Relittering: Take your trash and show it in the sun

Philosophy teaches us little more than how to confuse our settled opinions.


Ed Abbey was famous, or perhaps infamous, for tossing empty beer cans out the window of his pickup. Hell, he’d say, it’s the damn road that we should be calling litter. This style of provocation dates back to the Cynics, a gang of Greek ethicists that came on the scene after Socrates died in 399 B.C. They were interested in drawing attention to nomoi, cultural conventions that go mostly unnoticed and, accordingly, mostly unquestioned. For guys like Antisthenes, Crates and Diogenes, acting outrageous in public was a favorite pastime.

Despite my wholehearted agreement with Abbey’s point about the damn road being a damn road, there’s a part of me that thinks his behavior was, if not wrong, at least sort of dumb. Adding trash to an already trashed planet is patently unnecessary, not to mention crude. Furthermore, this can-out-the-window radicalism has itself become a cultural convention, a standardized symbol of defiance.

Industrial designer Taylor Lane built a surfboard out of 10,000 cigarette butts to bring attention to littering.
Hanna Yamamoto

If the goal is to shake things up, another Budweiser in the ditch isn’t going to do the trick. Maybe we need a new outrageous act?

Personally, I’m a fan of relittering.

The story begins during my years as a philosophy student in Colorado Springs. Once or twice a week (more if I was reading a miserable text like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit) I’d leave the dorm an hour before sundown, black Hefty bag in hand. Something about collecting the city’s refuse — Styrofoam cups and cigarette butts, broken bottles and cigarette butts, rags and wrappers and cigarette butts — freed my mind of words, concepts, big theories. It will sound paradoxical, but filthy trash consistently swept my headspace clean.

Unsurprisingly, the initial dozen or so outings ended with me back at campus, struggling to lift my bulging bag over the rim of a dumpster, fearful of catching a corner and leaking Eau de C. Spgs. onto my noggin. That is to say, I prettified the cityscape by consolidating strewn garbage and transferring it to a socially sanctioned receptacle. A no-brainer: Where else would a good young environmentalist offload 30 gallons of disgusting junk?

Alas, philosophy teaches us little more than how to confuse our settled opinions. Soon enough, I was wondering why a giant metal box brimming with rubbish was not a blight, and from there it was just a hop and a skip to the local dump where, one hot Saturday morning, I watched bulldozers busy themselves with heaps of steaming waste. Their work reminded me of a neurotic friend who “cleaned” his room by tidying clutter into, say, 17 neat piles.

All we’re doing, I realized, is pushing this awful shit around. If it ain’t recyclable, it ain’t recyclable. Period! I understood, instantly, that pure intentions and elbow grease wouldn’t green up a single inch of a society that overproduces and overconsumes. It hit me as gut-level sadness: This is your home. Welcome.

Thus, relittering was born.

I started small. At the edge of a park or playground I’d stoop, pluck a wadded napkin, then walk five blocks and set it gently down beside a bus stop. Within a few months, the napkins became pizza boxes, ratty jackets, tires yanked from overgrown lots. The artist in me wanted to consciously arrange, to fashion a thing of beauty, but my inner Cynic wouldn’t allow sugarcoating. He insisted that this was about forcing a raw confrontation between the citizens of Athens, er, C. Spgs., and their milieu.

The task was relocation, plain and simple. Haul nastiness from abandoned spaces and set it in the sun (preferably in a spot where it wouldn’t cause extra labor for a municipal janitor or landscaper).

These days I live in a rural area, and while there’s definitely plenty of garbage around, it appears manageable against the backdrop of undeveloped nature, which means I generally shoo it towards a trashcan. I miss relittering, though. There was an absurdity to it, a black humor that helped me laugh in the face of our drive toward ruination. It was a grimy, tactile encounter with the truth of culture and place — what Henry David Thoreau would have called “Contact! Contact!”

Funny that old Henry should butt in here, as he, like Ed Abbey, was also an heir to the Cynics. Different eras call for different techniques, I suppose. One fellow finishes his Budweiser and rolls down the window. A second kicks that can out of the ditch, into plain view. A third borrows an ax, heads to a pond on the outskirts of town, and builds himself a cabin, a dwelling apart from the madness of his age.

And then there’s Diogenes. He wore rags, resided in a wooden tub on the street corner, ticked off both Plato and Alexander the Great, and allegedly said, “Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.” If such a generalization causes discomfort, well, that’s the idea.

Leath Tonino’s writing appears in Outside, Orion, The Sun and many other magazines.

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