Three or so years back, when it first dawned on me that picking up garbage in the wild places around home was a simple form of activism – of love in action – that I could practice with intention, I had no idea the fire that was being lit in me.
I had no idea then, that I was taking a step in the direction of what might become my life’s work. By life’s work, I don’t necessarily mean the work I get paid to do; I mean the work of my heart invested over the remainder of my days. The legacy I wish to create and, one day, leave behind on this planet.
It began with disturbance. It boiled into rage. And it has been evolving ever since into something constructive, something empowering, something life-giving. Something like pouring the contents of my soul upon the ground.
. . . . .
My journey began along the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle. I partnered with Seattle Parks and Recreation and joined habitat restoration parties in collaboration with the city and Forterra. I began entertaining a new dream: what if there were a position in the city where I could be paid to keep our natural habitats clean (something beyond the regular, minimum cleanup of the understaffed parks’ employees)? I searched and searched and found one possible listing, which disappeared from the website the next time I checked, much to my dismay.
No, I realized. These jobs are few and far, far between. I’d be more lucky than I could hope to land a job like that.
So I set that dream aside and kept working my job as an assistant manager at Starbucks and cleaning up the lake in my free time. And a year later, we left our life behind in Seattle and started from scratch two hours north in Bellingham.
We’ve lived there two years.
. . . . .
Though it took me more than a year of living in a new city before I picked up my old practice of cleaning up the outdoors, once I finally stepped out with my litter stick and fresh eyes, there was no turning back.
Our neighborhood in Bellingham is entirely different than our Seattle hood. It’s the northern end of town, where concrete begins to brush up against farm land at the county line. It’s a neighborhood of 55+ housing communities, low-income apartments mixed with condos, cookie-cutter housing developments on top of what was once wetland buffer, a community college and medical buildings.
Wetland, forest, fields and habitat buffer zones are woven into the spaces between our man-made communities. It’s quiet here and the pace is slow.
I think I hesitated to resume my work of cleaning up for so long because I wasn’t seeing properly. I simply didn’t believe there was enough garbage around to bother. And I was fighting my way through the thick of what has been more than five years of clinical depression. As is so often the case, I struggled to muster the energy or desire for the very thing that could be my most effective therapy.
But I finally got out there, one rainy day, and I returned with fresh eyes and a full bag of trash. Turns out, the forest and wetland need plenty of protecting. This would become my new family.
. . . . .
I’ve given myself a new title these days: earth custodian.
I’m out several times a week now, cleaning and hauling, posting pictures and videos on Instagram. After a year and a half of not having consistent work, of Ricardo and I barely scraping by an existence, I also have freelance work on a team of terrific humans. It has helped give a little boost to our survival-mode lifestyle, and it affords me the luxury of working from home and continuing to do the things I love on my own schedule.
One recent afternoon, I returned home from one of my litter walks – where I’d posted my first live video on Instagram – and received a text from my boss, who currently lives in New Mexico.
“I want to pay you to pick up trash and post about it on Instagram,” she said.
I dropped my phone. This couldn’t actually be happening.
But it is.
And several weeks later, we’re working out the details of a new business venture, of which I’ve been asked to be the heart and soul. We want to empower and equip others to clean up their own communities, to become custodians of the earth with us. And we want to give back the profits we receive to support the work of others in caring for the earth.
I’m designing shirts. Writing blogs. Picking out products. Learning how to best navigate Instagram as a business. Upping my litter pickup game. Dreaming big.
And though I don’t need to get paid in order to do this work, I am literally in wonder that this is exactly what’s unfolding – better than I originally imagined three years ago.
. . . . .
In the midst of this growing work of cleaning up the outdoors, I’ve found myself turning with a sense of urgency to the task of cleaning up indoors. In my own garbage and recycling bins, habits and lifestyle. I don’t know why it took so long for my eyes to register the prevalence of waste in my life, but now that they’re open – as with picking up trash – there is no turning back.
I’ve been horrified and sobered by the reality of plastic in my life. Of how addicted I am to it, how it permeates nearly every aspect of my material life. And I find myself on a new, parallel quest to not only reduce waste in the habitats I love outdoors, but also reduce my own legacy of waste in the course of a lifetime. Because larger cleanup efforts and individual waste reduction are two sides of the same coin.
I’ve got to step up my game here, too.
And I’m not going to lie: some of this is hard work. Changing mindsets, habits of convenience and familiarity that are deeply ingrained in our consumer culture – the culture that shaped me – is neither quick or easy.
Some of it – like bringing my own bags to the store, carrying a water bottle and reusable coffee cup in my backpack, and using the tupperware and glass jars we have on hand instead of Ziplock bags – is easy.
But some of it hasn’t even been possible to change until very recently. Because, let’s be gut-level honest. When you’re worrying from month to month if you might be evicted or if your power is going to be shut off; if every damn dollar matters at the grocery store and you choose between bananas and a bus ride home; if you can barely afford (and often times can’t) to replace the essentials like cheap shampoo or toilet paper, light bulbs or razors when they run out; if you can’t afford to buy in bulk because, even if something may be more economical in larger quantities, your dollars don’t stretch that far – the truth is, changing your $1 plastic toothbrush for a $5 bamboo one is not an option. Or silicone covers to replace plastic wrap. Or everything in bulk. Or mesh produce bags, dental lace, stainless steel razors and a set of bamboo cloth menstrual pads.
It all seems so out of reach. And in a practical, financial sense, it is.
But that is slowly changing. And with these changes, I feel I can finally breathe more fully and step more into a lifestyle that matches my values.
The thing I want you to know is that it’s not all or nothing. It almost never is. It’s every-little-damn-bit-matters. You do what you can, I do what I can, and we have grace for the in between places. Because I know what it’s like to live with sparse resources and a daily gnawing of anxiety in your gut. There’s no judgment here, no illusion of this being an equal playing field.
It’s just not.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t make huge, significant changes from wherever we are, regardless of our financial abilities.
And if all else seems out of reach, we can pick up our gloves and bucket and clean up our neighborhoods. These seemingly small acts are collectively making the world a better place, for all of us who call it home.
. . . . .
If you want to join the ecowalk movement, please follow us on Instagram: @conscious.clan. If you visit our website (still under construction) and sign up to receive emails from us, you’ll get more focused stories and tips I’ll be writing on caring for the environment in your inbox, easy peasy. I hope to see you there!