One summer day, in my favorite wild place, I found enlightenment through garbage. Other people's garbage, I realized, is my destiny — and maybe my redemption. Spiritual enlightenment found in a wilderness is a cliche; few special moments occur anywhere else these days, and just once, can't someone admit to finding rapture in a mall?
My favorite uninhabited place isn't part of a designated wilderness, and may never be because it's a pasture on my South Dakota ranch. It's a lot wilder than most wilderness areas.
In the eastern sky hung the Badlands Wall, a mirage flipped upward from 60 miles away. Around me lay miles of private ranch land with no legal public access, a landscape that looks much the same prehistorically, when the Lakota were the only tourists. Shortgrass arid prairie, with grass taller than my boots. In 50 years of work here, the only garbage I'd ever found was the occasional shotgun shell dropped by someone hunting, with permission from us or a neighbor. Fences and water tanks are the only signs of human occupation. Everything native to the prairie harmonizes; even coyotes and antelope are virtually invisible unless they move.
So a scrap of white on a tawny hill caught my eye, and I strolled over to pick it up: a soft-drink container from a popular fast-food joint 40 miles away. As I walked back to the pickup, I visualized its journey. Tossed out a car window on the highway, 10 miles west of here, it blew across yucca, buffalo grass and cactus, past cattle and antelope and porcupines who might have died from eating it. It blew past ranches where families rarely eat fast food and wouldn't toss garbage out a window if they were in a landfill. If I hadn't picked it up that day, it might have reached Wall Drug the next.
I had to take it home. Burning it would release poison into my personal air, so I buried it deep in my pasture garbage pit. There it will remain — forever, apparently, a monument to carelessness.
At the ranch, I've often ranted about folks who stop on our half-mile gravel road from the highway to relieve themselves and empty their car of beer cans, household garbage and cigarette butts. Once, I found an envelope in a sack of trash. I mailed it back to the address with a note explaining where I'd found it. Sadly, such satisfactions are rare.
Holding that cup, hearing a meadowlark, I was overwhelmed with sorrow. Those flashing signs boast about millions of meals sold by the fast-food companies that use these containers. Thousands of people dispose of rubbish properly, which may still mean it's buried in a landfill, and many people recycle. Still, millions of containers mean that even a few rude slobs can create mountains of rubbish and enough trash to fill all the grassy valleys as far as I could see. That trash will outlast me and will not crumble, like my bones, into this prairie sod.
So why bother to pick it up? This is the place where I learned to ride, think, learn. My name is on the deeds, and ownership requires more than tax payments. Responsible citizens think beyond personal welfare.
Standing in my South Dakota pasture, I pictured that scrawny little philosopher on the other side of the world who made so much difference to millions of people. Mahatma Gandhi has been credited with saying, "Nothing you can do will make any difference, but you must do it anyway."
That day in the pasture, I put the cup in the pickup seat and resolved to pick up trash wherever I see it. Blame and anger accomplish nothing, so I try not to feel either of those heated emotions. Consider this a form of meditation, I tell myself, a prayer. Penance for my own mistakes.
While I collect used diapers from photogenic scenes, I sometimes hope the morons — er, thoughtless people — who dropped them will change their ways before they ruin the postcard view for all of us. But changing habits is not my job. Picking up trash is. I breathe deeply, making my anger a mantra. Cleanup is a down payment on my dues as a citizen of the natural world, and it's a fee I can afford.
Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches in Hermosa, South Dakota.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.