Do not pick up any of the trash. My professor’s words echoed through my head as I paddled my canoe down Salt Creek alongside my fellow Nature Writing classmates. The creek was completely polluted. Styrofoam cups bumped against my oar and the shine of old Doritos bags caught the sunlight as they bobbed up and down in the waves of the mangroves.
My first reaction, upon being instructed by our professor to leave the trash alone, was one of shock. I wanted to protest: but it’s litter! And also: isn’t this a Nature Writing course? Dr. Hallock informed our class that he wanted us to look at the creek without any judgment; he wanted us to go into the creek and explore it without trying to “fix” it or “save” it somehow.
This brought me back to a volunteering trip I took to Central America last spring. A small group of students and I traveled to Guatemala to build stoves for indigenous Mayan families. Everyone we met was living in absolute poverty. As we traveled through the villages, many of us were surprised to see that there was trash everywhere in the huts. I remember that even the nicest of residences had giant piles of garbage in them. When we brought this up with our professor at the time, he asked us to think about why that was so shocking. It made me question, what is so different about their trash from ours? We also have piles of trash in our homes in the States; they are simply hidden in opaque plastic bags contained in stainless steel bins so we can’t see them, lids closed tightly so we can’t smell them, and foot pedals so we don’t even have to think about our hands going anywhere near them. Our trash is tied up with little knots and bows to keep the smell down and the appearance tolerable—some trash bags actually come scented now—and then our perfumed garbage is placed on the curb and picked up by a giant, gas-guzzling semi-automatic.
And then we can feel better about it, because we do not have to look at it anymore. We don’t have to smell it rotting in our house and we don’t have to think about it being burned, rancid clouds filling the sky with stench. The more affluent parts of the city have beautiful lakes and parks; city employees are paid to clean up the litter on a regular basis. And until a few weeks ago, I thought that that was what real nature was: obvious, beautiful, untouched.
Here on Salt Creek, though, we are in a different part of town. We are paddling through the water alongside the lower-income neighborhoods. There is more culture here, more diversity. And less money. Nobody is paid to come here and clean up the trash. The postcards of St. Pete don’t have pictures of this area, and it is not listed in the brochures of places to go—even though it is just blocks away from the heart of the city downtown.
The trash in this creek is similar, in a way, to the piles of trash I saw in Guatemala. It is a reminder that Nature is different for everyone. We separate ourselves from each other, and from Nature, at the same time and in similar ways. The garbage in Salt Creek points to a certain truth about the people that live nearby—and those that choose not to. We could have picked up the litter along the creek that day in class, sure. We could have picked it up and carried it out, taking pictures of our “good deed” and feeling better about ourselves as we climbed into our cars and drove down the road. But then we wouldn’t have seen a thing.