Garbage in the Woods

In our work of reclaiming the green spaces of Emerald View Park, over the past 6 years, over a thousand volunteers have removed more than 80 tons of garbage from the 275 acres of our urban forest. I have seen rusted cars, refrigerators, and bedsprings. Rubber tires, plastic toys, plastic bags, glass bottles, ceramic tiles, vinyl or aluminum siding, roofing shingles, lead pipes and various other forms of contractor debris littered the landscape. Eighty tons are 173,369.81 pounds of garbage.

On the ground, in the woods, most garbage is immediately identifiable. It consists of stuff which is human made, does not decay in the cycle of a few years, poses potential dangers to wild-life, and is plain ugly. Nature usually deals with it over many decades by rusting it out or covering it with leaf mold and dirt until it sinks into the ground. Most of us who love to walk in the woods are offended when the harmony of a natural landscape is disturbed by a ruined refrigerator with the doors hanging open. What is so disturbing about garbage? Why does it offend our aesthetic sensibility so that more than a thousand volunteers have felt the desire to come into the woods and haul the stuff up to the neighborhood parking lots, where it is collected by the city’s garbage trucks?

I remember my first encounter with massive garbage in the woods a few years ago. We were riding our horses through the Pennsylvania Game Lands in Indiana County. It was a beautiful fall day. Riding a familiar horse intensifies the sense of insertion into the natural landscape because through the close bodily contact with the animal our human senses are sharpened by the horses’ reactions to what is around us. We rounded a bend in the road, and my horse shied violently, almost unseating me. Littered across the road were white bags full of garbage. I knew that people in this area had to pay to have their garbage picked up, and someone could not or would not pay and dumped the stuff here in the woods. We had a hard time guiding our horses carefully through the stink and disturbance to continue on our way. I remember so clearly feeling offended: this stuff did not belong here, and someone had violated our common public space for his or her own profit.

My horse’s reaction was also revealing: the white, smelly bags indicated that something disturbed the habitual order of the landscape and posed a potential danger. It upset my horse because he could not fit it into a known category. In his experience the landscape pattern was interrupted by the scent and bright color of the debris. This alteration of the perceived world put his senses on high alert and his muscles prepared for a flight response. Only calming language, calming body contact, and coaxing encouragement could lead him dancing in a wide berth around the garbage bags and not succumb to fear and flight.

One of the primal responses we have to garbage is that it is disturbing. Something is in the landscape that does not fit: the white garbage bag did not come from here and does not fit itself seamlessly into the scenery. A newly fallen tree trunk is also a disturbance to the creatures who habitually use a landscape, but it soon begins to decay and merge into the greenery and the ground. It returns from where it came. The same is true for animal carcasses in the woods: they upset my horse initially, but after a few weeks they were absorbed by the surroundings and we passed these places without notice. Not so with the garbage bags. They did not return to where they came from. They stayed around as a constant reminder that people interrupt the landscape and litter it with things that are human made.

From a systems/Gestalt perspective garbage is an element that cannot be absorbed by the whole form. It does not fade (or fades very slowly) into the background and interrupts the balance of the whole. A more extreme, but very illustrative example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which by some estimates covers an area in the Pacific Ocean that is “twice the size of the continental United States” and consists of a floating gyre of mostly plastics from the world’s rivers and beaches. These plastics break down into smaller particles and enter the food chain. One third of the Laysan Albatross chicks of the Midway Atoll between Japan and Hawaii die because their parents feed them plastic which floats over from the Pacific trash vortex. Albatrosses and turtles have no perceptual category for distinguishing plastic debris from other food sources – with devastating consequences for their species.

The lesson about garbage from my horse and from the albatross chicks is that industrial garbage interrupts the perceptual and digestive body-field of living beings because it cannot be integrated into the life and decay cycle of the natural world. It either just hangs around for a long time as a perceptual sore in the landscape (like the rusty refrigerator) or it decays in covert ways that poison the food chain (like the coolants that leach from the rusty refrigerator into the ground water).

Marks, Kathy (5 February 2008). “The World’s Rubbish Dump”. The Independent (London). Retrieved 4 May 2010.

Filed under: Eva-Maria Simms, Nature, Prose