Dear Readers, I am a recent convert to litter-picking in our local area of ancient woodland, Coldfall Wood. You might not think that picking up the rubbish left by other people and popping it into a mauve dustbin bag would be anything other than an unpleasant, unsanitary way to spend an hour, but I am here to tell you that you would be mistaken. And here’s why.
Firstly, there is the thrill of the chase. Once you get your eye in for the gaudy colours of a family-sized crisp packet, or the shine of the cellophane on a cigarette box, you start to be mildly disappointed when a stretch of woodland is pristine. By the end of yesterday’s litter-pick we were competing to see who could get their litter-pickers around the tiniest scraps of garbage.
The way the rubbish stands out also makes me think about how hyper-stimulated we are by the advertising and packaging around us. These colours look so unnatural against the cool greens and browns of the wood. There might be the odd splash of red as the berries on the cuckoo-pint appear, but compare that to the lavender and gold and the shiny silver interior of a bag of crisps and you can see how frantically companies want us to buy.
Plus, let us not underestimate the satisfaction of using a litter-picker. It’s like being in partnership with a very compliant stork as you close the ‘beak’ of the instrument around a bottle of discarded hand-sanitiser and pop it into a bag. There is something about the precision of the movement that is very pleasing, at least to me.
Secondly, if you are litter-picking, you are walking in the woods with a purpose. You are looking for what’s different, and somehow your senses are reset because you have to pay attention, to look for the tiniest scraps of difference. I can stomp through the woods and barely notice them if I have a big work problem to deal with, but now I am forced to slow down. It’s a kind of meditation, looking at the ground, looking under trees, watching for the things that are out of place. And then you look up, and the light is pouring through the hornbeams, and you let out a deep, heartfelt sigh. What a beautiful place this is.
Thirdly, by litter-picking you may be preventing further littering. There is something called ‘broken window theory’ – if a neighbourhood looks neglected, people won’t worry so much about adding to the squalor. When we are litter-picking, every person who walks in the woods will see that other people are concerned enough about the area to give up their time to clear up the mess. Often, people stop and chat, and it’s a chance to talk to them about what they’ve seen and what’s going on. For some, especially the children, it might be enough to make them think twice about dropping that plastic bottle on the path when they’ve finished with it.
Fourthly, it makes me curious about the stories of the rubbish. Behind a dense tangle of holly and yew there were the remains of a gathering – the aforementioned crisp packets, a wine bottle, the lid from a plastic box. That all says young people to me, although it looks as if someone was organised enough to make their own sandwiches. They must, like all young people, have really wanted a spot out of sight, somewhere private to have their picnic, but it seems a remarkably un-Dionysian affair. I wish they’d taken their litter home, but all things considered I’ve seen worse. And thinking about these things, and actually doing something about it, somehow softens me towards these ghost picnickers. It’s easy to get angry about the littering (and I do) but who knows what all the reasons are? Sometimes people simply don’t think about the consequences of their actions. Sometimes, they are disturbed and have to leave in a hurry. I’m sure a novelist could create a whole plot line just around this spot.
And then, there is the fellowship. At a time when so many of us have been confined to our houses, just to walk around the woods with another human being, even at two metres distance, is a fine, morale-building thing to do. There were eight of us litter-picking last night, and it was good to meet old friends, and to chat to new ones. It is wonderful to share a purpose with other human beings and to be united in a task, however small. This is how community is built.
Being in the wood as the sun goes down is another unexpected pleasure – the way the sun lights up the squirrel on the fence beside the allotments, the way the colours change. And maybe the final reason that I love litter-picking is because it feels as if we make a difference. We have filled half a dozen bin-bags with rubbish, and what was mess has been made clean. There is the satisfaction of undoing some of the harm that has been done to the wood during this period of intense use, and it is a small way of saying thank you for the calm and beauty that Coldfall brings to all of us. I have learned that it is easy to stew in a big pot of judgement, fulminating about what people should and should not do, and of course there is much reason for anger. But we are not powerless, and activism can be as simple as saying ‘I love this place, and I am not going to just stand by and complain about other people’s bad habits. Instead, I’m going to do something about it’. I’m sure that, tomorrow, there will be more litter in the woods, but tonight, as we walk home, we know that it’s better than it was when we arrived. And that is a feeling worth having.
You are so right Bugwoman. We too have collected rubbish for the nearly four years on our daily walks, we hate to see our beautiful countryside spoilt by other peoples thoughtlessness. If everyone just did a little bit wouldn’t it be a nicer place.
We’re always surprised about the number of Red Bull cans, it obviously doesn’t ‘give them wings’ enough to put them in a bin. Litter picking can be quite therapeutic we find.
🙂 maybe the Red Bull cans should have wings so they can fly themselves into the bins…
At first I thought you picked up litter as a matter of course whilst walking – quite a thing to be doing while walking and photographing. You probably do anyway, but it is good to know there is a group of you who meet to do this – as you mention, there is company and a common purpose which helps strengthen a community. I have just put out a large bag of refuse collected from the pavement outside our home – blown in by the fierce winds we have experienced – and wonder every time that I do so why people cannot be bothered to take their used packaging home with them!
I know, people are inexplicable sometimes aren’t they.
I find litter very depressing. It says very clearly: ‘I don’t care’, and that means about anyone other than myself. Then I remember that it also means, unknowingly, that they don’t care about themselves either, which is even sadder.
Sometimes I think that people don’t even think about the consequences of their actions, and with young folk they haven’t been taught any better. I still remember the public TV campaigns about dropping litter when I was a child, maybe we need a new one!
You and I must be connected by some unknown thought processes… as only yesterday, as I came back from my walk up to Villa and La Sage, I noticed 2 different bits of litter by the roadside. I thought to myself that it might be an interesting exercise to photograph all the litter that I see on a walk. Though I doubt there will be very much to post. I’m sure you are right about the Broken window theory and hopefully the reverse is true – that if people notice how neat and tidy a place is they will also try to keep it that way. 😊
When I lived in one of the county roads I always took a litter bag with me when walking our dog to and through Coldfall Wood and around the playing fields. Litter offends my eyes so I feel compelled to pick it up. The American humorous writer David Sedaris suffers this condition too.
Now I’m living in a more rural place there’s less of school-children’s litter and a bigger proportion of teenagers’ stuff – cans, bottles, nitro canisters, etc. I can sort of understand their psychology; you’re out with your mates, probably tipsy, who gives a monkey? But it’s the ‘let’s hang our full poo bags on a branch” ones, or the “lets chuck this excrement-smeared wet-wipe on the middle of the path” that intrigue me.
I fantasise about a TV series with covert CCTV to catch offenders. Then a burly presenter confronts them to get an explanation. Great stuff! Cry your heart out Jeremy Kyle! It’ll never happen.
Meanwhile I trudge on with our dog and a plastic bag ..
Somebody told me that the folk who hang poo-bags in trees intend to collect them later. All I can say is that they must be very forgetful. And I love your idea for a TV series.
What is the weirdest piece of litter you’ve found? I once discovered a sign that would go on the door of a public convenience, miles away from the nearest one..
Somebody left an old-fashioned cast-iron radiator outside a house on our road at the weekend, but it can’t compete with your example 🙂
Btw and apologies for straying off topic, but I hear that the consequences of Covid and the landslide outside Obergurgl has resulted in just one hotel opening this summer(not sure which). But yet, the timetable for using the gondolas hasn’t been lengthened beyond the first week of September despite Sölden’s running until at least the 27th, surely meaning the shortest summer season yet.
I wonder if they’ll open for summer at all next year. It will be interesting to see….
That was thoroughly delightful. I appreciate your work, and the joyful way you do it.
Thanks, GretchenJoanna! It honestly is fun 🙂
Another wonderful thoughtfull piece, thank you for articulating; I could not agree more! All hail to litter pickers!
Fantastic article. We have a large elm outside our city house where people sometimes stop for drinks and canoodling. It is hard to imagine the mind set that then causes them to chuck all the remains out of the car; pizza boxes, beer cans, paper napkins.
I know! I find it very confusing. I think they think that the litter fairy comes and tidies it all away.
A very poetic ode to litter-picking!