Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Trash Theory

“Does the world seem dirtier?” a fellow garden blogger asked. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man was referring to the plastic bottles and candy wrappers that litter the roadsides, and are especially evident when the world is colored in beiges and browns. Yes. The world seems dirtier. It may indeed be dirtier. There is implied blame. People are inconsiderate. They are so uncaring, we think, as we shake our heads reprovingly at their garbage. It is never our garbage.

There are some universal truths at work here. First there is the nostalgia filter: When-I-was-Young-the-Roadsides-were-Always-Spotless. We are absolutely sure of this, fifty years (plus or minus a handful) later. If this were a group conversation I might break in right about now with another nostalgic tidbit about how, as children, we would collect bottles from the roadsides and wash them in the gas station bathroom and then redeem them for pennies apiece—a story that would be intended to show that the roadsides were indeed litter-free (thanks to us) but in fact testifies to the opposite. Without organized soccer leagues, we had time for such entrepreneurial exploits (unlike today’s children ... or is that my nostalgia filter talking?) but the fact remains that the sheer poundage of glass that we would sneak into the restroom made it worth our while to do so. Even at pennies apiece. The roadsides were, it seems, far from litter-free.

But in defense of people, at least when it comes to in-your-face littering, I offer a universal theory of change. I call it “The Trash Theory.” It could just as easily be named “The Kleenex Theory” or the “Band-Aid Theory,” and it has, in fact, a given name: “Punctuated equilibrium” was coined by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in 1972.

It goes like this:
Suburbia carries on, predictably and neatly, day-by-day, the sweet smell of grass clippings clinging to the Saturday morning air, roadsides green with garlic mustard and goldenrod. On Thursday evenings residents place their trashcans by the curb. 

And then it happens. 

A Thursday night storm blows limbs from trees … and upends just a small percentage of the curbed cans. Maybe yours is among them. By morning, Wegmans carryout containers and empty Pure Life Purified Water bottles are caught up in the tall stems of roadside goldenrod. Not along your property, but along those Adopt-A-Highway sections where organizations take on the feel-good job of cleaning up the trash of other people—inconsiderate type people—so the world can be a neater nicer place.

The universality of this dynamic is undeniable. We putter along, happy for a time, until a ferocious wind, or rhinovirus, or hangnail, or social revolution causes a sudden upset in some previously stable system. Tectonic plates slip. Updrafts and downdrafts create a feedback loop. Before we know it the world is a different place. The Kleenex box that sat nearly untouched for months is empty.

In “The Beak of the Finch” Jonathan Weiner told the story of how a weather disaster can affect the birds’ food supply, and so the very physiology of finches can change in a single generation! His tale is a hard, compressed truth of nature that involves catastrophic loss of life in a species where a generational length is a fraction of ours. It is also a very scary universal reality.

“Does the world seem dirtier?” If this seems true, we might blame climate change and the more frequent gusts it is said to trigger. It’s much simpler, of course, to picture careless teens dropping empty cigarettes packs from car windows. We can do something about that—launch a public relations campaign, or post notices of stiff fines along the highways. We can call the public to action to fix the obvious mess. Predicting and preventing are a whole different matter.

But enough of dire predictions. 

Rhubarb tip, poised for exponential growth

Today, March 20th, is the vernal equinox! At 7:02 a.m. (here in the northeast U.S.) the sun crossed the celestial equator. We are on our way to a positive feedback loop, as plants are stimulated out of dormancy by extravagant sunlight. Before we know it the world will be a different place, lush, green, bounteous.

Hang onto your hat. The season begins.

Pay attention. Treasure the experience. Enjoy the ride.
The more we value and understand the nature of nature, the more we will be capable of comprehending the big picture. We need to understand the big picture.

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Henry David Thoreau.


  1. Pam, thanks for the mention -- and I do love your theory. My only worry is that as we become more disconnected from one another and from our communities, there is less care and concern for our environment. That may change, though, with the promise of spring -- when people begin thinking of their yards and nature covers up the litter with fifty shades of green. Happy spring!

    1. I know I will soon be out there examining my tulip buds and greeting my perennial foliage -- if it ever warms up! Even the hellebore are laying low.
      In my community, there is plenty of care (if you measure it by perfect edges) but concern for the environment is another matter. In fact, methods of care and environmental concern are sometimes in opposition.