Dear Reader- It’s been a year now since the excellent television and newspaper writer, Andy Rooney died at age 92. Primarily known for his “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” segments which concluded ’60 Minutes’, he was a wartime correspondent before writing a memoir and several books containing essays culled over years of writing syndicated short essays for newspapers nationwide. His shrewd, wry humour and unique way of making the normal extraordinary have had a huge and lasting influence on me. As far as I’m concerned, he is a national treasure. I thought of him and a specific essay of his entitled, “Trust” as I went about my day. Though I’m not sure if he would have much cared for my writing, I dedicate the following essay to his memory.
My dog, Woody and I went for a hike today, high in the hills on the south side of Durango. Being a responsible dog owner, I took a waste bag from the trailhead dispenser and carried it along for Woody’s inevitable business. The business, being inevitable, came as we ascended the steep trail as the sun warmed the frigid November afternoon.
Such are the joys of being a dog owner- constant companionship, unconditional love and, well, the shit, too.
Neatly tying the bag, I set it just off the trail so that I might collect it on the way back down. This is (mostly) common practice for Durango. We have an unspoken understanding that when a bag is placed deliberately off to the side of the trail, someone will be along for it on their way back from wherever they’ve been. It seems to work well, for the most part. Woody and I frequent many of Durango’s illustrious hiking trails and they are unequivocally clear and clean.
It occurs to me how wonderful it is to live as a part of a community that is, by and large, pretty responsible for their own shit.
Still, I couldn’t help but think of what an odd thing I had just done. Though my hand was “protected” by a plastic membrane (thin though it was!), I had just picked up animal fecal matter (which somehow sounds far more disgusting to me than uttering the curse word I’ve used several times now). For effect, let me say this again: I picked up animal fecal matter with my hands.
But I did today and I have in the past and I will in the future and the answer to the question”Why?!” is simple- trust. I pick up after Woody, trusting that if I clean up after my dog, others will as well and the trail will be left not only useable, but blissfully clear of canine intestinal land mines. And yet, as he and I continued walking up the trail, I suddenly began noticing, well, feces everywhere. On the trail, off the trail, bags here and there- and not in such a way that led me to believe that anyone was coming back for them.
This, for obvious reasons, left me feeling really deflated. I had, after all, just picked up shit with my hands.
We made it to the top of the trail and I only found more and more examples of people who were clearly not following the unspoken agreement. Bags strewn about, some rendered empty after sitting for days and being kicked around by passers-by, now blowing in the wind or caught in the branches of trees. There was enough feces about the trail to fertilize what I imagined to be a very large garden. Though my initial response was to say that none of these things were my responsibility and that I had already pulled my weight (or would, once we got to the bottom of the trail and retrieved Woody’s own bag), I knew that such an attitude was what caused the mess I was seeing about me in the first place.
So, despite a miserable, piss-poor attitude (mostly mine), Woody and I turned tail and trekked back down the trail, stopping here and there collecting each and every bag, as well as picking up the vast majority of what would fit in previously used but untied bags. When we deposited what ended up being a literal armful of shit in the dumpster at the bottom of the trail, I felt pretty good about our contribution to society.* Pretty good- and pretty disgusting. It should go without saying that I took a very long shower and that I washed myself both obsessively and compulsively.
My skin is still a little raw.
Of course, this little anecdote wouldn’t be complete without a little disillusionment to balance things out. That’s the way these things go, after all. The source of my disillusionment is a story that was broadcasted this evening on NPR’s All Things Considered- one that ought to shock and anger anyone with a pulse and even a tenuous understanding of irony. Apparently, the EPA has been allowing several corporations to dump extremely toxic water on Native American land in central Wyoming. This is ironic, of course, as ‘EPA’ stands for ‘Environmental Protection Agency’ and that they are the governmental agency whose primary objective (as per its website) is to “protect human health and the environment”.
It goes without saying that what they’re allowing sort of flies in the face of what they’re hoping to accomplish.
Still, I have to believe that people are, for the most part, pretty good. Or, at least, that we try to do what’s right by one another. After all, we obey stoplights, wait in line at Starbucks (or coffee shop of your choice) and pay all of our taxes. Well, except those of us who run stoplights because we’re late or texting or believe that if green means ‘go’, than yellow must mean ‘go faster’. I won’t even start on the tax code- mostly because I don’t understand it and also because I don’t make enough to subvert it by hiring a very intelligent accountant. I want desperately to disbelieve my friend when she tells me that new clothing is sprayed with a chemical that keeps it wrinkle free in stores, but that may cause it to be dangerous to wear without first washing it. I don’t want to acknowledge Monsanto and their corn products, nor do I want to acknowledge 9-11 conspiracies or that I eat tomatoes that have been modified to withstand impacts while traveling at 50 miles an hour.
That’s not to mention the countless horrors that are visited upon people each day by their governments, neighbors and, indeed, themselves.
Of course, I understand that these are deviations from the norm. We don’t go around with an intent to harm or infringe upon other people and their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even when we do infringe upon others, we do so accidentally, not realizing our ability to inhibit or harm another person. This is, of course, tricky. Where do we draw the line and what are we willing to do when the line has been crossed? Is it enough to say that for the most part, we’re pretty good?
Perhaps what I ought to say is that, for the most part, we’re pretty good- except when we’re shit.*
Or perhaps I ought to just be honest and say that I am so damn proud of myself for cleaning that trail and, inasmuch as no one would have ever known what a good person I am for having picked up the feces, I just had to tell someone.
*It should be noted that I was concerned about the possibility of coming across another person who might see me carrying this armful as I’m relatively certain that my initial response would be something along the lines of, “Um, he uh, he has an active colon…”
*Please forgive my coarse language. I don’t curse lightly or, at least, I try not to.