“You want me to get my hands dirty?”

The boy’s bird-watching father had left him to his own devices. While his dad strolled around the park peering up through binoculars, the robust little lad, five or six years old, hung on the railing of the bridge over the stream, shouting at various bits of trash floating past as if cheering drivers in a NASCAR race. “Water bottle! Look at the milk jug go!”

Milk jug. I realized that an annoying piece of plastic litter I couldn’t reach earlier had dislodged from a spot further upstream. This park, my usual running place while I’m in Virginia, has wildflowers, blue herons, hawks, cardinals, kingfishers, and huge sweet-gum trees that seem to grow from one massive root network at the edge of the water, but the amount of trash flowing below them is a persistent detraction from my inner peace. I stopped my post-run stretching and went downstream and explained to the boy that I was going to try to pick up all the stuff he’d been watching.

He followed me to one of the sweet gum trees that grows out over the stream, and watched me lie down on its mossy trunk to fish the jug out with a stick. Having found a whole nest of other floating detritus, I asked him to hold the jug for me so it wouldn’t blow way while I got the other stuff out.            “Yuck,” he said, grasping the slimy handle. “What’s all that green stuff?”

“Algae. It looks yucky but it’s more natural in the water than the garbage.” Of course, there’s the whole issue of nutrient pollution from farm runoff, but that’s a lot for a kid to comprehend.

I didn’t know what the chances were that he could come to see these familiar objects in the wrong place to be just as icky as green slime, but it was close to Earth Day at the time so I tried to explain. While I hauled out a few water bottles and plastic dip-tobacco containers, I told him how it all ends up in the ocean and can choke fish and birds, sparing the details of how the oceans’ garbage patches attract dioxins and other toxic contaminants. A little sad news might be enough to make a kid care, but not a whole depressing dump of it.

One of the water bottles I’d pulled out blew away. And then the boy dropped the milk jug back into the water, apparently on purpose.

I used my best kindly-teacher voice. “I thought you were going to hold onto that for me.”

He looked at me in bewilderment. “You want me to get my hands dirty?”

“Yes. We’re getting our hands dirty so bad things won’t happen. We can wash our hands, but we can’t wash the ocean.”

“Why not?”

“There are patches of trash in it as big as the state of Texas. Once it’s all in there, there’s so much, it’s hard to get out.” I got up and collected my heap of garbage. “Thanks for helping me.” After all, he’d tried, if only for a few seconds before the slime got to him.

I put the plastic, too contaminated to recycle, into the garbage can, wiped my hands in the grass and resumed my stretch. The boy hung on the rail again, shouting at something new in his imaginary play. Though I didn’t succeed in making him understand what I was doing and why, confusion is fertile ground for learning. Maybe he asked father some questions later. I hope so. His father might care. After all, the man loves birds.

As I left the park, this encounter got me thinking. There are a lot of ways in which I don’t get my hands dirty enough.

I admire the people who do. In The Calling I created a character, Mae’s mother-in-law Sallie Ridley, who gets involved in local politics. She’s abrasive and opinionated in her attempts to change the world, but she tries. I’ve had a few readers say that they both agree with her and dislike her at the same time. As an organic farmer and aspiring mayor, Sallie gets her hands dirty both ways, and by this I don’t mean political corruption, but just digging in and doing the ground-level, local work.

I only dip into politics at the edges—knock on doors, make phone calls, and I’m uncomfortable the whole time I do it. My personality and campaigning don’t fit easily. After the last presidential campaign, I had a discussion with a freshman seminar about voting and degrees of involvement. One student in the class had not voted and had not cared who won. One student had volunteered for the candidate opposing the one I worked for. No one else had been involved other than voting, and they were amazed that we had dared to volunteer. “Aren’t people mean to you, or rude?”

Neither of us had encountered such behavior. Face to face people didn’t act the way they do online. They were polite when they said no. No slammed doors, no insults, many friendly responses. I’m not a confrontational person, so I’m glad my political activities were met with such civility. Even writing this blog post feels bold to me, compared to writing about my usual topics, and all I’m talking about is litter. That’s hardly controversial. No one likes litter.

And I suspect no one likes picking it up, either.

The TED talk linked below is powerful. It’s a few years old but unfortunately, not outdated.

http://www.ted.com/talks/capt_charles_moore_on_the_seas_of_plastic

The background (as I recall it from an article I read a while back):  Charles Moore, the owner of a California cabinet-making business, had come into an inheritance and had chosen an early retirement. He meant to enjoy it by sailing, but as he took a challenging and seldom used course across the Pacific, he kept running into so much trash he changed his life’s course, and started the Algalita Foundation, to work on the well-being of the oceans. He is credited with discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. After I watched this, I could never forget the effects of trash in the waters. If everyone were to pick up three pieces of plastic every day, we could keep a lot of litter out of the ocean, without even getting our hands very dirty.

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