Trash along our highways is a kind of free-form, multi-media graffiti. Such displays follow wherever travel leads: along commuter routes, vacation byways, and in the gutters of streets around town. Items made for distinct, useful purposes have either escaped or been tossed away. They’re distributed by the wind and transformed by rain and sun. Paper, plastic, glass, wood and metal objects form a constantly changing collage as they degrade or conditions on the road’s median or shoulders change with time and the season.
I revel in the juxtaposition of a cigarette box and Barbie doll, roof shingles and a tee shirt or single sock. Nature moves things around in ways our imaginations struggle to reach. It can be mind-bending to discover these accidental marriages of unwanted stuff.
I don’t like litter. It’s ugly and a sign of undisciplined profligacy. It degrades the natural beauty of our countryside and undermines pride in the places where we live. Litterbugs are no better than those who steal from libraries and I’m confident that were Dante to write The Inferno today, there would be a special circle in hell’s lower precincts reserved for such offenders. But, unfortunately, litter is here to stay as a part of the human and roadside condition. We’ll forever spend precious public dollars cleaning it up, and civic minded citizens like my neighbor Mike (who for years has picked up bags of trash every Sunday morning on a local thoroughfare) will be kept busy for eternity or even longer.
With litter as inevitable as death and taxes and impossible not to see, I’ve decided to make the most of it. Sometimes I actually enjoy the myriad shapes and colors thrown together in unexpected ways.
Plastic bags are among the most common form of roadside litter, their colorful hues sometimes flapping from trees like ersatz prayer flags. Broken glass sparkles in fountains of prismatic colors on sunny days, and car parts left over from accidents at times pique my interest like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Cans, bottles, paper and foam cups are frequently caught in a wilderness of brush, hidden in grass, or shunted to the pavement’s edge by rushing water. Boxes, food wrappers, newspapers and other detritus of the consumer culture lie about in random synergy waiting to catch my eye.
I’d prefer people weren’t careless or slobs, and that litter was properly disposed. Still, I won’t let my distaste rob me of the intrigue wrought by this accidental display of practical objects that have lost their reason for being. There can almost be joy in roadside detritus.