Griffith Park -- I spy something shiny in the bone-dry ditch. It's an early summer morning and I'm alongside the paved road in Griffith Park near the shady Oak Grove Trail. Candy wrapper. Armed with a long-handled trash grabber, I scan the landscape of brittle bare bushes and piles of dry dirt that slope into the ditch. While I don’t want to create a faux trail, I’m more concerned about finding a route on this steep hillside that won’t propel me face first into a pile of oak leaves.
“There’s a beer bottle up to your left when you get down there,” hollers Kathryn from up above as I make my descent, leaning against a trio of oak tree trunks for balance. Probably Modelo. That’s the brand of beer we find most in Griffith Park. “Modelo should sponsor our efforts,” we often say. “Think of the all the positive PR they would get out of it.”
Once a week, a small group of us park lovers take an early morning hike through this urban wilderness; it began last year for fresh air and exercise. But seeing the accumulated trash, the discarded water bottles, the toilet paper used for God-knows-what, empty mini booze bottles, fast food containers slick with orange grease, we realized we needed to collect what others have tossed, either on purpose or inadvertently. We discovered our calling.
During our hikes, Kathryn, Dora and I have picked up soiled diapers – both baby and adult – suitcases, Mylar balloons, stained Styrofoam coffee cups, baseball caps, fuses, a hunting knife, sunglasses, numerous Covid masks, and countless plastic doggie bags filled with poop.
There is only so much anger you can direct toward humanity as you pick up after them. Sure, we humans are basically slobs, but lately, I’m seeing trash with different eyes as we walk the trails. As the fog burns off, I imagine the possible stories behind some of the more peculiar items we have discovered. Who lost this umbrella? Who gave or received this small bouquet of now-wilted long stemmed roses? This wonderful pink hat? Is it missed? Tossed away in grief? Stolen? Lost and now longed for?
A most perplexing item was a small runner’s pouch found underneath a lemonade berry bush. The pouch was heavy. Folding back the navy-colored flaps, we uncover a recently dead baby possum. Double drama here. The pouch looked barely used.
“Poor possum,” we said to each other as we gently examined the soft white and black fur, the bubble gum pink nose, and the tiny fingered claws. No signs of trauma or blood.
Mother possums often have so many young clinging to her back as she waddles in and out of the brush, that she doesn’t notice when one or two unceremoniously falls off. This little abandoned one, however, was smart, stumbling in the leaves until it found this pouch to huddle inside of, something similar to mom in comfort and size.
“Well this is sad,” we agreed as we carried the pink-tailed baby to a burial spot outside of the sunlight when the ground was moist with shade. We knew another critter – probably coyote or snake – would find the body and declare that day the luckiest day of all.
On this morning, as I retrieve the candy wrapper and beer bottles (where there is one, there are many) in the dry wash, I feel my collection bag getting heavier as my thoughts. I cautiously make my way out of the ditch, having found a more geometrically convenient slope.
I join my group and we continue walking until someone whispers, “Guys…up ahead.” A coyote is on the trail, aware of us; its ears perked and cocked our way. But the svelte beast concentrates on a far oft thicket. We are inconsequential. We wait as it waits. Then. A branch snaps. Here comes an older pup through the bushes, padding noiselessly to follow the adult. The pair silently scurries and enters the safety of the nearby undergrowth. Such an intimate moment to witness.
Often I wonder if picking up trash takes me away from the moment of being in nature, concerned more with caretaking than immersion. The old Mary and Martha dilemma from the Christian Bible; Jesus comes to visit and Martha fusses around the house, making sure the meal is cooked, the beds are made, the place is welcoming. Mary sits at the feet of the master and listens to his words, soaking in a spiritual connection. “Mary has chosen the best,” is what the writers record Jesus as saying.
I get the message; pay attention to what is really important, but frankly, I think Mary needs to roll up her sleeves and start helping. Jesus – Nature – Life is always talking whether we are meditating (nothing wrong with that), soaking in a scenic vista that took hours to climb, watching coyotes on the trail or picking up trash in the dry culverts. It’s called multi-tasking, girlfriend.
Because what you do with your hands opens your heart.
And I promise you Mary – on possums, on coyotes, on Modelo Beer – there are plenty of never-ending moments of grace waiting to spring out of the thickets to mesmerize us as we gather up the forgotten -- and never-ending -- garbage of humanity. It's all there.
Sunday Story showcases first-person essays as well as fiction by residents. We welcome submissions, but stories must be set in one of the neighborhoods we cover.