This day, April 29th, needs — as they all do — a bit of context. It is a Saturday, and the earth — its day and its dilemmas — has been much in the news. Back in late winter at a meeting of Brunswick Democrats, someone proposed a trash clean-up as one useful way to counter the spirit of disregard many see as loose in our world. Given a little Saturday sloth, I don’t feel like going out to meet this possibility on this day, but I do.
We — my assigned partner Nick, a retired law professor, and I — join ten Democrats and pick up our two capacious plastic bags at the gazebo on the Common. We take them to the town center where Pleasant Street joins Maine, where we’ll begin picking up scattered trash. Nick is wearing the pullover orange vest that identifies us as something other than pedestrians. We are quasi-official.
I am on the upside of 60; Nick is probably 10 years my elder, and we measure our pace to make this walk companionable. Today offers a first burst of warmth-going-to-heat, a sudden spring flower. But as we begin, it is the constant bending that gets our attention. “We should have picker-uppers,” Nick says. That’s true, I think, but when you do such work on rare occasion, you don’t know more than to show up and get your bag. We settle into a pick-and-talk-and-pick routine. Stooped often, we probably appear to be talking to the ground.
In town, the trash clusters wherever pause happens — stop signs, crossings, waiting areas. People molt constantly, it seems. Our “feathers” are everywhere:
Vodka seems the favored nip. Its little plastic bottles lie crumpled, the effect, perhaps, of someone trying to suck the last drop out.
Who cut the tiny cable once connected to an Apple device’s recharger?
Who is missing one earplug?
Near the town library’s entrance, we comb bits of paper and plastic from the thick sand of a melted plough-drift. The little garden looks like a once-green land going to desert. It will need heavy raking to free its ground-cover. Not long ago, the snow must have been piled five feet deep.
While we are at our work, “thousands march on the White House” to protest climate change. Our conversation turns to redemptive behavior. Nick tells me a story from his classroom. They are studying ethics, truth and law, and he has posed this question from the Nazi era: You are part of a household sheltering people and the authorities burst in. “Are there any Jews here?” they demand. He then gives a favorite answer from his years in the classroom: “If,” a student answers after some pause, “you mean by that, are there any people here who deserve to die, then no, there are no Jews here.”
“I stopped the class,” Nick says. “Did you hear that answer?” I asked.
Then there is the other side. “How would a group of Thoreaus do at forming a society?” he wanted to know on an exam. “What’s a thoreau?” one student asked.
We talk back and forth about what “a thoreau” is, and I offer one of my exam questions: Using Thoreau’s definition of a good school in Walden, examine and assess your own schooling. Thoreau knew that all true learning, finally, is personal.
We approach the franken-building of the local UU Church, which — it turns out when you walk in — composes a calm, light-filled interior. How the odd, angle-and-strut-rich exterior becomes a coherent, reflective space inside is one of those little wonders of architectural vision. “That’s my church,” Nick says. Now I know where I’ve seen him before.
Our way back to the Common takes us down Everett Sreet. Despite having owned a house in Brunswick for 14 years, and despite the street’s central location, this is my first trip down Everett. Well-kept, modest houses and apartments with little yards and tiny flower gardens line the street; it is a little urban gem wedged into town. Everett is also largely litter free; no one, it seems, loiters on Everett, flicking away ones and twos of the over 500 cigarette butts we have collected. A young man attached to a blue-tooth device walks by, nods, and, noting our bags, bends and picks up two scraps of paper.
At the end of Everett, Nick says, “I’m glad to be at the end of our route.” It’s been nearly two bending hours. I’m glad too, even as some of the habit that makes scut-work possible has already taken over.
We walk back to the Common, where the noon line at the burrito truck is a dozen deep. I wonder what they’ll do with their wrappers.