A Waste & Recycling Guy, Walking in the Woods in January


A sand road in the South Jersey Pines, January 2014
A sand road in the South Jersey Pines, January 2014

I was walking recently through some of my favorite woods, in the New Jersey Pines along the Mullica River.  I was on an old sand road, which by the tire tracks sees maybe a couple dozen cars a year.

And I saw plastic.  Milk jugs.  Water bottles.  Someone had these in their car.  All they had to do was leave them where they were.  Take them home.  Throw them out.  But whoever it was, that’s not what they did.  They rolled down their window and tossed these things into the woods.  Where they will not decompose; where they will remain for dozens or hundreds of years.

A while later, I saw something blue off in the woods.  I went to check it out.  It was a balloon, one of the plastic helium balloons you buy at the supermarket that say “Happy Birthday” or whatever.  It must have escaped from somewhere miles away, and floated back to earth here in the middle of the Pines.  Where it will not decompose; where it will remain an out-of-place blue thing for dozens or hundreds of years.

Along the Mullica, I saw water bottles and beer cans that people tossed from their canoes.  I found a propane canister, the kind you use for a camping stove.  Someone brought this into the woods, used up the propane, and left the canister.  They had room in their pack to bring the canister into the woods, but somehow, apparently, they didn’t have room to take it away.  So it will sit there.  At least, being metal, it will someday decompose, in dozens or hundreds of years.

The woods themselves, they’re lucky to be here.  Two hundred years ago they were an industrial wasteland, devastated to provide fuel to make iron and glass.  Happily for the woods, people found better sources of iron further west, and moved the woods-raping business out there.  Later, Joseph Wharton wanted to cut the trees (again) and dam the rivers and pump the aquifers and build a series of huge lakes to feed water to Philadelphia.  Happily for the woods, the Supreme Court got in the way of that bright idea.  Later, they wanted to cut and flatten tens of thousands of acres (again) to build a giant airport and highways to New York and Philly.  Happily for the woods, the energy crisis came along and trashed that project.

The day I was walking, it was the middle of January.  It was 70 degrees out.  I was in a t-shirt.  It was all wrong.  In the Pine Barrens, in mid-January, 40 should be a warm day, 50 should be an exceptional day.  It was 70 degrees.  Some people say there’s no such thing as global warming, but if you have lived long enough and spent enough time outside, you know they’re wrong.  In the 1970s, when I started walking in these woods, 40 would be a warm day in January, and 50 would be exceptional.  The Earth is warming up.

These woods, and the places like them all around the world, they don’t need this kind of help.  They don’t need plastic thrown out of cars or drifting down out of the sky or tossed from canoes.  They don’t need propane canisters.  They don’t need to be cut over; they don’t need roads carved through them, or pipelines dug under them, or electric wires strung over them.  They don’t need to be mined for iron or sand or lumber or anything else.  They don’t need dams or airports.  They are perfectly happy without these things.

And they don’t need to warm up.  They would be perfectly happy, in mid-January, if it was 30 degrees out, if 40 was a warm day and 50 exceptional.  That’s how it was when they grew up.  That’s what they’re used to.

But that’s not what they get.  Instead, they get people.  And with people they get plastic, and pipelines, and electric poles, and they get to be cut and stumped and dug up and turned into housing developments, or Wal-Marts, or warehouses, or strip mines, or landfills, and they get to warm up.  They don’t need any of this.

But with people, that’s what they get.

Maybe we people will get our act together someday, and decide to get along with everything else that inhabits the planet.  Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  No, I think these woods, and everything else that’s not a Homo sapiens, are just waiting, and hoping, and praying they’ll still be here to recover when our disastrous species goes extinct.