College of the Atlantic celebrated its 45th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, June 9. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ceremony. As is normally the case, the students themselves and their own words were largely responsible for that beauty. Risking scorn most people who live and work in the botanical world, I had the following comments.
I love Norway maple trees. If you’re from away, you may not know that the Norway maple may just be the most reviled plant on the planet.
It made the “most hated plants in the world” list where it was described like this: “The Norway maple is one dirty tree. It drops trash at all seasons, including flowers, seeds, branches, and copious amounts of leaves. It can grow in heavy shade and is therefore a ‘sneaky’ invasive plant. Fear for your dog … a falling Norway maple branch would hurt it badly.”
This spring a group of us tapped 50 Norway maples on campus. We boiled 400 gallons of sap down to eight gallons of syrup. When you graduates arrive up on stage, you’ll find a jar of COA’s 2018 Vintage Norway Maple Syrup. I ran this plan to tap Norway maples by some Vermonters and you could see the disgust rise through their faces. “You might poison yourself.”
Why the scorn?
When disease wiped out the elm trees in the 1940s, who brought shade back to the city streets? The sneaky Norway maple.
When George Washington landscaped his home at Mt. Vernon, he did so with Norway maples.
The back, ribs, and neck of the Stradivarius violin?; made from the dangerous-to-your dog Norway maple.
So they bring us this nectar with which you’ll remember your time here at COA, they bring us shade, they bring warmth when you burn their boughs, they bring color in the fall, they bring us brilliant music.
So I ask: Are they trash? Are they botanical litter?
I’m going on about Norway maples because how you approach litter and trash is absolutely essential to the practice of human ecology.
Trash collecting is about getting dirt under your nails and about lowering yourselves into the mire of the profane. It’s a show of respect for the planet and an act of humility in a world that desperately lacks that quality.
It’s altruistic. You didn’t throw that gum wrapper or, God forbid, that tissue there! Why should you pick it up? It’s taking care of the commons; it’s an unrecognized offering to the other. And it might even boost your immune system.
Consider the empty, flattened can of Schlitz beer on the roadside. It’s a no-brainer; or is it? In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey described his job as a ranger in the Utah desert like this: “I sweep the outhouses and disengage the Kleenex from the cactus. I toss my empty out the window and pop the top from another can of Schlitz. Of course I litter the public highway… it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that’s ugly.” Trash, transformed, can be an act of resistance or a work of art.
So trash status depends on what kind of material it is, where it is, and why it was put there.
The same holds when you move away from the material world. That world is littered with trashy ideas and trashy, alternative facts … with trashy souls … and we should be prepared to put them in the bin where they belong. Just recall that, as with flattened cans of Schlitz and Norway maple seedlings, you’ve got to constantly check yourself, you’ve got to get down in there and get your hands and your minds around those things first.
You’ll find that the hard work occurs before and after you actually pick up the trash. Picking it up is easy. Beforehand, you need to make that crucial mental calculation about what is and what isn’t trash. Afterward, you’ve got to figure out what to do with it.
I lived for two years in northern Guatemala working with people who speak a language called Q’eqchi’-Maya. One day, I was walking through the woods, collecting plants, and I came across this old, ragged pair of Adidas sneakers, what I saw as litter in the forest. I picked them up and put them in a trash pile back in the small village. The next day, I saw the rubber soles stripped from those same sneakers and nailed to the door of someone’s home. They had become hinges. That’s become my mental model for transformation.
Just a few weeks ago I was coming across Bar Island in my truck and saw this plastic bag caught up in a snag. I parked the truck just right, found a long stick, climbed up on the roof rack, and wrestled that bag out of the thorns. I felt good about it. But I just balled up the bag and threw it in the trash. That action did not line up with my mental model. Moving trash isn’t good enough.
I think about Abby Barrows’ master’s thesis on microplastic pollution and the fact that by 2050 there will be more tons of plastic in the ocean than there will be tons of fish in the ocean. But even if we were to gather every microfiber and put it in a big pile, we might be a step in the right direction – it’s not in the ocean anymore – but have we really solved anything?
Although the boundary between trash and non-trash is vague and it is porous, I venture that there are things and ideas that are trash in the absolute sense. But I believe that that body of absolute trash is smaller than you might think.
Trash collecting requires intimate, critical contact with the material world and with ideas. The process of collecting, sorting, and transforming requires loads of manual labor and intellectual heavy lifting. Trash collecting is an elixir against physical and intellectual laziness.
No matter what your vocation, you’ll confront a continuous stream of materials and ideas and you’ll have to judge them – to what extent are they trash? You’ll have to figure out what to do with the trash you do find. Are you going to shuffle it around? Will you try and eliminate it at the source? Will you transform it into something useful, rebellious or artistic? How you approach trash is one of the most important practices of human ecology you’ll confront. I’m confident we’ve helped you cultivate these skills.
Last year I used the words wonderful, contemplative, scrappy, inspired, humble, and activist to describe the COA graduate. But with another year of reflection, I will refer to you as “wonderful, humble, contemplatively scrappy activist trash transformers, all inspired to find and pursue your own unique labor of love.” Now go do it.
Congratulations to the COA Class of 2018!