Most people throw their trash in a bin and have it picked up in a garbage truck. Hard to know what happens after that. Where we live, in Taos, New Mexico, there is little trash service, so most folks have to haul their own trash to dumpsters or bins at various “transfer stations.” But if you know the right people, you can ride with them all the way in to the very place where the trash is thrown onto the earth, where it will remain for the next few thousand years.
I’m a first-grade teacher at a forest school, meaning that our classroom is the outdoors, and we take field trips — apple-picking, visiting a farm, watching a friend chop wood — every week. Last Thursday, my students and I went to the dump. The kids helped haul trash out of a trailer, watched as trucks came and went, and generally gawked at the enormity of it all (if it’s not obvious, all the dirt you see in the photo above is just earth piled on top of more trash). And this is just Taos, a relatively sparsely populated area. There are few things more visceral than looking at acres of trash with your own eyes, smelling it and watching the circling birds. But I know one thing better: contributing!
In his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv makes the interesting point that the environmental movement, well-intentioned as it is, has failed a lot of our kids because it tends to present the world as a broken or fragile place. Sound familiar? This message, pervasive in my classrooms in the 1980s and ’90s, has turned a lot of us into adults who are so overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem that we just want to hide from it.
It took me a long time to reconnect with the robust health of the planet under my feet. Strangely, trash turned out to be a good way to do it. Besides the transfer stations and dumps in New Mexico (and the recycling centers), plenty of people just throw their trash off cliffs, or onto the highway. You see it in the most beautiful places. Old fridges. Broken cars. I used to walk in streams or paths and get disgusted by all the litter. So, I began joining clean-up crews. This helped, but it put my focus on the problems. Litter. Vagrants. Evil. At some point, I realized how much anger I was generating.
For some reason, I started looking at the trash for what it is. Glass beer bottles are really just sand. That’s what glass is made out of. Aluminum is a rock. Candy wrappers and newspapers are mostly just made from trees. Plastic is dinosaurs.
I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek, of course. I’m not suggesting we ignore the damage humans are causing the environment. There’s no avoiding the fact that some chemicals are highly toxic. Sea turtles do choke on plastic bags. There are fewer trees today than there were a hundred years ago. I’m just suggesting that one’s attitude towards “polluted” environments may be just as important as the awe we have for natural beauty.
Louv suggests we need to raise kids who feel like they can touch the earth and it won’t break. He cites examples of city parks and back lot forests where kids built treehouses and dug holes, made skate ramps and constructed forts. When the adults took notice, they said, no, no, no, you can’t do that — nature has to be pristine, untouched. They cleaned up the park, set everything right — and all the kids went back inside.
Then he cites many of the major naturalists of the last 100 years, and their childhood stories of capturing, often killing, animals and generally being a terror. Those intimate, reckless experiences in childhood somehow formed wonderful humans who had a deep respect for the earth.
It’s time for us to link these two values — respect for the earth and a child’s ability to dig into it and rip it apart. How do we do that with 7 billion people on the planet?
This much we know: Children need direct experience with the natural world. My class gets plenty of that, so when I brought them to the dump, I didn’t harangue them with do-goodisms. It was enough to just look at it, and maybe take a little responsibility for it. This is reality. That’s our trash on the ground. Not his trash, not their trash. Our trash.
I was 30 years old before I saw something like this firsthand. I don’t have the first clue where the nearest dump was where I grew up. My dad recently told me about a river that runs less than a quarter mile from the house in which I grew up. A river! I would have played there, but we had no idea. It was buried underground in a culvert decades before I was born. I knew all about the whales, though, and the disappearing rainforests and the lack of African rhinos.
I think everyone should go to the dump once a year, starting around age 6. I even think they should have a good time doing it. We don’t have to like dumps. We don’t have to like trash. But maybe if our children learn to embrace the environment in their midst — the beauty and the pain — they’ll grow up with a mature environmentalism that makes our own look a little childish.
Joseph Sarosy is the author of A Father’s Life: True Tales from the Frontiers of Fatherhood. A father and teacher in northern New Mexico, he spends most of his days outside with children. You can read more of his work at offgridkids.org.