Category Archives: Environment
I’ve been on a killing spree lately. No rampant caterpillar can escape from my smash…or at least my smashing ire. I’m conducting this purge because I’m an environmentalist. Ecology has turned me into a cold-blooded killer.
The standard picture of an environmentalist is often the gentle, peaceful hippie type, someone who expresses tender loving care for all plants and animals on the planet. They are caricatured as supporting all life and opposing all death and violence. As such, killing is not even remotely imagined as a tool that is in the environmentalist’s repertoire; in fact, it may be thought of as the antithesis. But the ecological household of nature operates differently from idealized notions of harmonious environmentalism. As the poet Tennyson would say, nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’; death, as well as life, are integral parts of nature. It is an eat or be eaten type of world, and death is as necessary to nature as every organism’s metabolism. Nature continues on unceasingly because it rests in an appropriate balance between the processes of life and death, fecundity and consumption. But unfortunately, the balance of nature can readily be tipped to a point of drastic change; there exist certain species that can escape their native habitats and alter the balance of the ecosystems in which they land. These species are known as non-native invasive species. Environmentalists and ecologists alike are thus faced with the quandary of whether it is right—and to what extent it is—to kill in order to restore the balance to native ecosystems.
One of the cast of characters that appears on the most harmful invasive species list is the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar). This innocuous little caterpillar—and its flightless adult moth—seem relatively benign singularly, yet the monstrosity of their sheer numbers has been an extreme detriment to the northeastern United States. Native to Europe, the gypsy moth was intentionally brought to America less than 150 years ago in 1869. A man by the name of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot imported the non-native moths with the intent of interbreeding them with silk worms to develop a more resilient silkworm industry. Trouvelot’s experiment inevitably failed, and whether intentional or not, the moths were released from his residence just outside of Boston. Lacking any of their natural predators to keep their population in check, just twenty years later the first major outbreak of gypsy moths occurred in Massachusetts. Trees were defoliated, caterpillars covered everything, and frass (i.e. insect excrement) rained down on the town. Since then, the gypsy moths have started on their relentless march across the northeastern United States. Each year, the gypsy moths stake claim to new habitat, and with it they bring their trail of destruction. Entire sections of forest can be defoliated in an outbreak scenario, and the creatures can easily defoliate more than a million acres of hardwood forest in a given summer.
In early May, the next generation of gypsy moth caterpillars hatch from their over-wintering egg cases and commence their feast. They emerge by the millions and coat everything en masse. The tiny black-haired little crawlers make their visual appearance when they are about an eighth of an inch long, appearing on every natural or human-made object outdoors. The tiny caterpillars spin an elongated strand of silk and their long spikey hairs allow them to get carried by the wind to new places. To the casual observer, it seems like the tiny creatures are flying around. A young gypsy moth hopes to land on a palatable tree so it can begin its banquet and increase in size; barring an ideal landing zone, the caterpillars have a relentless drive to crawl over any obstacle to find a food source. In late spring, the observer can tell once again when the caterpillars have returned and can thus take action before much damage is done to the ecosystem. When the caterpillars are small, they are easy to destroy. Squashing the pests seems inconsequential. Pressing down upon them with a thumb produces nothing but a small black smear. Each caterpillar dispatched is gone forever and its life and memory are no more.
But as the creatures grow, they become harder and harder to kill both physically and psychologically. They have been feeding for weeks, turning native plant leaves into more gypsy moth biomass. The caterpillars have become larger, less fragile creatures. When they reach half an inch long, they are sizeable enough to squirt out a blob of dark-green or bright-yellow juice whenever they are squashed. At an inch long, they begin to display an adverse reaction to being squeezed; it takes increasing pressure before the caterpillar is popped and its life juices run down the leaves. As the caterpillars keep growing larger, their features become more distinguishable; they have become stronger and actively resist death now with all their might. Killing the destructive organisms is now more of a struggle, particularly a psychological battle for the executioner. The juice that gets on one’s hands sometimes runs a deep red, reminding the slayer that it once belonged to the realm of the living. The breached corpses of the caterpillars clench indefinitely to their leaves even in death, a chilling reminder of the life that once was. These things remind the exterminator that the organism dispatched just moments ago was a living, moving creature.
What right do I have in taking a fellow creature’s life? Especially if they cause little direct harm to me? Is the fate of the ecosystem dependent upon my action as a concerned ecologist? Or should the gypsy moths be left alone and nature allowed to run her course? As the gypsy moth caterpillars grow, they continue to become more and more of a nuisance, even reaching plague proportions. They feverishly eat leaves, turning the native oak trees into Swiss cheese. Infestations can defoliate entire trees and can even lead to tree death; entire sections of native hardwood forest can be denuded by these insects. In a quiet moment in the forests of New England, the very sound of destruction can be heard from the tree-tops. Close your eyes and listen—it is not a sprinkle of rain you are hearing, but the falling frass of the swarm. The oak trees, and other hardwoods, suffer at the mouths of these non-native herbivores. The other native creatures that depend on the forests for food and habitat are adversely affected too. The greed of the gypsy moth’s appetite knows no bounds. Is it thus justified to kill the caterpillars for the sake of the trees and the forest in general?
Should we as humans intervene in the situation of invasive species, even if it means the prescribed death of millions of organisms? It is a struggle that we as environmentalists and modern humans must face. Our civilized world has created a narrative that removes us from the brutal truth of ecological relationships and our impact on the natural world. The metabolism of life is neatly tucked away into the folds of textbooks or of the grocery store. We do not see where our food comes from, and we avert our eyes to predation in nature. We do not fully respect the fact that in order for the balance of nature to remain intact, life indeed must be taken. Death has become so unpalatable to our modern culture. It is thus exceedingly difficult to compromise a human distaste for killing with a commitment to the facts of ecology. I am both an environmentalist and an ecologist, yet I too struggle with the necessity of death. Humans are compassionate and sympathetic beings. It is hard to watch a young or injured animal die. We like to root for the underdog to survive. But not every organism in an ecosystem ever survives; it is not even physically possible for every organism in an ecosystem to survive. The balance of nature rests on the facts of metabolism—of life and death. When humans are responsible for bringing the balance of nature to a tipping-point, shouldn’t we also be responsible for correcting our wrongs? Isn’t killing another organism justified in the name of the ecological integrity of the whole system?
I encountered a similar moral dilemma surrounding the eradication of an invasive species when I was in Australia—only this example was more extreme. Instead of simply squashing caterpillars, the most-wanted organism was the cane toad. These creatures were much more relatable than a small caterpillar, and the moral qualms surrounding their eradication were much harder for me personally. The cane toad, a vertebrate, is much more closely related to human kind. Its blood and organs are similar to mine, and I felt as if I had some kind of evolutionary connection to the toad that I didn’t share with a caterpillar. Cane toads are also much larger—reaching up to the size of a dinner plate, and their deaths would prove all the more gruesome because of it. Though I knew intellectually how disruptive the cane toads were to the ecology of Australia, I individually had quite a few reservations about personally killing a cane toad.
Cane toads (Rhinella marina) were introduced to Australia from the tropical Americas in 1935 as a biological control method to combat the cane beetle, which was threatening Australia’s sugar cane crop. In 1935, 102 toads were released in agricultural areas in Queensland. From then to now, cane toad numbers have increased to more than 200 million in Australia today. Adding insult to injury, the introduced cane toads did not even control the cane beetles they were intended to ingest. Instead, cane toads wreak havoc by gorging themselves on native Australian fauna, eating native creatures directly and leaving less food for other native species. Additionally, the cane toads are highly poisonous and use their poison glands as their primary defense mechanism. Native Australian fauna, unfamiliar with the toads, see the meaty morsels as an easy meal. The cane toads do little to resist being bitten, and instead wait for the poison excreted from their skin to kill the pursuing predator. Instead of an easy meal, the Australian wildlife is poisoned to death. As the cane toads continued to hop into uncharted territory in the Australian bush, more and more native wildlife became diminished because of it.
Cane toads have become a much bemoaned villain in Australia, and the culture Down Under is unsympathetic to the toads. Aussies will use whatever means possible to exterminate a toad. Drivers use them as target practice in the road. Kids use them as cricket balls for sporting events. Humane ethicists advise either freezing or drowning the toads as the most humane method of dispatching the pests. I too, was taught by the Australians to combat the spread of the toads by any means possible. As a backpacker lacking any real resources for the job, I was told to use my most powerful weapon—namely, my boots. I was taught to bluntly kick around the cane toads until they stopped dead.
As an ecologist, I felt that I had to fulfill my duty to an already ravaged ecosystem. And the cane toads were not hard to find. I stayed in many places in Queensland and northern New South Wales where cane toads covered the ground like a plague. Knowing about their negative ecological impact, I was ready to do something about it. At one roadside campsite near a creek and some slickrock, I encountered an abundance of the bedeviled toads. I singled one out. I picked it up by its warty back. Having no predators and no defenses other than their poison, the cane toad made no effort to resist. It didn’t even seem perturbed by being picked up. Holding the toad in my hand, I prepared for what was about to come. I let go of the toad and drop kicked it. The toad went flying onto the slickrock. I made my way to the toad. Dazed, but alive, I found it again. I had already committed to the extermination of this particular toad; it would be cowardly to back out now. Thinking thusly, I repeated the entire process a few more times. With each drop kick I imparted, I knew I was doing damage to the toad. Yet after every kick the toad still groggily got itself back up. I could still tell that the toad was every bit as alive as I was. My efforts at eradicating it simply weren’t enough. The toad wouldn’t be dispatched easily. From the outside, my toad looked every bit a toad as it did before my encounter. But on the inside, I knew, I must have done some damage. I knew I needed to end the suffering promptly and just kill the toad quickly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to the point of squashing down on the toad with my boot against the rock. I was appalled at the thought of the blood and the gore of it all. So instead I did the cowardly thing. I left the toad where I found it, hoping that it would soon die of its injuries. It seemed probable that the toad would have died soon after, but I’ll never know for certain. At any rate, my actions would not have produced anything akin to a quick, painless death. And now, I had to live with being the cause of that death. Though my hatred of cane toads caused me to maim one of their own, it could not overcome my desire to not take a life; all my beliefs about ecological integrity could not manage to win over my sentiments and cause me to end the toad’s life once and for all.
It is still possible that the cane toad I kicked around lived on. If so, the toad lived but it was the ecosystem that suffered because of it. Each cane toad, each gypsy moth that continues to live on in a place outside its native ecosystem continues to tip the balance of ecological resiliency. One does not see the consequences of continued ignorance towards invasive species individually. But collectively, the oak trees will suffer because of it. The native Australian fauna will suffer because of it too. The ecosystem as a whole suffers because of it. And thus, when an organism is causing undue harm as an invasive species, is it right to let it continue on and undermine the integrity of the ecosystem? I think not.
Though killing is psychologically painful, it is often necessary and justified for the sake of ecology.
For More Information:
- Cane Toads: An Unnatural History
- And the best scene from the film…
- And the sequel…Cane Toads: The Conquest
Some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, a giant lobe of the continental glacier that stretched across North America during the last ice age ground to a halt during what is known as the Wisconsin Stage, the most recent phase of the last global glaciation. For thousands of years, that small piece of the vast expanse of ice stayed relatively stagnant at its location, neither advancing nor retreating remarkably. Though the terminus of the glacier remained more or less in place, the ice itself continually moved, acting like a giant conveyor belt carrying a load of rocks and sediment scraped from the bedrock of continental North America. Year after year the glacier persisted, bringing layer upon layer of sediment with it. About 12,000 years ago, the planet began to warm dramatically; it was the end of the last ice age. The glacial lobe, melting in the rising global temperatures, retreated north to the arctic where snow persists year round. In its wake was left evidence of the glacier’s presence; on the expansive coastal plain just off the mainland of modern-day Massachusetts was a very conspicuous mound of sediment. That pile of debris, known as a terminal glacial moraine, was the genesis of Cape Cod.
At its start, Cape Cod was little more remarkable than a hilly mound of debris pocked with depressions rising above a broad plain, for off the coast of New England the continental shelf is wide and gradually slopes down to the sea. At the end of the last ice age, with much of the world’s water being locked up in the melting glaciers, the ocean water was much lower than it is presently. For thousands of years after the glacier’s retreat, Cape Cod as we know it was not surrounded by water; it was surrounded by land. Gradually, as the Atlantic began to rise from glacial meltwater, the mound of sand and rocks finally became a peninsula about 3,500 years ago; a very primitive Cape Cod could now be identified by its shoreline. But it was not yet the Cape Cod we know today. It would still take thousands of years more to mold the landscape into its present form.
But even the Cape Cod of today was not the Cape Cod of yesterday, and will not be the Cape Cod of tomorrow. Geologic forces act with gusto on this geologic infant. All around the coast of the Cape is a blanket of sand—the telltale sign of active erosion. Sand moves quite readily in the wind and waves; there is nothing quite so solid about the Cape, no feature quite so permanent. Though formed of sand and rock, the Cape is little more than a giant sand castle in the midst of an angry Atlantic. To find a solid foundation—bedrock—one must burrow hundreds to thousands of feet down. With no solid foundation, the Cape exists in a state of flux. Just twelve thousand years after its creation, the Cape is dramatically different than the day the glaciers retreated. Cape Cod has never found its state of geological stasis.
Incessantly, wind and water work their relentless magic on the Cape, continually transforming the landscape. Though everywhere on the Cape has potential for rapid erosion, nowhere is this process more apparent than on the Eastern seaboard. Unprotected from the vast fury of the Atlantic, the eastern shore faces the brunt of its unmitigated ocean waves. The force of winds and waves cumulatively wash away the beaches lining the shore, which undermines the land above from the base. As more beach disappears into the water, land from above will tumble down to replenish the beach sands. Thousands of years of water undercutting the land have resulted in the wall of characteristic oceanside sand cliffs that line the eastern shore, and the continuously lapping ocean waves have eroded Cape Cod’s initially irregular eastern shore smooth into a long, continuous beach. Taking a look towards the cliffs above reliably reveals how high the land once sat.
On its eastern shore, Cape Cod loses about three feet of land every year. At its narrowest point just south of Wellfleet, little more than a mile of land separates Cape Cod Bay from the Atlantic. Given the current rate of erosion, the outermost peninsula of Cape Cod will become an island separated from the mainland in less than two millennia. Even on the time-scale of a human life, the rate of erosion is unmistakable. Glancing up at any seaside cliff, one is likely to see the underground remains of society ghastly exposed. Drainpipes emerge from the cliffs, leading nowhere, draining nothing. Electrical cables dangle limp and useless. Large chunks of asphalt lie at the base of the cliffs, evidence of past roads and parking lots. All of this evidence points to the fact that the eastern edge of the Cape was once purposely settled with the intention of staying permanently. But not even modern development could stand up to the forces of erosion over time. Eventually, even this evidence of habitation too shall disappear.
Along with the sand, much of the history of Cape Cod has fallen down the cliffs and disappeared into the hungry mouth of the ocean. The first twin lighthouses at Chatham have long since tumbled into the sea; later lighthouses would be built on moveable bases to prevent a similar fate. The landing spot of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable connecting America to continental Europe in 1879 is no more; that spot where messages were relayed across the ocean now lies more than 300 feet out to sea. As the pursuit of land by the ocean continues, more buildings face the dilemma of either moving or falling into the ocean. Man’s few accomplishments, even as groundbreaking and historic as they may be, are ultimately fleeting and ephemeral. Nothing can stop the onslaught of the elements over time. The ocean serves as a reminder for man to keep his humility.
Though the eastern shore is rapidly eroding and the Cape loses about 5 to 6 acres of land every year, not all of the elements work to destroy land. Land that is lost will eventually result in land that is created. However, on Cape Cod it is a losing battle; for every acre of land lost, only ½ acre of new land will be created. The rest of the sediment vanishes into the ocean depths. Summer winds transport eroded material along the shore southwards, adding to the sand island of Monomoy off the Cape’s elbow. Strong winter Nor’easters transport most of the sediment down-cape to the curling fist at Provincetown. Here, currents slow and the transported sediments are deposited, forming the classic recurve shape of a sand spit. At the very tip of the Cape, the area known as the Province Lands has been formed very recently, an accumulation of the sandy corpse of the easternmost Cape. The Province Lands are not a glacial feature, but a geologically infantile accumulation of water-deposited sand. But even where deposition occurs, erosion is present also. Just south of Race Point, where sand from the eastern Cape is coming to rest, waves off of Cape Cod Bay move sand south around the Provincetown Harbor towards Long Point. Erosion happens on many scales—a fractal pattern of sand spits develops.
Water is one factor in the continual re-shaping of Cape Cod; wind is another. Unprotected from higher surrounding landforms, Cape Cod is continually ravaged by winds whipping across the seas. Historically, the erosional effect of these winds has been tempered by a layer of vegetation growing on the sandy soil. Though the soil on Cape Cod is poor and holds very little organic matter, these fragile soils once supported great hardwood and softwood forests. Millennia after the glaciers retreated, pioneering species gradually built a thin soil in the sand; larger and lusher trees were then able to grow, a magnificent forest of large pines, oaks, and in places even the nutrient-demanding beech tree. Upon landing in the New World at the Province Lands in 1620, the Mayflower Pilgrims scouted the area and remarked on the majesty of the Cape’s forests, being “compassed about to the very sea with oaks, pines, juniper, sassafras, and other sweet wood.” Though the pilgrims moved on to settle permanently in Plymouth, more European settlers were soon to follow in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. With rapidity the native forests of the Cape were cut down for firewood and agriculture; the thin fragile soil was exposed to the unforgiving winds. The layer of green that held down the topography of Cape Cod was removed, and the fertility of the soil lost with it. By the mid-1800’s, man’s feeble attempts to eke out a living by farming the Cape all but ended. Today the stabilizing forests are in regeneration, the scraggly pitch pines being the first to reappear where man once tilled.
This story of human-induced erosion played out all across the Cape, but nowhere else was its effect as marked or as lasting as in the Province Lands. Though the native vegetation recolonized most of the Cape, not all places were able to return to mature forests. The sandy hills of the Province Lands, once denuded of their forests, created a perpetually shifting dunefield. As the dunes go on their continual relentless march, human habitations and historic buildings are engulfed by the drifting dunes without human intervention. Even today’s darling jewel of Cape Cod tourist towns, Provincetown, was critically threatened by the shifting sands; the fledgling town was close to being abandoned in the 1700’s as sands started to engulf the village. To allow the blowing sand to pass underneath unopposed into Provincetown harbor, residents began building houses on pillars. Efforts to combat the unceasing erosion happened nearly as soon as the dunes started moving. As early as the 1650’s, a law was passed in Provincetown forbidding the trampling of dune vegetation. Such conservation laws continue today, and Provincetown was saved from imminent burial. But the tip of the Cape is far from its pre-colonization state; the winds and sand continue to remind inhabitants of this fact. Paths and roads along Cape Cod’s sandy tip are continuously blanketed by a layer of sand. The Province Lands Dunes—as beautiful as they may be—are a man-made creation, one that has outrun his own control. Though the initial disturbance was created by humans, the relentless winds took over the process of dune movement and continues on to this day.
Everywhere on Cape Cod, change to the landscape is occurring. Much of it—the seemingly inconsequential movement of a single salt grain—happens ever so minutely and imperceptibly. Cumulatively, the effects of erosion serve as a reminder of the impermanence of humans and their accomplishments. Nothing, ultimately, lasts forever. Not even a feature as large and well-known as Cape Cod can last. Ultimately, all things are washed away into the sea.
For Additional Reading: O'Brien, Greg (2003). A Guide to Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands. Hyannis, MA: Codfish Press. Strahler, Arthur N. (1966). A Geologist's View of Cape Cod. Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press.
“Turkeys in the rain and they don’t complain, they just graze in the field with the cattle in the mist”
Seth Bernard and May Erlewine, from “Turkeys in the Rain”
Springtime has been coming on gradually in Cape Cod, with slowly warming temperatures as the amount of daylight steadily lengthens. Cool spring rains fall across the landscape as the deciduous trees burst forth their buds into new foliage and flowers. The fauna, long-since arisen from their winter torpor, are milling about their animal business. The cyclical change into springtime causes a hormonal shift and serves as a trigger for much animal behavior; for some, the breeding season is nigh and is fraught with activity. Listen closely. All around the Cape, you may hear the familiar fowl and its iconic gobble as it struts showily about. Yes, both field and forest are alive with a rafter of turkeys (indeed, that is the correct name for a group of turkeys, derived from the antiquated use of the word ‘raft’ as a motley collection of things). After a long winter living in groups separated by sex, the male and female turkeys start to mingle and commence their rituals of courtship. It is quite a show to bear witness.
The turkeys go about their labors, indifferent to rain or shine. The hens, the more pragmatic of the sexes, spend their time foraging about for food. The toms, preoccupied with vanity, fluff out their showy plumage and strut about for the ladies. The frequent rain doesn’t dampen their spirits—they continue on as they had, indifferent without complaints. Nor, as urban legend may have it, do they stare up at a raining sky, mouths agape, until they drown (actually, with eyes on the side of their heads, turkeys would need to tilt their heads sideways in order to view the sky). Neither do the turkeys seem to mind human observers; instead of being frightened by human encroachment, the turkeys merely seem more annoyed with the distraction. The hens, being more vigilant, are the more likely party to move if a visitor gets too close; the toms (also known as gobblers)—well, they still seem a little preoccupied with other matters.
Any given morning during mating season you will hear their distinctive call resounding. The comical gobble-gobble-gobbles of the turkeys pierce through the chirping din of the petite songbirds to dominate the avian conversation. Though the call may sound silly to our own human ears, the gobbling is nothing short of a serious business. With each call, the toms try to attract a mate, and their gobble is one of the criteria upon which they will be judged. Their plumage and showmanship are other vital categories in this talent show. Unlike the drab brown females, the toms are bedazzled with ornate patterns of plumage—stripes and streaks, lights and darks, mottles and dapples. They fluff out their feathers as they strut about their courtship dance, becoming the stereotypical turkey in every grade-schooler art project. Their bald heads and their hanging wattles, in varying shades of red and blue, add to their sexual appeal. On the top of their beaks hangs their snood, a fleshy protuberance that engorges with blood and expands, signaling both the prestige and attractiveness of the mate. The toms’ courtship walk about the fields is reminiscent of the dinosaurs, deliberately stepping about. For all the effort that went into this display, though, I wonder if the hens even care to notice the showmanship.
For all the pomp and ceremony that the males put into the show, the actual copulation is finished in a swift and inglorious manner. The hen, satisfied with the robustness of her mate, squats down for a quick fertilization. While the mating season is ongoing, the hens will gradually begin to break away from the co-mingled groups to create a nest—little more than a few shallow scratches in the ground under the protection of some dense brush. The hens will lay a few eggs before returning, once again, to the mating show for additional fertilizations. Once they have laid about a dozen eggs, the hens break out from the group entirely and begin the weeks-long period of continuous incubation. The eggs will hatch in June, bringing forth the next generation of poults to continue on with the show next springtime. The toms, as uncommitted as they ever were, re-form their bachelor groups and mill about in the forest. Their days will now be filled with re-establishing their pecking order for when the next mating season comes around.
As the evening fades into dusk, take a glance up into the trees. Maybe a frantic gobble from up above will give it away. The turkeys have taken to the trees to roost for the night. They prefer the stands of towering old white pines, where the branches are thick, straight, and long, and where the inner foliage of the trees is sparse. Up safely off terra firma, the turkeys can avoid their many ground predators as they rest through the night. Though they are large heavy birds and look like a Thanksgiving dinner, turkeys are actually quite adept fliers. They can muscle their way up into the lower branches of a tree, where they will hop about from branch to branch continually climbing higher into the canopy. Look up and you may be lucky enough to catch the motion of them flying from branch to branch.
As you observe the wild turkeys here on Cape Cod, you may notice how abundant they seem to be. As in the days of the pilgrims, these plump birds casually roam the forest en masse. Turkeys haven’t always been so abundant though. With increasing settlement and more game-hunting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the number of wild turkeys dropped precipitously. Eventually the iconic fowls disappeared from Cape Cod altogether. In Massachusetts, the very state where Thanksgiving was first celebrated (and very likely served turkey) the last wild turkeys were extirpated in 1851. Only recently, were these charismatic birds reintroduced onto Cape Cod. In 1989, 18 wild turkeys were re-introduced onto the wilds of Cape Cod’s Otis Air Force Base, which lies just a few miles away from camp. If all the evidence points correctly, clearly the turkeys have taken off really well since then.
At camp there is a magical box. It’s a magical box because the more trash that gets put into it, the cleaner camp becomes. This box is known as our Trail Trash, a motley collection of litter odds and ends found scattered across the camp property.
Though our camp may be on an expansive forested area in a natural setting, it doesn’t mean that litter isn’t produced here. Quite the contrary, actually, as our camp plays host to a multitude of 5th graders over the course of a few days for their environmental education. With ten year olds, a whole compilation of stereotypical litter materializes on the ground seemingly out of nowhere—candy wrappers, chip bags, plastic toys. The vast amount that gets dropped is tremendous, as if every 5th grader’s pocket leads directly to the ground. At camp, we can forgive this incidence of litter with magnanimity because the students are young and still learning to look after themselves and their surroundings. Thus, when leading a group of students through camp, I always keep my eyes peeled on the ground for those teachable moments inherent in litter. If I am inspiring and unyielding enough about picking up litter, then after every class I lead the students will have collected for me a few pocketfuls of trash to add to the Trail Trash bin.
I don’t like to think of litter as inevitable, but it is a part of life that must be dealt with. Even with the best of intentions, we all unknowingly litter. Things fall out of our pockets, or get sucked out the car window. We fumble a wrapper that is immediately swept up by a breeze. Something slips from our grasp and drops irretrievably into a crevice. We forget about things we’ve left outside, and before we can remember they have been lost to the entropy of the environment. I have littered in these ways a lot—countless times, in fact. Like death and taxes, it seems that litter is one of the few guarantees of life. But the inevitability of litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it.
This is why we so strongly encourage and model the responsibility of picking up litter at camp. Ultimately, the vast majority of trash on our camp is produced by our campers. Through the practice of picking up trash instead of blithely walking past it, students become involved in the solution of cleaning up their own environment (though they likely don’t even realize that they are the ones making it dirty in the first place). Our students learn that it is not only environmentally unacceptable—but also socially unacceptable—to cast unwanted items into the environment. They learn that when throwing something ‘away’, there really is no away. From the trash the students pick up, they can visually see that the litter on the ground stays on the ground and continues to get trampled into the dirt until someone takes the initiative to pick it up.
I love referencing the Trail Trash bin at camp because it gives me great satisfaction to pick up litter and then deposit a handful of it into the bin, continually watching the level of trash rise. The bin provides a clear visual demonstration of our human impact on our hyper-local environment. The same sentiment towards trash compels me to pick up litter in other areas where I find myself as well, not just when I’m leading children at my job. Having lived and traveled to many places, I have seen firsthand how litter is a problem everywhere. Rubbish is just casually tossed aside to join the ranks of other discarded items on the wayside, and few places have advocates championing for their cleaning. Maybe not everyone feels the same way about litter as I do. Maybe not everyone knows better either. But trash is trash nonetheless.
Litter is a form of pollution, but unlike some forms of chemical or radioactive pollution, litter is something that we can tangibly handle. It is a visual presence as well, the results of trash being immediately observable to the onlooker. There is really no excuse for the amount of litter in our society where we all should have learned better. But just taking a look down any old highway or around any old vacant lot, one will see that we still haven’t acted any differently. Litter is the low-hanging fruit of pollution. It is everywhere. It takes no specialized equipment to clean up. If our goal is to clean up our environment in all forms, maybe we can start small. We can start with the pollution that’s the most obvious and unsightly and close to home. We can challenge ourselves to pick up trash instead of walking over it. Maybe then, more people will begin to be interested in solving some of our more troublesome pollution problems.
Since I absolutely love the feeling of accomplishment from picking up litter, I recently went to a trash clean-up event along the Cape Cod Canal in honor of Earth Day. Along the canal runs a narrow linear park with open space and a recreational trail popular with residents and tourists alike. For an organized clean-up area, the canal was in pretty good shape to begin with. In order to find trash, the volunteers had to scramble down onto the rocks which line the canal and rummage through the seaweed in order to find small bits of litter. After a couple of hours of searching, I didn’t even manage to fill my large trash bag. I pulled out lots of individual pieces of trash though, but most of what came out of the weeds was small, fragmented bits of plastic—water bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette filter tips, plastic rope fragments, balloon ribbon. Though it may have not been completely satisfying to only find small bits of trash, the clean-up event was gratifying nonetheless based on the fact of what trash wasn’t there. The evidence from this clean-up meant that the bigger and uglier trash is either being picked up or not produced at all—well, at least in our well-loved public parks. What remains in the environment are the smaller, more hidden bits of trash that may not have even been intentionally disposed of improperly. This example provides some hope that we must be doing a good job educating people about not littering—at least in some places. On my drive back to camp that day, I could still see all the roadside clutter clearly visible at 55 mph. Cleaning up our recreational areas is a good start, but our less beloved areas still tend to get carelessly dumped on.
But at least picking up litter is a place to begin. I genuinely hope that someday trash won’t be such a problem in our society. I hope that someday the trash that we’re picking up now—the small, one-time use disposable plastic bric-a-brac—will be phased out of our society completely. Educating people not to litter is one challenge, but the bigger underlying challenge is to refrain from producing all that garbage to begin with.