By Dr. Curtis L.E. Barnett
During this time of official mandatory lockdown because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and despite the stay-at-home policy aimed at stemming the spread of the disease, we have nonetheless —and thankfully so—had the opportunity to go for regular, almost daily, walks. In addition to the possibility of improved health which bodily exercise and going out for walks affords us, and the restorative effect it has on our mental as well as our physical well-being, hiking and strolling on the roads have also allowed us to get a closer and more complete view of the physical and sensory aspect of the environment in our community. One of the things that is strikingly obvious and blatantly self-revealing is the amount of garbage that abounds in this place, this Caribbean island that was once, in former times, what some people would nostalgically, though not erroneously, consider an unspoiled, pristine paradise.
Apart from whether or not this last statement might have a figurative meaning or connotation, we mean it quite literally when we observe that we reside in —I loathe to say it or even think it— a land of garbage. And would it, moreover, be amiss to suggest, by virtue of voicing the verb “overspread”, that trash extends conspicuously over our terrestrial surfaces and that our environment is overrun with refuse? When next the reader, or better yet, the stroller, has opportunity to somewhat attentively observe our surroundings, let him or her look around and take notice of what is on the ground or in the air, and determine if the descriptive phrases which we here use properly characterise what we have and what we allow to be visible on the face of our land.
Do not think that your eyes deceive you or distort your true sense of vision when you think you see what actually appears beside you on a path or on a road. Neither does your sense of smell fool you when you detect something like a very foul scent striking and offending your delicate olfactory nerves. It may very well be a dead and malodorous fowl or some other unmistakable decaying carcass of one of our little native creatures that is hit, killed and left to stink in the bushes, on the roadside or in the middle of the road, for that matter. Take heart and be reassured. You are only a human being with a typical reaction of revulsion to what negatively stimulates your normal instinctive sense of smell and provokes an annoyance or unpleasant mental state. It produces a displeasure that manifests itself throughout your whole organism. It causes you to grimace and make a wry face in disgust. You would stop breathing if you could and still live. Your whole body reacts. You want to turn and speed away until you’re out of range of sensing the emanations from the offending entity. When you become conscious that you’re out of its reach, you realise that it has already got you. The offense to your physical sense that has caused you to act and react lingers in your memory and in your imperceptible psyche, if not in the sense organs of your palpable self.
Sometimes in response to a foreign or outer stimulant I am provoked to pen some lines in which I attempt to express and record my thoughts. Sometimes the writing is also an exhibition of inner thoughts and mental manifestations that are not necessarily a reaction to tangible or objective outer stimuli experienced in the present, but rather an expression generated by the recollection, subconscious or otherwise, and drawn from the stock and treasury of accumulated and stored experiences and memories from the past that constitute the psychological, social and physical personality and character that I am. Let those thoughts and sentiments spring from an abundant and wholesome reservoir, in any case, and flow over into a praiseworthy source of edifying and elevating ideas for the reader or hearer. Whenever I am inspired to write a rhyme, for example, if poetry be the genre chosen for a particular theme and expression, whether or not the arousal of interest in the exteriorisation of sentiments stems from an external stimulus or is spontaneously generated, I prefer that the subject matter or the object of my focus be a topic or a thing of beauty that evokes pleasure in my personal aesthetic senses and spills over to the recipient and uplifts, moves and inspires him or her to excel and soar as a person, both in being and doing. Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the proverbial saying has it, my own preferred choice and taste may also likely line up with what is considered attractive and beautiful according to general agreement and collective popular estimation of a given object’s qualities and worth. Not that something ugly, sad or deplorable cannot inspire a good poem, which is, of course, what I aim for. On the contrary, if a tally were made, such generally unappealing themes in the content of my poetic repertory would probably add up to only a small minority of examples that form in my mind and move through my fingertips and onto my computer’s screen.
At any rate, while thinking briefly about the subject at hand, three or four lines began to suggest themselves to my spirit, and then I continued to elaborate the entire little composition into a little poetic picture, as given immediately below. Without bearing a formal heading or title, the poem could, nevertheless, carry the same name as that by which this little essay is called:
Garbage, garbage everywhere,
Round on the ground and in the air,
Strewn among fallen, decaying leaves,
Hanging mysteriously on the branches of trees,
Ugly aliens lurking on the land,
Perilous intruders on beach and sand,
Garbage, trash, whatever the name,
Rubbish, refuse, waste matter —shame.
The poem, though rather short, is comparable to a small-sized picture. It is realistic like a photograph and not artistically depicted or glossed by the intervention of the sophistry of a preconceived human mind or cleverly guided by the inventiveness of a creative artistic hand. Suggestive, descriptive and assertive though they be, these lines add up to a factual, in-your-face presentation which mirrors the reality that stares at us every time we venture out and hug the side of a traffic-ridden road or whenever we find a rare path on which to walk, or on the occasions when we go into a park where we wish to relax. Practically every line can serve as a complete caption of individual pictures that form a series of illustrations of the ubiquitous garbage in our midst. Put together, the lines add up and equate to a coherent and complete text box that could be given its own little legend, something like: “Garbage, shame—oh, what a name!” And that box could serve as the caption for the whole series of melancholy pictures with which it is associated.
Pieces of garbage, trash or debris are like other things, other bodies that occupy places in the universe. The difference that distinguishes the former from the latter, is that litter, unlike other material entities, consists of pieces of discarded objects. Inasmuch as they are like other bodies, however, they share the physical properties of mass, weight and the magnet-like force of attraction known as gravity, which, late in human history, science has not only verified, but also codified and quantified. Gravity, like memory, is a reality that we cannot physically perceive, but which we know is there because we can observe its effects and by deduction prove its existence. It is that force which causes material things or bodies to be attracted to each other. It makes things fall to the ground because of the earth’s gravitational pull on the objects. Trash, it appears, not only obeys the physical law of gravity in the universe, but also responds to the gravitas of the social and psychological stimuli and impulses that govern our human behaviour. Somehow we seem to want to follow fashion and be and do like others, unconsciously if not intentionally and deliberately. Having observed the situation over a stretch of some years, we have noticed a tendency of pieces of garbage to attract other pieces. We have come to a conclusion which we could almost codify into a simple statement like the following (which some reader could possibly further simplify by altering or jettisoning some of my excessive verbiage): Where one piece of garbage is discarded and abandoned, surely other pieces will soon be ditched, dumped and heaped together with it. That’s the way it has been for years where we live. After a person throws or drops a candy wrapper or a beer bottle or an aluminium soda can into our yard (which is all too frequent), another such or similar item is bound to appear shortly thereafter, within a day or two. Where there is one piece, there soon will be two. Now two, soon four. It always happens. And it's not, as I can guarantee you, because we desire it to happen. So the reality seems to reflect the natural laws which govern the subconscious, the thinking (or its absence) and the actions of many people in the sphere of the social universe which we inhabit.
The resultant state of the garbage reality that exists could be turned into a mathematical game, in which both adults and children can engage. On second thought, however, we will discard the word “game” as garbage in this instance, for to many people it would not be an enjoyable pastime of play, entertainment and fun, but a miserable activity. Even though it would involve mental exercises that could otherwise be pleasurable and exciting, in this case, it would amount to an involuntary and unpleasant task full of drudgery and ennui. Unlike the occasions when some indolent adolescents dubiously assess their situation of idleness and inactivity as “boring”, this hypothetical diversion might prove to be a meaningless distraction which would drive uninterested participants to truthfully exclaim, “I am bored!”. This imaginary mental sport, at any rate, would include skills like counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, and would threaten to go on interminably, it would seem, for the sums, the differences, the products and the quotients never get smaller.
Garbage, in fact, is like weeds. It grows and proliferates. No matter if it’s a season of rain or a time of drought, garbage, unwanted, valueless and even harmful like other plants of that ilk, always increases. It piles up higher and higher. A little pile becomes a mound, then a hill, then a mountain, a mountain of trash, more and more, in perpetuum. These words are reminiscent of the unofficial but popular name given to the main dump depot to which we destine most of our garbage. Mentioning mounts of “trash, more and more” brings to mind the ever-growing quantities and large dimensions of the many items that constitute the illegal and expanding secondary district dumps, which in turn exemplify and remind us of the base (or shall we say squalid, low-down) beginnings of the mount that serves as the evocative image and name of the quintessential exemplar of the mother of all garbage mounts in our midst. Such illegal and unsightly mountains of garbage must be treated like weeds; they must be extirpated and cast away.
Although it can be organised, even if organised in situ, a growing collection of such unauthorised and illegal garbage, unnatural, unpleasant and undesired, will always bear the blemish of negative stigmatic stains. It will remain unnatural and unwanted, dangerous, unsightly and unhealthy, and it will outgrow and exceed its sensible and practical boundaries and present its own set of challenges and problems, sometimes seemingly insurmountable. Garbage thrown into the yard, pitched back flagrantly over one’s shoulder, flung out of the window of an automobile, carted to someone else’s private property or dropped, deliberately or otherwise, onto the roadside—that garbage, just by its very presence, will attract more of the same. We will see more of its evidence on the land, at the seaside on the beaches and the ironshore, in the air and hanging on the branches of trees, and those places will passively harbour even more garbage, in accordance with the natural, inexorable growth and the unresisting law of the tendency of increasing accumulation.
Unless, of course, we actively resist and counteract the natural process of which we speak, the accumulative effect will tend to produce a paradoxical status quo, a condition both tangible and figurative which will appear to continuously expand and threaten to become ever more deeply rooted and permanent. The existence of such a state of affairs would suggest an acquiescing, accepting, even welcoming attitude on the part of those of us humans who live in the environment. This would be an unthinkable, untenable stance, unhealthy, pernicious and detrimental to the society in every way. It would lower the esteem of visitors who see us and naturally evaluate us and who would justifiably be led to ask: “Have these people no pride or what?” Equally negative, the proliferation and abundance of garbage would reflect the way we regard ourselves and be a kind of gauge of the estimation in which we hold our fellow inhabitants and the society as a whole. We therefore receive as a positive promise the government’s assurance that it will put people to work to clean up our communities. This needs to be done, not just seasonably or periodically or whenever some royal personality visits, but as an ongoing and long-term programme. For their part, the workers who are charged with the job need to be totally and absolutely committed to removing every little piece of trash that is scattered throughout this little space in the universe. And garbage should be eliminated not just from the sides of the main roads, but also from the side roads and footpaths, from the interior of the woods and highlands where garbage has been illegally dumped, or has penetrated or otherwise been scattered. It should be eliminated from every spot, in fact, where there is material which is manufactured or does not normally occur in nature. Ultimately, howsoever we seek to meet the challenge and solve the problem of the prevailing presence of garbage in our midst, we need to teach and inculcate into our populace (and especially into the hearts and minds of the children) a few basic fundamental truths and practical acts that will result in always having and maintaining a clean and beautiful environment.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” they used to say. Practising it starts with desiring to have it that way. We must aim for less, to acquire, consume and use less. Of course, recycling campaigns have a good aim and attempt to publicise and popularise a commendable slogan: Recycle, reuse, reduce. Each of us must consciously and intentionally put such activity into practice, and we must reject placing or allowing any kind of waste, junk, or garbage into our environment which could be disposed of by proper means. We would not want to continue living in a place that is messed up or contaminated by garbage. What kind of living would that be?