On the last Saturday of January, before the sun peeked over the mountains, I dragged myself out of bed to join my mom on her crusade to pick up litter. Not just any litter either, it was the crème de la crème of all trash taking up real estate along the Wauna curves.
I lost a little sleep in anticipation of walking along the notoriously dangerous road, primarily because I was trying to come up with a good excuse for not going. But then I thought about how often I drive on SR-302 and my usual apathetic acknowledgment of the trash sparkling in the ditches. On my more conscientious days I go so far as thinking “someone ought to do something about that.”
The number of times I’ve said that and variations of it to myself is impossible to calculate. Someone ought to clean this. Someone should take care of that. And an all-time classic: The state needs to figure out what to do here.
Judging by the many honks and cheers of “thank you!” from passers-by that day, many people have been thinking the same thing.
In between the moments of praise and the dumping of stale beer from crumpled cans onto my shoes, I couldn’t help but feel a little resentful. Like, how much litter would have to build up before all our adoring fans reached their breaking point and set out with trash bags themselves? But the self-righteous inner dialogue turned into one of self-reflection as I remembered that I had to be asked to do the pick-up myself; so, really, how far off on the horizon was my own breaking point?
The sentiment of wanting to make the Key a better, more beautiful place, is omnipresent, but the level of desire for making it happen is fleeting. I get it, though. Life is busy and most people aren’t constantly thinking about whether the character of our locality is attractive or not. And if they do, it probably becomes overwhelming because there’s obviously so much that needs to be done.
It also doesn’t help that public spaces live at the intersection of “who’s in charge?” and “not my problem.” Care of easements falls on everyone and no one. But what if we were to look at these areas as subject to the democratic process? Then it would be safe to assume that the sides of our roads look exactly how most of our community wants them to look – full of garbage. The folks who have utilized the ditches as their own dumpster, those are the people who we have let take over our public spaces.
Fortunately, there are members of the community who decided that enough is enough and have taken it upon themselves to organize clean-ups and improvement projects. It takes people with real grit to do the work of arranging these sorts of efforts, primarily because it involves making phone calls, asking questions, possibly getting rejected, and also doing the work. Things that most of us aren’t willing to do without compensation.
Very rarely, though, is an idea for a small public improvement project rejected by the state, county, or even private property owners (so long as most of the expenses don’t fall on them). If you want to clean up your road, litter crews are supplied with signs, vests, bags and pick-up by the county. If there’s an ugly median at a busy intersection that needs some flowers, the Department of Transportation is happy to work with you on the improvement. All it takes is having an idea and making a plan.
I don’t want to pretend I’m some community savior. I have not personally organized any missions to improve upon our public spaces and I know myself well enough to admit that I am someone who must be summoned for such tasks. That being said, I want to be better about getting involved when I see an opportunity. If not to curb my generational guilt, then to honor anyone who has taken an initiative that most never will.
I believe we’re generally a community of creative and caring people and our public spaces should reflect that. Rewiring our brains to see the roadsides and other unkempt easements as “ours” is going to take time but starting small is better than not starting at all. So, whenever we catch ourselves thinking “someone ought to…,” remember that we are indeed that someone.
Kamryn Minch lives near Minter Creek.
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