For Nicole, picking up trash on the side of the road is more than a good deed. It’s a practice in mutual restoration — her own and the Earth’s. Here’s why she chose to follow in her Nana’s footsteps and how she’s found meaning in this menial, though necessary, task.
During the lockdowns, I bought a litter picker and began cleaning up trash on my daily walks. The idea came from my Nana, a woman of strong faith who strode up and down the country roads getting in her exercise as she picked up the garbage thrown out of cars. She believed looking after creation was a way of loving God — and herself, the land around her farmhouse kept orderly through these outings. I remember how she would push back the sweaty fringe of gray hair from her forehead and smile, her eyes alight with joy and purpose, when mom and I would pass her coming home from town.
That is what my new mission felt like: pushing back Mother Nature’s fringe, every piece of trash collected from her sweaty brow cooling her. The thick grass, verdant after a rain shower, moved in the breeze once more, and small daisy-like flowers dotting the riverbanks took their rightful place in the color scheme now that the weight of the litter was gone from their bright faces. I felt like a child tending to the ill Mother who had taken care of me all her life, and I was in love with the task.
Looking over my work along the winding rim of the river, I felt a deep sense of joy and satisfaction. A quiet relief entered my spirit as the landscape returned closer to the original creation. There was also a grace-filled penance in this simple act as the adult me reached through the brambles to grab soda and beer bottles left there by the revelers who came to the woods next to the water to party on weekend nights.
How many times, as a teenager, had I thrown trash out my car as I drove along under the cover of a dark sky, my friends and I drinking and driving, tossing empty bottles into the hedges? It’s one of many selfish and dangerous acts I’m not proud of. Yet, as the shame of those memories surfaced, so did the sound of chirping crickets, the feel of the breeze through our fingers extended out windows, and the impenetrable depth of the forest as we raced along back roads.
Through many irresponsible and troublesome moments of my youth, nature absorbed my rebellion and despair. She spoke of something greater than myself as I sought meaning and reprieve from boredom, trauma, and self-loathing. Many times she stood as a testament to peace, and wild beauty, to all that is pure in this world, while she waited patiently for me to come to my senses.
Adults are often harsh critics of what they deem as immaturity, but impulsive, self-destructive behavior can be a sign of deep pain and fear of the future that can lead to many sins and much suffering. It can also be a cry for help, a reckless living-in-the-moment attitude that belies a hopelessness in ever finding something more. Where humans are impatient and often give up on one another, nature remains a loving and gracious teacher, a signpost pointing the way to life.
In Clowning in Rome, Henri Nouwen says, “The plants and animals with whom we live teach us about birth, growth, maturation, and death, about the need for gentle care, and especially about the need for patience and hope.” He believed nature teaches us about the preciousness of life. In our worst moments when we want to give up, nature can woo us to see our value, help us find longevity when everything feels finite and overwhelmingly immediate, and help us to find rest until we are ready to try again.
As I carefully collected each bottle, I said a prayer for the people who had consumed so much alcohol and left the wreckage thrown about the forest floor. A prayer for safety and purpose, for a way to see beyond this disposable moment into something eternal. I prayed for them as I would have wanted someone to pray for me, for people to come across their paths to point them in the direction of faith, to get high on the calling over their lives, to believe there is a calling. To see the infinite possibility in the nature that surrounded them and believe that possibility is for them, too.
This earth is beautiful and despite our many foibles, so are many of the people who inhabit her. Perhaps, we all just need a bit of a clean-up sometimes, someone to cool our brow and smile until the light gets in and we are restored to our true glory. So, I kept walking up and down the roads, like my Nana did before me, one among many, redeeming and restoring one spot at a time, the sun shining, birds chirping, feeling my heart being restored, too.