Not unusual, this Tuesday. I hop on my bike and head downhill toward the vast indigo ocean with Maui shimmering across the channel, verdant rolling fields a parenthesis between me and the sea. I fondly regard the local dairy’s towering wooden silo alongside giant red and white windmills, revolving in rhythm to the crispy gust of tradewinds. On my ten mile cruise along Akoni Pule Highway, I try not to focus too much on the roadside garbage, but thoughts creep in unbidden. When was it we began to ignore this blatant insult to the landscape? When did we collectively decide that walking, cycling and driving amidst rubbish was an acceptable state of being? And more broadly now, when did we collude in the wholesale polluting of the planet?
I remember growing up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s; recall milk deliveries, ice cream trucks, the separate weekly groupings of glass, paper and household rubbish. Into present awareness jump newspaper drives in grammar school, mammoth bundles tied with string, awaiting collection. Competition for our scout troop, summer camp, church fundraisers blends with somatic recall of smog alerts, times we had to refrain from playing at recess because our lungs burned with acrid air.
I reminisce on struggling with President Kennedy’s fitness programs, for we were not conditioned before running long distances around a track, not encouraged to stretch before attempting records at the long jump. My lungs and muscles ached for days, not to mention incurring virtual heat stroke from the solar-saturated asphalt surrounding islands of sand and swings. A playground promising blessed relief from forced intellectual and behavioral incarceration could likewise conjure mirages on the most blistering of days. I remember square dancing, pergola lunches, endless spinning around monkey bars, tetherball and five cent lunch milk in paper cartons. Recall going steady with boys in the fifth grade, playing spin the bottle in the bushes at Hamilton Park. And yet try though I might, I cannot summon the existence of roadside trash. All the way through high school, I covered mile after mile to and from those halls of learning. I walked to school, Brownies, band, drill team and water polo practice, I walked to the store, to friends’ houses, I walked to avoid going home. And I am certain I would have remembered curbside litter, as I was raised in the suburbs yet educated in the natural world of canyons and mountains, of ocean, high and low desert, of fresh and salt water lakes.
It was somewhere between thirty years in the Maine woods and spending quality time with a dear friend in Boston that I ventured into that city for focused periods of time. And one of the most striking features of forays into these urban environs was the sheer volume of rubbish blowing about the streets. Strolling through Somerville with plastic, styrofoam and paper collecting around my ankles lent stark contrast to long stretches of trees, grasses and pristine shorelines of the north country. And yet this began a time, for me, of mentally recording the emergence of a refuse culture, either ignorant, ignominious or both, in breed. We had somehow, somewhere and at some point become overwhelmed with our non-biodegradable consumerist compost. We had somehow, somewhere, and at some time chosen to ignore it spilling out from our homes and into our roads, highways, and landscapes. We had mysteriously made the collective decision not to care if it did.
Today I took note of the following items tossed from car windows, blown from beds of trucks and moved mauka to makai – from mountain to ocean – by the ever-present trade winds of Kohala. Grasping for perspective, I could not help but wonder what if anything moves through the minds of those who discard these objects; I who swoon with guilt anytime I’ve cast banana or orange peels far out the car window and into the scrub of landscape. Part of me knows they are biodegradable while another part wonders what would happen if a thousand people performed this act at the same time. To wit: beer bottles, large and small – some smashed, others whole, a disposable diaper, wadded paper towels, a large black sock, clear plastic roofing scraps, an entire plate lunch wrapped first in styrofoam then tied securely in a white plastic bag, red plastic drawstring from a garbage bag, cds, a cardboard box, a full orange adopted highway plastic rubbish bag that somehow had been moved off the highway collection spot and into the bushes, a Gatorade bottle left over from the last Ironman race, a rubber marker for a baseball diamond, plastic drinking bottles of all sizes and colors, plastic and galvanized garbage can lids (some shredded by the county mower), innumerable plastic bags blowing around, stuck to barbed wire fences and caught on tree branches, assorted aluminum cans, a child’s large inflatable toy, balloon bodies, woven plastic covers to county sandbags, a child’s rubber slipper, cigarette boxes, a man’s XXL “Year of the Tiger” tee shirt covered in dirt but otherwise perfectly wearable, an automobile wheel cover, plastic floor mat and old garage sale signs, both plastic and cardboard.
This rubbish collects along Akoni Pule Highway, gateway to our lovely community as it winds through some of Hawaii’s most striking landscapes and terminates in the incomparable Pololu Valley overlook. I have cycled this highway since moving here a dozen years ago, and for all the cleanup that periodically transpires, there is ever a recurring impulse to junk it up again with the telltale signs of a culture gone made with consumerism, the same culture that ignores a middle aged woman in the cashier’s line in front of me two days ago carting no fewer than ten well boxed and styrofoamed lights, requesting that each be securely stowed in its own brown and orange plastic Home Depot bag.