In May of this year we hosted a small group of high school kids from downstate for a weekend in Traverse City. The goal was to strengthen connections between them beyond the mere association that they had as members of the same class. Their teacher was in charge of the weekend, but we all agreed that getting them off their electronics and out into nature was a worthy priority. We always are happy to show off greater Traverse City as the beautiful place that we all know it to be.
We set off for a hike on the easy trails around Mission Point Lighthouse. Halfway through the hike we came upon a scene that was not so worthy of the heaping praise we had used to get everyone out the door. The remains of a late-night gathering, with empty bottles of liquor and partially emptied cans of beer, vapes and cigarettes, snack bags and plastic trash, were strewn in an extensive blast radius from a makeshift fire pit. I was embarrassed, and as the kids filed through, I commented to their professor how I intended to return with volunteers and supplies to clean up the mess on some future date. He spun me around so I would see the one girl who was having none of that. Her hands were fists, and she walked—even stomped—into the heart of the mess. Finding only one plastic shopping bag, she began to pick up the small amount of trash she could fit in it. It didn’t matter if she could not complete the job, or if the scene was so extensive that no one could tell the difference that any cleanup had been done once the bag was full. She was taking action, right there, right then. Everyone dove in. Soon jackets were in need of a washing from stale beer spilled into pockets, and fingers were chilled stiff from being poked into cold glass bottles and carried out to a recycling can.
I’m happy to say that this simple (even obvious) act is pretty common among people younger than me. I tend to have an over-developed project mode. My solutions need organizing and preparation, and success must include recognizable progress–or better still–completion to be worthy of effort. We all have an emotional reaction when we run across this, but it would be a mistake to think that anger towards a group of serial litterers would accomplish very much. Those folks will always exist. But what you can do is be an opposite force, a force for good, a small force for what you believe, every day, everywhere you go. Action is an irreplaceable ingredient.
Today is National Public Lands Day. Today you can enter National Parks, Forests and Monuments free of charge. The spirit of the day is to appreciate and care for what is ours, whether on an organized platoon of trail angels, an on-the–spot assignment, or just a single person picking up a piece of trash that they decided they could no longer ignore. If you get to a National Park, Forest or Monument today, you will probably run into people who are in the same covert club.