No unsacred place, or, I do not want to be the Poop Fairy

How would we behave differently if we believed that every place was sacred – if not to us, then to someone?

I have a special relationship with Theodore Roosevelt Island. It’s my “home” park, here in the urban hinterland. It’s sad that to get to a place where plants and wildlife are left relatively to their own devices and there are more than a handful of trees, I have to get in the car, but it’s the nature of my situation. TRI is deeply important to me as a place where I can go to breathe a little easier, nourish my soul with the rhythms of the Wheel of the Year playing out more exuberantly, and get in touch with the spirits of my landbase and watershed.

There’s nothing quite like it, walking around the trails, deeper into the woods to the very shore of the river where the rocks thrust up through the thin skin of the land to create a natural henge, feeling myself connect to the place and begin to ground and center in a much stronger way…only to be met with a cheerfully purple little plastic bag of dog poop.

On my last two visits to the island, over the space of just a few days, I have picked up no fewer than twelve bags of dog poop.

I used to think these were just accidents, that maybe an owner busy jogging with an active pet simply didn’t notice when the baggie slipped from her grip. But no: many of these are deliberately placed. Several were under the sign that greets visitors when they come onto the island. One had cute little pawprints printed on the bag in case I was confused about the source of the spoor. Others had been left by the end of the railings on the footbridge, which leads back to the parking lot and trash bins.

Two more were neatly bagged, tied, and placed prominently atop a fallen log directly beside the path, and there was the one in the midst of my little out-of-the-way spot. There’s no way these are accidents.

Think about that: on at least a dozen occasions, a dog owner deliberately decided that “picking up after their pet” meant merely containing the poop in a plastic bag and then leaving that bag there for someone else to clean up. They clearly thought ahead enough to bring bags, but not enough to plan to take those bags to a trash bin.

Do they think there’s a magical Poop Fairy who cleans up after them? Apparently so, and I’m getting damn tired of filling the role.

I realize that for most people, especially dog owners, TRI isn’t a sacred space. It’s just a convenient place for a good run and a chance to let their dogs experience something other than concrete and manicured grass. I get that, I really do. But even if that’s all it is, wouldn’t simple decency indicate that others ought to be able to enjoy it without having to literally clean up your shit? Apparently not.

This is something between a rant and a plea. It’s also a lesson I’m trying to take to heart. I believe, as the poet wrote, that there are no unsacred places. I know, though, that some places are more sacred than others to me. This is reminding me that although I may not see a certain place as sacred to me, it might be – probably is! – a sacred space to someone else. That’s a humbling idea, and one worth learning, so I’m trying to be grateful. But it’s hard, because I don’t want to be the Poop Fairy.

Now how do I go about communicating that to the dog owners who visit TRI?

A Conversation on TRI

Young couple walking dogs: Excuse me, is there anything else on this end of the island?

Me: The trail goes around in a loop. They must be lost.

YCWD: Right, but is there anything else back there?

Me: ? Only some of the most beautiful un-cultivated land with trails for ten miles around.

YCWD: Like, any statues or stuff?

Me: No, the only statue is in the center of the island. Lady, this is DC. Haven’t you seen enough statues?

YCWD: Oh.

Me: The rest is supposed to be nature.

No, there’s nothing there.

Recognition

I saw a deer and a great blue heron on Teddy Roosevelt Island yesterday, and both encounters felt like a form of recognition.

I hadn’t visited the island for several days, and really needed to refresh my spirit with some time in nature. I went to my favorite spot, and even before I got there, I was really angry to see a couple of plastic drink bottles and some other trash littering the rocks. These weren’t things that had been washed up by the river; they had to have been accidentally dropped or carelessly left on the trails.

I was angry. I thought, I don’t want to deal with this. I came out here to be in some tiny corner of nature where I could, for just a few minutes, be a little more alone, a little away from the urban density, or even just pretend.

But people littering my favorite spot to connect with nature mean that even there, I can’t just sit down and look at the river without having bright orange reminders that a lot of people don’t seem to care about nature. The cleanup I helped do this spring was to try to fix some of that, to make up for other people’s lack of care and concern. But no matter how much effort I put in trying to help, to heal, those unconcerned people will keep making it worse, and I can’t keep up. I felt exhausted and even a tiny bit hopeless.

Those feelings were so similar to the ones I came to the island to get away from that I simply had to let them go. I picked up the bottles and stuff, put them by the trail I’d be taking out, and went to greet the particular spots I know best, marveling at how they seethed with life, noting how the river level has changed and that Arachne’s daughters are busy in the forest. Slowly, gently, I felt my soul relax.

As I continued down the trail with my hands full, I pondered my emotions. I had managed to let go of the anger; I wondered if I could replace it with something else. Compassion? Yes, I could feel compassion, for the island and its life forms, and focus on that compassion as the reason for my actions. I could even, after I contemplated it, feel compassion for people who drop plastic bottles in one of the most wild refuges to be found in our urban sprawl; people who do that probably never get to experience the deep refreshment and reconnection that I had just felt, and that makes me sad for them.

What about gratitude? And suddenly it blazed up in my heart: yes, I could feel gratitude. Not that people were so stupid as to give me the necessity of cleaning up after them – again and again – but if not for them, then at least for the place, for the circumstance. As I walked, the uncomfortable plastic seams cutting into my fingers became an occasion for gratitude, because I had the opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to TRI, my relationship with it and its ecosystem in a tangible, meaningful way. I relaxed further and widened my gaze beyond the irritating bottles.

As I did, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and froze. A heron was wading in the swampy wetland off to one side, and I’d almost missed it. If I had stayed angry, with my shoulders hunched and eyes narrowed, staring at the bottles and muttering about stupidity and laziness and petroleum, I would have walked right by the bird, only 15 meters away, much closer than I’d ever had the chance to see one before. The heron and I regarded each other, and as I walked away quietly, I gave thanks for the reminder.

After I reached a trash can and threw away the bottles, I walked a little more quietly, and it was not long before saw a family on the path ahead of me staring intently to one side. A shaft of sunlight caught the golden-brown gleam and just the edge of the white patch of a white-tailed deer, who was otherwise well-concealed in the vegetation. The deer didn’t seem to be nervous, so I cautiously came up to the family’s vantage point, and was able to make out the deer’s head and face. They said that several other deer had just crossed the path; they were probably heading uphill for a place to sleep during the day, in a more thickly forested space further from the perimeter trail. I’ve seen deer on the island a few times before, but it was still a magical experience, especially since the deer didn’t seem to be startled.

As I left, I couldn’t help but feel that the encounters were almost a form of recognition. Not exactly a reward, but the result of the time and effort I’ve spent building a relationship with the island and its life. I probably would have seen the animals if I hadn’t picked up the trash, but the fact that I have a relationship with the island was why I was there in the first place, and was why I did pick up the bottles. If I hadn’t gone, even on that hot and sticky day, I wouldn’t have had the chance to be in the right place at the right time to have those encounters.

It’s glorious to feel that my effort and actions have been recognized, even – especially – by Nature herself.

CIRCLE Magazine publishes TRI cleanup piece

The Summer 2011 issue of CIRCLE Magazine features an article I wrote about the cleanup on Teddy Roosevelt Island! CIRCLE Magazine, published by Circle Sanctuary, has a regular feature called Eco Magic that highlights Pagan interactions with the ecosphere.

The article is adapted from two posts about the TRI cleanup and my personal reflections about it. They published three photos as well, but a few more (and all of them in color!) are on the blog entry for anyone who’s curious. This is the first time I’ve ever been published in print, so I’m pretty excited about it! I’d like to offer my thanks and gratitude again to everyone who came out to make the event such a great day, and especially to OHF.