Some of the things I do daily are so dead simple they’re almost stupid. Filling the xerox machine with paper when it’s empty. Picking up the chunks of (clean) toilet paper people throw on the bathroom floor. Picking up bits of glass and plastic on trails and sidewalks. None of this is my job–or is it? I see it. I am therefore responsible for it, in some way. I used to go barefoot a lot, and so a long time ago I began picking up the bits of glass that scared me. I’m embarrassed to see the public bathrooms at work in such a state. I wear a uniform, so I am easily identifiable as part of the place. It isn’t my job to clean up the whole world, it isn’t possible for me to do so. However, we can all make this world we are in a little better. At the very least, we can all take care of our own mess. If we all did so, think what this world would be like…
I don’t do this stuff as part of my application for sainthood, and I’m not suggesting that you all run out right now with a trash bag and a mission. I’m just asking you to think about the place you live in, how you make it your own, and what you leave behind. What difference does your presence make each day?
We’re all part of the land. We’re literally made of earth, the food we eat, the minerals in it that are part of us, and the less savory things that we give back to it. We don’t want them any more, but to some other being, they are life itself. Have you thought about what you eat lately, really thought about where it came from, what it was when it was alive? Everything we eat was once alive, and everything that dies is only in the process of becoming someone else. This isn’t cruel, or tragic, it’s the thing that makes us all one.
In my house, we say grace. We thank the beings that grace our table, from the fruiting bodies of mycelium that we call mushrooms to the chicken that gave its very life. Acknowledging this fact brings meaning to my meal, and puts me firmly in the web of life and death. It has put chickens in our backyard and herbs on our back porch. Calling “thank you” out the window when we eat eggs, and knowing that those birds are enjoying their lives is a gift. Cleaning the chicken coop becomes a means of connection as well as a chore. It’s part of the deal of domestication.
Not all animals want to make this deal with us. No one rides zebras, for example. No one keeps seagulls for eggs–though the nineteenth century inhabitants of San Francisco probably ate them. Chickens, however, not only lay for most of the year, they share nests and stay in roughly the same place. They are birds of habit and they don’t mind living with humans. It was actually a fairly good deal for them until quite recently. They allowed humans to take their eggs, and while they didn’t get to live out their entire lifespan, on the average they lived a lot longer than their wild relatives did. In return they got protection, housing, food, and instead of living exclusively in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they now can be found all over the world. Humans got eggs and tasty meat, and the tendency of chickens to scratch and defecate made them useful in the fields as well.
The next paragraph or so is not graphic per se, but if you don’t want to think any more deeply about this subject, you might want to skip past it.
This was a great deal, but as we humans have a tendency to skip out on our chores, we eventually found a way to get out of our end of it. The ways we treat our domestic animals these days are pretty horrific. Since most of us don’t have to watch, we can ignore this, but there are consequences for us as well. It can’t be good for us to be eating creatures that spent their lives in pain, mental and physical, and died horrible deaths. Having eaten animals that I’ve taken out of life quickly and cleanly, I can tell you that a well fed, happy animal just tastes better. Knowing the whole cycle of life is empowering as well. It was an initiation in the truest sense of the word. I felt that at last I could feed my family, and that I can take responsibility for how I live. I’m not planning on giving up eating meat, after all. I also came to realize that I, too, will in the end be eaten, and I don’t fear it. I don’t want to die, of course, but I want to lay a handsome table when I do. I want to give back what I have borrowed and continue the dance of life in some other form.
I started out with trash, and I’m going to end there as well. I’ve found that when a human begins to pick stuff up, we all get three benefits. The first, of course, is simple. There’s less garbage lying around. The second is related to that–a human who picks up trash is a human who doesn’t thoughtlessly throw things around when finished with them. The third is a growing awareness, for the individual human, and for the rest of us.
As I’ve begun to listen to the land, it has gotten downright talkative. I see the most interesting things on the ground.
The land hands me trash bags. A plastic bag dangles at eye level from a tree trunk in Golden Gate Park. You can’t get any clearer than that. Brightly colored balloons form a fan on the sand in Aquatic Park. What I took for brightly colored red plastic chips on the grass turn out to be rose petals, strewn at my feet. Never let it be said that the planet is not capable of making the grand gesture of appreciation on occasion. My chickens peck bits of glass and broken china from the dirt in the yard. Many of them are quite beautiful. I may get around to making a mosaic out of them someday, but for now I save them in a terra cotta pot in the yard.
We’re all responsible for what we see. But no, we can’t do all of it. I would spend my entire day picking up trash if I tried. So I set limits. I pick up plastic, mainly in the woods and on the beach. Plastic, particularly small bits of it, scares me. It’s on its way into the food web. Sea birds fight for food, and they will eat anything that looks like it might be edible without a second thought. Many of them die with their stomachs choked with the stuff. They’re not the only animals who do this. Plastic on the ground, exposed to sunlight, becomes brittle and falls apart. It remains plastic, but the bits get smaller and smaller, leaching toxins as they do. If plastic ends up in the ocean, it floats on the current or sinks. If there are future archaeologists, I’m betting that this century will be clearly visible as a layer of plastic–or its components. We will be remembered by what we leave behind.
So if you think that somebody ought to do something about it, maybe you, like me, are that someone.