University of Michigan Biological Station: Wilder Than Before

 

High above a child’s orange-themed birthday party an orange balloon on an orange string bounces happily in the wind. A curious child, with small safety scissors in hand, wanders over to the orange balloon’s orange string and cuts it from its orange weight. All the children stop to look up at the freed balloon. The helium inside it is less dense than the surrounding air causing the balloon to float higher and higher into the sky. Once out of sight in the pale orange sunset, the children lose interest and continue with Craft Time.

A young woman walking along the southern beach of Lake Michigan admires the muted browns, blues and grays of the gravel and water around her. The Lake stretches out for miles before her, the furthest tip of Waugoshance Point barely visible to her left through the morning’s humid haze. As she looks along the beach admiring the variety of stones around her, she sees something stark against the landscape. She walks over to the unnaturally orange thing and realizes it’s a ribbon with deflated bits of plastic still attached. In a moment of decision, she picks it up, stuffs it in her pocket, and happily continues her walk.

Outside an elaborate summer-home, a newspaper in a clear plastic bag is thrown from the window of a run-down car by a teenager working a menial job for little pay. The rolled up journal containing news from around the globe soars through the air and lands on a welcome mat exclaiming “Bienvenue!” to all who cross it. Inside, the vacationer hears the thud and gets up from the kitchen table. He opens the front door and stoops to pick up the paper with his fine leather slippers on the edge of the mat. He takes the paper out and unfurls it in the gentle morning breeze. He pays little attention to the bag as it slips from under his robed armpit; it flies into the air and settles into the lake nearby. “Hmm,” he says as returns to the comfort of air conditioning—he’s absorbed in the latest news about some conflict in some faraway place.

 

Months later, the walker wanders over to a tussock of American beach grass to examine its large, fluffy spikelets. But, she is distracted by an inorganic thing wrapped around the planet’s base. She doesn’t know what it is at first and picks it up to investigate. She finds an opening and shakes the sack to fill it with air. She looks at its elongated rectangular shape and guesses at its original purpose. She uses it, making a receptacle for found things by ripping the bag along its seam and tying the loose ends around the strap of her bright blue backpack. She takes the orange remains from her pocket and shoves it into the sack. There we go, she thinks proud of her utility. She adjusts the bag to a less awkward position and continues her walk.

Aboard a Great Lakes schooner, a young man looks out at the water with the wind in his hair. He is part of a legacy of men who have fished this lake for generations. Out of his pocket, he takes a small cylindrical tin and opens it. He removes a pouch, placing it in his mouth, pinching it between his lower lip and gum, looking across the lake as the nicotine seeps from the snuff to the warm water of his mouth. When his grandfather calls his name, he is startled and drops the tin lid into the waters below. Shit, he thinks as the waves carry the lid away. He turns toward his grandfather, disappointed from the loss, trying to decide what to do with the remaining tobacco.

Waves coming ashore enthrall the female walker. She watches closely as the water moves across the pebbly shoal. In a flash, she sees something man-made, uncovered by moving water. She bends down, holding the plastic sack away from the water with her left hand, digging in the pebbles with her right. A circular something looks up at her, emerald green in the brilliant sun. She picks it up and closely inspects the fierce drawing on the surface. “Grizzly,” she reads out loud from the jagged font below the bear. She has no idea what the small, rusty lid once capped until she reads the fine print: “American Snuff Co.” She stands up and searches the filing cabinets of her mind to remember what the word “snuff” means. “Oh,” she breathes as she places the lid into the plastic bag containing the orange string and bits of latex. She turns toward the shore, disappointed at the tin’s cancerous origins, and continues her walk.


Along the way, the woman meets her friends and they ask her about her sack. She describes how she found it, wrapped around the base of a plant. She talks about its contents, the debris lost by some human somewhere some time ago. She explains how whenever she went off to look at the beauty of something natural she was distracted by something manmade. And she articulates her mission: to pick up the waste she sees in the hopes of restoring the beauty of the land. Her friends nod in silent agreement, not sure exactly which words to say.


As they travel back along the rocky beach, the walker’s friends spot trash she missed. With grimy, slimy bits in hand, they go to her and show her what they find. “Here,” she says with gentle encouragement, “stuff it in my bag.” She twists her body and they pack the garbage in. All the way back to the parking lot they do this, and once there, they throw the bulging plastic sack into the car. While driving away from the beautiful shores, the walker feels confident that she and her friends made a difference – they did their part to leave the place wilder than it was before.

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