It’s all in the trash

Published 11:16 pm Tuesday, November 8, 2016

By Susan Andrews

Archaeologists will tell you that you can learn a lot about the habits of a culture by looking at its trash — what they ate and drank — along with its tools and equipment.

These artifacts, some of which have markings that can pinpoint them to very specific locations and peoples, are clues to cultural habits and attitudes.

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On Saturday, as I walked along a little creek that ended in the midst of a beautiful cypress swamp, I learned a bit about habits and attitudes from the trash I saw.

Among the briers and brambles lay whiskey bottles and aerosol cans, clues to the habits of those who would seek the seclusion of the woods to get drunk or high. Down in a ravine by the Main Street bridge, I saw enough abandoned tires to outfit a fleet of 18-wheelers.

In a nearby parking lot, behind some stores, an awkward-looking dumpster is located in front of a stately old beech tree. The wind blows the trash out because of someone’s habit of leaving its doors open, welcoming animals to rummage for a meal.

At the roots of this old tree, said to be the second largest in the state, lay a mess of litter that had blown out of that dumpster and others nearby. Each offending cup and bag that had blown into the woods adjacent to the parking lot was clearly marked with the names of businesses that share that space.

It made me sad to see so many. These businesses otherwise keep their entrances free of trash. But around back? We all have a responsibility to keep our property clean. But there’s a much greater responsibility if your good name is blowing around out there, making an impact on the places we share with nature.

It’s not my habit to be in the woods near commercial development. So, I had a sort of visceral, close encounter with how the natural world and the urban world can either collide or coexist.

It was a disconcerting wake-up call for a nature lover with a tendency to remove myself to areas where the chafe of civilization is not quite so obvious.

On Saturday, a group of about 40 volunteers spent three hours picking up that trash in the woods behind businesses along the west side of Main Street in an effort to keep Suffolk’s waterways clean.

It was a beautiful morning spent with enthusiastic citizens who care a lot about this city. You’ve got to care a lot to get up early on a Saturday morning and go out in the cold to pick up trash, especially if it’s not your trash.

I’m pretty sure they had other options to fill their morning, but this is their habit. They were out there — some with their kids — picking up other people’s trash.

Kudos to Izaak Walton League of America and Nansemond River Preservation Alliance!

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at