Happy Earth Week!

CAROL BODENSTEINER
Tackling Litter


My aunt tells the story of living along the Mississippi River in the Forties.  Shortly after she married, she burned a pot of prunes beyond the point of cleaning.  She tossed the pot into the river, disposing of her garbage as most people did in those days.  Sometime later, when her husband was out fishing, his boat sprang a leak.  Needing something with which to bail, he grabbed the first container he saw floating by.  It turned out to be the burned pot of prunes.
        If all litter could save a life, maybe we could view it more kindly.  But it can't, and our over-packaged, throwaway society has exacerbated the problem of litter.
        I thought about my aunt's prune pan when I joined nearly 150 volunteers on Project AWARE, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources annual river cleanup project.  In one week alone, volunteers pulled 24 tons of garbage out of the Iowa River.
        We can tell a lot about ourselves as a society by what we throw away, and it is clear we are capable of throwing away anything and everything: Forty pair of thong underwear.  One pair of platform shoes.  A 1956 Oldsmobile.  Appliances.  Motors.  A virtually new moped.  Thousands of beer cans, pop bottles, juice containers.  Tires in every size.  A picnic table.  Part of a roof.  Six, fifty-gallon chemical drums.  It was a matter of great speculation among the volunteers how forty pair of thong underwear and a pair of platform shoes wound up in the river.  An angry boyfriend?  A hooker abandoning her vocation?  Some weird fraternity ritual?  It's grist for a novel, at least an essay.

My aunt tells the story of living along the Mississippi River in the Forties.  Shortly after she married, she burned a pot of prunes beyond the point of cleaning.  She tossed the pot into the river, disposing of her garbage as most people did in those days.  Sometime later, when her husband was out fishing, his boat sprang a leak.  Needing something with which to bail, he grabbed the first container he saw floating by.  It turned out to be the burned pot of prunes.
        If all litter could save a life, maybe we could view it more kindly.  But it can't, and our over-packaged, throwaway society has exacerbated the problem of litter.
        I thought about my aunt's prune pan when I joined nearly 150 volunteers on Project AWARE, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources annual river cleanup project.  In one week alone, volunteers pulled 24 tons of garbage out of the Iowa River.
        We can tell a lot about ourselves as a society by what we throw away, and it is clear we are capable of throwing away anything and everything: Forty pair of thong underwear.  One pair of platform shoes.  A 1956 Oldsmobile.  Appliances.  Motors.  A virtually new moped.  Thousands of beer cans, pop bottles, juice containers.  Tires in every size.  A picnic table.  Part of a roof.  Six, fifty-gallon chemical drums.  It was a matter of great speculation among the volunteers how forty pair of thong underwear and a pair of platform shoes wound up in the river.  An angry boyfriend?  A hooker abandoning her vocation?  Some weird fraternity ritual?  It's grist for a novel, at least an essay.
        Even if we assume that some, even half, of that trash wound up in the river as a result of Iowa's increasingly frequent floods and the random spring tornado, that still leaves twelve tons of garbage willfully discarded into the river.  Young people who worked on the river cleanup project acknowledged that they are taught in school at the youngest ages not to litter, yet they do.
        I watched as a young woman walking down a Des Moines street drained the last drops of water from a plastic bottle and casually tossed the bottle on the ground.  She didn't even look around first to note if anyone would see her do it.  I wanted to yell at her to pick up after herself.  I wanted to ask who she thought was going to pick up the bottle.  I wanted to point out that if she threw down a bottle every day as she walked by that spot, soon she would have to climb over or around a mountain of plastic.  But, I didn't.  And worse, I didn't pick up the bottle myself.
        There are, of course, those who care, and attitudes toward litter change over time.  My aunt of the burned prune pot was a fifth-grade teacher who came to include the "don't litter" message in her lessons each year.  She came to live what she taught, taking an empty grocery bag with her every morning on her walk.  Even at 88, she picked up the trash she saw in her neighborhood.  She never came back with an empty bag.
      One morning, she left the house without a bag.  Seeing her, a neighbor ran out of her house and gave my aunt a bag.  The neighbor could have joined her, but she didn't.

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Happy Earth Week!

In honor of Earth Day on April 22nd, the Daily Palette is celebrating earth-friendly art and literature all this week. We are honoring Iowa-connected artists and writers who show respect for our planet through their work.


CAROL BODENSTEINER

Carol Bodensteiner draws inspiration from the people, culture, and history of Iowa, where she grew up.  She is the author of Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, a memoir.  Her essays have been published in several anthologies.  Her debut novel, Go Away Home, will be published in 2014.

This page was first displayed
on April 22, 2014

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