Cities collect people, and people make garbage. Lots of people, lots of garbage. The two go hand in hand. And the closer a backcountry enclave is to a big city, the more likely it is to be trashed. At least that's the conclusion of one reader, and I'm inclined to agree with her. But why not let her make the case for herself?
I am originally from New York, but I have lived in Wisconsin for almost 40 years. When I had to visit New York every few months to check on my elderly Dad a few years ago, I was appalled as the train went through Albany. The cut that the tracks went through (in a neighborhood of large, well‑kept houses) had been used as a dumping ground for many years. There were several feet of trash — leaves and grass clippings, but also car parts, old lawnmowers, big plastic toys, old plastic tarps, black plastic garbage bags, and more. It was like that behind every house!
Along the rural roads I remembered as being clean in my childhood, there were discarded refrigerators, dryers, tires, black plastic garbage bags, and so on. I know they have rural trash pick‑up. I had to pay my Dad's bills for the service. I had to put out his trash and take large pieces to the recycling center. There was a local charity that was happy to take useable items. The infrastructure is there.
As children, my cousins and I used to check my uncle's miles of road frontage for dumped garbage and go through it looking for bills or magazines for names and addresses, and then we'd call the police. There were anti‑littering laws even then, and the police enforced them. In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fines people for dumping, and even puts cameras on trails where there is a problem. These problems don't last long. Groups are encouraged to "Adopt a Highway." For many years I worked at a nursing home that cleaned up a stretch of highway miles from their facility. They asked employees to donate their time to clean it up as needed, and they got volunteers. Churches do this, Scout troops do it, schools do it, businesses do it, families do it.
Our canoe club picks up anything that's not "natural" when we paddle, and we have picked up a lot of stuff over the years. One time I balanced a large octagonal picnic table on my canoe and paddled it back to the landing. We have seen the DNR out in a johnboat picking up larger items. Much of this stuff washed downriver in floods.
Generally speaking, there is not much trash once you get away from urban areas. There are too many people in New York who think that this is the way the world should be — covered in their trash. They have to learn to not foul their own nest first, then to pick up after others, then to teach the others (with fines if necessary) to dispose of their trash properly.
Carol has a point, as I think you'll agree. And her argument is more nuanced than I implied in my introduction to her letter. To be sure, the amount of trash in the backcountry is, in part, determined by the proximity of large urban centers, but other elements enter into the equation, too. As Carol notes, some states — and many communities — tolerate trash. Others don't. And New York, sad to say, falls on the permissive end of this shabby scale. What can I say? We New Yorkers must like our filth. We like it so much that we want to be surrounded by it at all times, even when we're on vacation in the backcountry. I don't include myself among these New Yorkers, obviously, but there's little doubt in my mind that I'm in a minority, even though the nearest thing to a big city is on the other side of the Adirondacks from my home.
What's the remedy? I'm damned if I know. Carol has many good ideas — anti‑littering laws, clean‑up days, adopt‑a‑highway schemes, and the like — but we already have all these things where I live, and they make little apparent difference. Clearly, some sort of attitude adjustment is needed. How is this to be accomplished, though? That's the question, isn't it? I wish I had the answer. For now, New York's solution to its growing trash problem boils down to hiding the garbage behind an increasingly threadbare beauty strip. Too bad.
Having trashed my fellow New Yorkers in the name of tough love, I'm now going to risk defaming another group, one even dearer to my heart: