Go digging in the back forty behind just about any old Catskills farmhouse, and you’ll find an old trash tip.
At my grandmother’s house, a prim and queenly Victorian perched on a neat green sward overlooking the village of Margaretville, it was the steep canyon of hemlock and duff just back of the garage. It was the obvious place to put a surreptitious dump: too steep for walking, out of view of the house but convenient in nasty weather. It clearly predated my grandmother, who didn’t move in until the 60s, and who would surely have treated any deliberate littering by members of the household as an affront to both God and nature.
Walk in the trailless woods anywhere around here, away from the tourist paths, and you’ll find them: little wooded copses straight out of the Blair Witch Project, strewn haphazardly with auto parts and plumbing remnants, springs and coils and the grisly remains of forgotten toys. Old hunting camps, with their cans and bullet casings sinking gently and inexorably into the leaf litter, year upon year.
Trash, when fresh, is disgusting. But with the patina of a few decades on them, those old Moxie bottles and medicine tins begin to take on something of the dignity of old Pompeii. I would no more throw a wrapper on the ground than strangle a kitten, but I love these dubious backwoods dumps, because each one is a mystery to investigate. Also, I have to admit, because they put the lie to that smug and persistent fiction: that locals don’t pollute. Not like these city yahoos, tromping our streams and swimming holes with their tacky picnics. Let’s face it: none of us are free from sin.
Littering is persistently cast as an environmental problem — for many people, the environmental problem — but the fact is, trash is an attitude. It’s something you learn to see.
Go for a walk in the clean, green woods with an invasive species biologist, and you’ll quickly discover a new lens through which to view the world, one that brings hitherto-unseen contamination into sharp relief. In May, the Catskills forest floor is alive with the pert and sprightly blooming stems of the invasive biennial Allaria petiolata, commonly known as garlic mustard. A relative of broccoli and rapeseed, it’s a lovely thing, apart from its tendency to take over the landscape and push out rarer native wildflowers.
Having done a stint in Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources, I can no longer enjoy this plant. It is my nemesis. It has all the charm of a sea of beer cans and burrito wrappers. In late spring, when it is in bloom, I uproot it everywhere I go, cursing and muttering, full of the sort of despair felt by people whose job it is to clean up wave after wave of plastic junk from beaches. I have been at this for years, and have yet to eradicate the bastard even from my own backyard.
There are environments in which litter causes tremendous problems on an ecological scale. The sea, for instance: a place where every stray scrap of plastic eventually breaks down into microscopic bits, a tempting and deadly buffet for fish and other marine life. By contrast, an inert bit of trash on the forest floor is a mere nuisance. Its worst and most pernicious effects — the resources used in its creation, wasted by its disposal, and alchemized into climate-altering, flood-and-fire-worsening carbon emissions over its life cycle — are invisible.
Trash isn’t our biggest environmental problem, but we focus all our moral rage on litterers. We give a pass, socially speaking, to the new house going up down the block, the huge pickup truck chugging down the street at 14 miles per gallon, the vacation flight that generates as much carbon in a day as all our household driving does in six months.
I submit that we mostly hate trash not for the thing in itself, but because it is evidence of occupation. It reminds us of the people who generated it. The more we already despise them, the more visceral horror we will feel at the sight of their waste.
My own personal trash boogeyman is the Margaretville Dollar Store, way down on Main Street near the post office. The place keeps huge open dumpsters out back, and they are constantly blatting wrappers and cardboard and plastic bags all over the back of the school athletic fields, where they blow end over end into the playground, and into the rushes of the pretty little frog pond where the spring peepers congregate.
The Dollar Store trash has a profound effect on my soul. Every time I walk past it on my daily route to the post office, I can physically feel it transforming me into a Homeowner’s Association type, all pursed lips and complaints to the local zoning board and I Want To Speak To The Manager. I hate that trash. I hate it a lot. But I have to admit, that’s also because I hate the Dollar Store.