"Only we humans make waste that nature can't digest."
To say that there are a few things that I don't understand in contemporary society would be an understatement. The, in my opinion, undeserved adulation of the Kardashians, the repeated gruesome mass shootings and the dumping of garbage in nature top the list.
This goes beyond tossing a banana peel out the window to avoid it's sticky, black carcass from stinking up your car on a hot day. To be clear, throwing that banana peel is still littering despite a banana peel being organic and biodegradable. That seemingly harmless tossing can cause animals to become habituated to looking for food on busy roadways and can take anywhere from 7 months to 2 years to decompose. It sets a bad precedent for throwing litter no matter how insignificant.
I am reminded of human trash being left behind, ether by conscious decision or by carelessness, each trip to the river. I try to fill my net with as much as I can carry as I fish along, sometimes having to quickly empty the trash from my net before I can scoop up a fish, only to refill it with the trash after the fish has safely been released. Seem ridiculous? Who would I be if I just left it there? To wash downstream next time the river level rises? To become someone else's worry? At some point, the cycle of "not my problem" has to end.
On a recent outing with my binoculars to search for a vagabond Bohemian Waxwing, scarcely seen in this part of the country yet sighted along the Rio Chama in Abiquiu, I was staggered to find the side of the county road, as it sloped down to the river and it's bosque, a literal dump.
(a bosque is a type of forest habitat found along the riparian flood plains of a stream or river bank in the southwest- here in New Mexico, it is usually cottonwood and willows)
This wasn't just a beer can or bottle or random blowing plastic shopping bag; it was bag after bag of smelly household trash, piles of tires, a discarded vacuum cleaner, old furniture, construction waste and much more. This was the land of Georgia O'Keefe's musings, sacred land of the Tewa people long before that, home and habitat to countless species of plants and trees, reptiles, insects, coyotes, rabbits, owls, mice, eagles and hawks, migratory birds, trout in the river, bob cats, bear and mountain lion.
Typically garbage and littering are thought of as urban problems. However, the issue reaches farther than the outskirts of the cities and suburbs. And although the benefits of recycling seem obvious, it hasn't proven to be the solution to our garbage problem that we were told it would be.
In some rural New Mexican communities, not only is recycling not an option but affordable household trash pick up services aren't either. The cost per year, for single residence garbage collection in Rio Arriba County, where I live, is $276. There are no recycling services offered nor are customers allowed to take larger items to the "transfer station" any longer without paying an additional fee. As a result, large volumes of household waste are simply dumped into ditches, arroyos, and off the side of rural county roads when residents decide that about .75 cents a day for trash pick-up is not in their budget. There is no landfill in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, a county larger than the state of Connecticut, adding additional hauling expenses to the cost of garbage collection for customers. To be fair, this dumping mindset has been going on for generations but does seem further compounded by current economics.
As forester and philosopher Aldo Leopold journaled, "We will accomplish conservation when we, as a nation, scorn waste, pollution, and unproductiveness as something damaging, not only to the individual reputation of the water, but to the self-respect of the craft and the society of which he is a member."
Read that again.
No matter where you fish or hunt, we all want and deserve the opportunity to enjoy clean water and healthy, pristine forests. We don't want to walk past other people's trash on the trail, nor should we. It begins with a single indolent person saying "it's just one doggy poop bag" or "one plastic water bottle" ...left behind at a campsite, trailhead or river bank. What if it wasn't one person? One person became 500 people, then 1000 people; and the mindset of "not my problem" continued to flourish. There has been a lot of talk and failed anti-littering public campaigns like "Toss no Mas" here in New Mexico, but those seem to be just words and action is lost in bureaucracy. Ultimately, the burden seems to fall on sportsman's groups like Trout Unlimited or local outfitters adopting a stretch of highway or organizing weekend river clean-ups. Local governments, run by out of touch politicians, have proven that they don't actually care about wild places and preserving ecosystems. They don't care to put in the real work to solve environmental issues that stare sportsmen and women in the face daily. Not their problem. Hunters and anglers will have to continue to advocate for the resource until the rest of society wakes up.
Can we we begin by changing the "not my problem" thinking in the outdoor space? Can we outdoorsmen and women begin to step away from the disposable mindset that has befallen us, change our consumption habits and reduce our impact on the environment? Can society become less anthropocentric and begin to think of our human selves as a member of the ecosystem that we live in as the Indigenous people have traditionally practiced? I'm extremely inspired by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko and by the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, Professor, Biologist and Citizen of the Potawatomi Nation.
Silko explains the traditional teaching that humans can only survive in the environment when we recognize the surrounding plants, animals and even the soil as kin to be valued and nurtured as family.
This Kincentric Ecology view is experiencing a revival today and is both elegant and respectful in recognizing each plant, animal and human's role is essential to the other's survival. This philosophy resonates with me. Does a return to this traditional ecological knowledge offer a solution? By reframing ourselves in partnership with nature can we take steps to stop the destruction and littering of the natural world?
“As long as the hummingbird had not abandoned the land, somewhere there were still flowers, and they could all go on.”
― Leslie Marmon Silko
Let me know your thoughts. Do you experience trash left behind on the landscape when you are on the river? Is our current lifestyle sustainable for our ecosystem? What changes can we each make?
Thank you for enduring my frustration without answers. The outdoors gives us so much, I want to return the favor and hopefully inspire some change.