Beyond the Beauty Strip: Talking Trash

Have you ever revisited a favorite spot in the backcountry or along a quiet back road, only to find it transformed into a passable imitation of a poorly managed landfill? That’s been happening more and more often to Tamia these days. Now she’s wondering if it’s just a local phenomenon, or if the problem’s bigger.

by Tamia Nelson | May 22, 2012

Let’s talk trash. It’s a big subject, and if what I see on trails and canoe launches is any indication—to say nothing of what I find scattered along the roads I travel—it’s getting bigger by the day.

What’s the explanation? Well, one of the leading citizens in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon memorably described the early settlers in the neighboring hamlet of Millet as having come to the New World “to get drunk and throw away their garbage,” implying that their descendants were keen to continue this proud tradition. Maybe this is all the explanation that’s needed. Or maybe not.

In any case, I guess I live in Millet.

That isn’t the impression you’d get by reading the press releases from the local Chambers of Commerce. The Chambers are in the business of promoting tourism in a rural county plagued by chronic high unemployment. You couldn’t expect them to accentuate the negative, could you? Of course not. You can’t land a fish if you don’t put something alluring on the hook, after all. And as the long lines of RVs that queue up at the gas pumps between Memorial Day and Labor Day attest, the Chambers never fail to net a goodly catch. Still, I can’t help but wonder how the folks who swallow the bait react once they discover that the local woods and waterways are festooned with garbage. They won’t have to work hard. It’s right there in plain sight for all to see. You don’t even have to look beyond the beauty strip.

That said, I suspect that most of the tourists—like most Milletians, for that matter—have simply come to take the littered landscape for granted. If I can believe the evidence of my own eyes, the gradual transition from America the Beautiful to America the Landfill has been going on for some time, and the trashing of parks, picnic areas, and highways is now so common as to pass largely unnoticed.

By an unconscious process of selective perception, people learn not to see anything that might distress them, in the much the same way that people who live next to busy highways learn to filter out the constant thrum of passing traffic. They only notice the noise when something—a multi-car pile-up, say—brings traffic to a dead stop. Then, more often than not, the resulting silence makes them uneasy. A familiar, comforting presence has suddenly been taken away. Later, when the roar of the traffic returns, they don’t complain. Instead, they feel a sense of relief.

That’s more or less how many Milletians feel about their trash-strewn roadways and parks. The ubiquitous litter is now a comforting presence, proof positive that, however uncertain their economic prospects, they and their neighbors are still rich enough to throw stuff away—glass, plastic, metal—that has real cash value. In short, they’d probably miss the garbage if it disappeared. And there’s an additional benefit to be gained by learning how not to see, the sort of thing that economists label a “positive externality.” If Milletians don’t see the garbage all around them, they can’t be moved to do anything about it. It then becomes someone else’s problem, and truth to tell, that’s just how they like it.

You’re probably wondering why I’m nattering on about such a distasteful subject. That’s a good question, and the answer is simple: I’m afflicted with a crippling handicap. I’ve never learned not to see what’s in front of my eyes. In fact, I’ve never tried. Instead, I’ve worked hard all of my life to see more—that’s more, not less—of the world around me. I don’t like missing anything, even if much that my eyes light on is damned ugly. I simply can’t ignore the creeping squalor. Call this a character flaw rather than a handicap, if you like. It certainly runs counter to the Code of Millet. Which explains why I’m still something of an outsider in my home county, even though I’ve lived in the place getting on 35 years now.

Despite paddling, backpacking, and cycling being thought of as “nonpolluting” activities, those of us who paddle, hike, and cycle are very much a part of the problem. And this is true even if we keep our sphincters tightly puckered at all times. It should go without saying that no responsible trekker would dispose of his (or her) garbage in anything but its proper place. After all, if you can carry something in, there’s no good reason why you can’t carry it back out again, and this common-sense rule has acquired the force of law in many places. Nowadays it’s even being applied by some park administrators to the end-products of digestion.

But it also goes without saying that irresponsible travelers don’t give a toss about such nannyish admonitions. Or rather they do give a toss. They toss anything—anything they’ve no use for, that is—anywhere they please. Beer cans. Beer bottles. (In Millet it’s de rigueur to shatter empties on riverside rocks when the party breaks up. This proves that you’re rich enough not to need your deposit money back.) Polystyrene bait tubs. Cigarette butts by the tens of thousands, each one a tidy little sachet of toxins. Empty food cans and retort packs. Yogurt containers. Tangles of monofilament. Exhausted stove-gas cylinders. (I sometimes find these in fire pits!) Naked human turds, usually adorned with a crowning tuft of soiled bumwad, like the cherry on an ice-cream sundae. Bottles full of viscid brown “snoose juice.” Slightly used condoms. Both infant and adult nappies. (You might be surprised by how many paddlers rely on adult nappies.)

Does ownership of a canoe or kayak, bike or backpack magically transform litter louts into good citizens? Regrettably, it does not.

Of course, the irresponsible travelers who leave these treasures behind them aren’t reading this column, are they? And the legions of thoughtful, responsible people don’t need (or want) a hectoring columnist telling them what to do. So what’s the point in my writing this?

That’s another good question. Perhaps I’d hoped to encourage readers to fight the understandable temptation to avert their eyes whenever they’re confronted with evidence of the despoliation of their favorite places. At least then we’ll get a better handle on the scope of the problem. Has the trashing of public spaces become everywhere the norm? Or is my corner of the Adirondacks just one of a few benighted Millets in an otherwise sunnier, healthier landscape? Is nearly everyplace else akin to Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”—and where every traveler packs his (or her) garbage out?

I’d really like to know. If the squalor I see when exploring the woods and waters around my home is an isolated problem, that’s a very good thing. It means the infection can be contained. It might even be cured, if the medicine were strong enough. But if, as I increasingly suspect, it’s merely a local manifestation of a broader, systemic illness, if the trashing of America is now seen as normal and accepted behavior, what, if anything, can be done about it? Do we even want to find a cure? Or have we fallen in love with the disease? I’d like to know that, too.

River Trash - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions