What Kind of Person Litters a Nature Trail?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

We love hiking Virginia's spectacular trails -- especially at this time of year, when the autumn air is crisp and the foliage is beautiful.

There is nothing like being on a trail breathing the fresh air, listening to the sounds of wildlife or a stream and taking in the peacefulness. This pleasant calm settles our souls and heals us. We can imagine what the Washington region was like before mankind paved over so much of it.

We hadn't taken a hike in a while, so a few weeks ago we stole some time to get out. We headed to Pohick Bay Regional Park in southeastern Fairfax County on an inlet of the Potomac. As we stepped onto the trail, anticipating that wonderful sense of serenity we get from nature, we felt as if we were on the outskirts of a public dump rather than in a public park. Normally, parks in high-population areas have some litter, but this was obscene.

We were visually and emotionally assaulted by candy wrappers, chip bags, beer bottles and soda cans. There were garbage cans within sight, but it seems that many people find it acceptable simply to drop trash where they stand. How can they do that? What level of disrespect enables them to ruin nature? What sort of upbringing did they have?

We walked a little farther into the woods, hoping it would get better. It didn't, really. Not only was the litter upsetting, there was also a disturbing din from the bay, where boats and personal watercraft revved their engines. The noise made it impossible to experience what should have been the tranquility of the woods.

Disgusted, we left Pohick and headed for nearby Mason Neck State Park and Wildlife Refuge. Surely, a refuge -- a place specifically set aside for nature to be pristine -- would be nicer, right?

The first things we saw as we stepped onto the path were candy wrappers someone had dropped. We couldn't escape the roar of the watercraft here, either. And the beach was littered with bits of a foam cooler, a plastic clown cake topper, a tire, and numerous food and drink containers. There was a Taco Bell bag in the water just out of reach, so we used a stick to retrieve it, knowing how dangerous it could be for marine life.

We picked up as much trash as we could carry. Then, instead of continuing on our hike, we walked back to the beginning of the trail to find a trash bin. Sadly, we thought, the next time we go for a hike, we'll have to take along a few trash bags to pack out other people's rubbish. Lo and behold, two weeks later, when we returned to Pohick, the park was full of concerned citizens observing Public Lands Day and doing just that -- cleaning up other people's rubbish.

All of which brings to mind the famous public service announcement telecast to mark the second Earth Day in 1971. The ad features a Native American character looking at a pile of litter with a tear rolling down his cheek.

Perhaps it's time to start running that commercial again.

-- Lisa and H. Shelby Qualls



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