remember around a column, not to mention the longest letters. And I don’t think a single writer took me to task for my negativity. Quelle surprise, as they say on the Champs‑Élysées.

Well, I asked for it, didn’t I? Yes, I did. My column concluded with these words:

Have you ever revisited a favorite spot in the backcountry, only to find it transformed into a passable imitation of a poorly managed landfill? That’s been happening more and more often to me these days. Now I’m wondering if it’s just a local phenomenon, or if the problem’s bigger. The upshot? I’ve spent this week talking trash. Let’s hope that it’s just the start of a long and productive conversation.

Not that I expected anyone to take me up on the implied invitation. But since so many folks did, I figured it was incumbent on me to keep the conversation going, so to speak, especially as my correspondents made it abundantly clear that the trashing of woods and waters wasn’t simply a local problem, confined to my corner of the northern Adirondacks. I got mail from folks all across the continent. I even got letters from foreign parts, places where I’d imagined that things like picking up the garbage were better organized than they are here in Liberty Hall.

Anyway, here goes: A small sampling of the mail I received, reprinted by the kind permission of the writers. And just to prove I’m not wedded to negativity, I’m going to begin on a positive note, with the words of a man who does a good deal more than point with alarm. In fact, he takes the direct approach: Picking up other people’s garbage… Read more…

Oct 25 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for October 2010
Hidden in Plain Sight

When we’re behind the wheel, it’s easy to fall into “Don’t look, don’t see” mode. A car enwombs driver and passenger alike, insulating them from the many of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around them. Not long ago a driver ran down a cyclist, dragging her several hundred yards. The driver continued on without stopping, thinking, she later said, that she’d just hit a deer or a dog. Only when she got home and discovered a bicycle lodged under her SUV did it dawn on her that she’d struck a human being. (The cyclist died of her injuries, by the way, but the driver wasn’t charged. Apparently, this was a mistake any driver could make.)

Only a deer. Only a dog. Only a cyclist. Life is cheap on America’s highways, and the open road is littered with the bodies of the ones who didn’t get away. Not many cyclists are left where they fall, of course. We still have enough respect for human life to collect their remains, if not enough to prosecute their killers. (A mistake anyone could make.) But our other victims mostly remain on the asphalt where they died, food for crows and other scavengers. Which is, after all, only the natural order of things. Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the evidence of the automobile’s power to kill and main.

Unless, of course, you choose not to see. But this easy option isn’t open to cyclists. We can’t help but see what lies on the road we ride on. And if the dead have lain in the sun for very long, we can smell them, too.

Which means that many cyclists only know our rarer and more elusive species of animals because they’ve seen them lying dead on the highway—or struggling to get across a busy road before a speeding car crushes them beneath its wheels. How many riders have seen a snapping turtle anywhere except on the highway? Or a living shrew, darting in and out of the deep forest duff, in its never-ending quest for enough food to fuel a heart that beats hundreds of times a minute?

Me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I know these animals when they’re “at home.” But I still see far more of them dead on the road before me. Maybe you’ve never made the acquaintance of a shrew. OK. Here’s one that didn’t make it:

Too Small to See

Or maybe you’ve never seen a weasel going about his business, sinuous and sleek, patrolling the rocky shore of a river or hunting under the pines? Well, if you haven’t, it’s not really a surprise. Weasels move fast, and they hunt by stealth and guile. They’re not easy to see. But this one—a least weasel—had no trouble holding still for my camera:

To Hunt No More

Then again, he didn’t have much choice, did he?

And what about birds? Cedar waxwings aren’t rare, and while they prefer wild fruit, they’re sometimes seen at feeders. But they’re shy. It’s hard to get near them. I didn’t have any trouble getting close to this one, though:

To Sing No More

He died in my hands after being struck by a car.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I like riding. I really do. But each ride adds to an already overlong list of absent friends. And each small body that I scoop up and carry off the road to some grassy patch on the verge reminds me just how vulnerable we all are. A fumbled cell phone, a flirtatious tickle in the ribs, the cry of a colicky child in the back seat… Too many drinks, too many hours without sleep, too many pills,… And then it’s Did I hit something back there? Must have. Helluva bang. Still, it was probably just a dog or a deer. Too late to stop now. Couldn’t do anything, anyway. I’ll check out the damage when I get home. Have to keep the wife (or the boyfriend or the boss or the insurance) from finding out, too. Damn!

Meanwhile, a few miles back, something unseen drags itself slowly and painfully toward the refuge offered by nearest roadside ditch.

 

Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were it’s teeth concealed?
You seem to ask. …
        I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws your were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

      Philip Larkin, “Myxomytosis”

 


How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
Send a Comment

Sep 20 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip, September 2010

 
The weather was so pleasant when I was cycling along one of my regular routes last week that I decided to extend the ride, and I took a detour onto a road that I hadn’t traveled down before. I hadn’t gone far before a dirt track led away from the road into a woods. The sign at the intersection said Cemetery Road. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

Chickadees called from the trees, and I heard a turkey clucking softly in a field just visible through the woods to the south. A quarter mile or so further on, the track suddenly came to an end. And sure enough, there was the cemetery. Ranks of neatly tended gravestones reposed on a gentle hillside, shaded by towering spruces. I left my bike at the open gate and entered the cemetery.

Resting Place

I walked the rows of stones and wondered about the lives of those who were buried there. Several graves marked the resting places of soldiers from the American Civil War, and a Marine who’d died in Korea kept them company, sharing a plot with his brother, who had fought in World War II. Most of the graves bore no flags or bronze markers, however. I saw the headstones of parents and their children, of octogenarians and of infants who’d died within days of being born. It was as quiet and well-tended a cemetery as any I’ve explored.

Rest in Peace

That impression stayed with me. But then I turned back to return to my bike, walking along the very boundary of the cemetery. That’s when I found the all-too-familiar informal dump, a heap of trash imperfectly concealed by leaf litter, fallen branches, and pine cones. Broken bits of artificial flowers were strewn across the ground, along with the plastic vases that once held them. All had been tossed haphazardly into the woods. It seems that “perpetual care” doesn’t extend to carting trash off to the landfill. Out of sight, out of mind? Perhaps. At least the dead can’t see the dump on their doorstep.

Trashed


How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
Send a Comment

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