COMMITMENT: Community Service

So I just finished doing a few days of community service around Los Angeles. Out here, you can end up doing community service for almost anything. Jaywalk? Community service. Broken headlight? Community service. Forget your seatbelt…? You guessed it. Specifically, I was in Macarthur Park, made nationally famous by Donna Summer in 1979, but integral to the history of LA much longer than that. Back in the early days, it was owned by the governor’s family, and became a garbage heap, then a huge park at the turn of the twentieth century. In the eighties and early nineties, it was famous more as a place to find drugs (and bodies floating in the lake), but these days, it’s settled back into a respectable place, albeit one where the shop keepers don’t speak English as often as they do.

So as I picked up trash off the grounds and skimmed the lake with a long skimmer, clearing more trash and several varieties of dead animals, I started thinking about trash. What else, it’s all I’d been looking at all week! Even as a kid, my family and I used to go a few times a year and volunteer at the local park cleaning trash, mostly stuff that had floated downriver in a flood and somehow ended up on the banks. It’s not that people didn’t use the park. Sometimes it was downright crowded in the picnic areas. But I don’t remember people leaving a lot of litter behind. And I’m not that old yet, so this isn’t a “I remember when…” story!

Now Macarthur Park is a different story. It’s almost all human trash, and people just have a picnic on the lawn and leave everything there when they leave, like the lawn is some plastic dinner tray that can just be picked up taken to the dishwasher at the end of the day. If I’d melted down the plastic bottle caps I swept up those few days, I’d easily have gotten a chunk the size of myself. And as all you greenies know a plastic cap on the ground isn’t going anywhere anytime soon from biodegradation. At several points, the park director said not to worry about little trash, just newspapers and boxes, and plastic cups… big things you can see from across the park.

This illustrated to me the national situation we find ourselves in with our waste systems. We produce SO much trash that we end up only trying to clean up “the big things”, because we think we don’t have time to concentrate on all the little things. Well, I disagree. You see, if you’re going to do a job, do it right. That’s the motto of 90% of successful people, rich or otherwise. After a day of doing what was asked (and watching people throw things right back onto the half-cleaned areas), when skimming the lake I thought, why do this halfway? A lake that looks sort of trashy will quickly invite people to think of it as a place for more trash. A pristine lake is a scene for enjoyment. So I started skimming, and then when I finished, I went and did it again, checking my work. In the end, the whole lake was clear, and I was feeling pretty good watching the ducks feed their ducklings in an area free of plastic bags and soda bottles. And to prove my theory, I saw a man take out his camera and take a few lovely pictures of the now clean park, and several patrons even stopped and thanked me for cleaning up their lake, asking questions about the wildlife and the lake itself.  All that positivity for a few hours work!

Another thing that I see so often in our current societal system is that we work at odds with ourselves. After three days of cleaning the park, the park managers received word that, in response to anticipated large turnouts at the immigration rallies planned for this year’s May Day celebration, all trash cans must be removed from the park, so they couldn’t be used as weapons against the police (never mind that every barrel was chained down). No plastic bags or paper receptacles either, as they could be torched. What about the trash of the ten thousand or so people supposed to show up? The police’s answer… throw it on the ground. Having just been that person picking up trash for three days, I felt the frustration of someone who watches their sandcastle washed away by the tide. True, picking up trash once won’t cure everything, but couldn’t we as a society learn to coordinate everything a little better so that we don’t expend our resources repeatedly attacking the same problems when we know that by not changing the underlying patterns of consumption we won’t stem the problems themselves?

So community service wasn’t so bad after all. I’m glad not to be getting up at 5 am, but I kind of enjoyed being in the park all day. And when I walked away from the last day’s work, I felt good seeing the green expanses trash-free because of me. It looked like I imagined it in the old days. So here goes, I’m going to make another COMMITMENT. I will find a place, somewhere in LA, and adopt it as my own. It will stay trash free and maybe even sprout a few more plants. People may or may not notice, but hopefully the birds will. Will you do the same? If everyone just adopted a tiny little spot, we could create communities and scenes for enjoyment rather than half-cleaned vistas, waiting to accept another gift of trash.

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