Rite of spring: Join effort to rid waterways of litter

Posted May 12, 2010, at 6:52 p.m.

It’s the first warm day of the year. Red-winged blackbirds “konk-er-eee” from the cattails. I’m up to my ankles in mud, pulling garbage from between the alders that line the banks of Penjajawoc Stream. Plastic packaging, Styrofoam cups, soda bottles, bags: Doritos, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts. I marvel at a bird’s nest woven from shreds of plastic. A frog jumps into the quick brown water.

The stream’s meandering path is squeezed by detention basins lined with stone riprap and fencing, depressions designed to collect and filter the storm-water that flows from Bangor Mall Boulevard and the parking lots of Borders, Staples, Wendy’s, and The Hampton Inn. A groundhog watches me as I extract bags and cups from the meadowrue and beaver-chewed alders. I step on a woodcock; it shoots over the stream into the pines behind Interstate 95.

Ketchup packets, Slim Jims, straws, napkins, bags: Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, Target. Trash that blows from overstuffed Dumpsters and rolls along the empty sidewalks like tumbleweed, eventually drifts down to the short stretch of stream that flows from the city forest and marsh, through the mall area and backyards, eventually to the Penobscot River and the Gulf of Maine.

When you’re a kid, you learn that litter is bad. Hoot, hoot, don’t pollute. As you get older, and learn about bigger problems of the world, litter doesn’t seem so bad. Then you get older still, and you realize that litter is everything, that a place where people care so little about their neighborhood that they let trash collect in the streams is not a nice place to live. You know that litter is a symptom of a much bigger illness. And so you find yourself some Saturday in May, mucking around area waterways, pulling plastic bags from the weeds and retrieving soda bottles from the frog pond.

In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the reversal of the crime epidemic in New York City in the early 1990s, about how the new city leaders recognized that cleaning up the subway wasn’t a peripheral luxury, but a vital component of efforts to make the city a better place to live and visit. And so they focused on the little things, the small violations, and they succeeded in cleaning up the city and reducing crime.

The presence of litter can depress real estate values, spread disease, kill fish and wildlife and, most importantly, send the message that the local residents don’t care about their neighbors. But we do care. And so every spring, neighbors in the lower Penobscot River valley gather together for the local stream cleanup.

Last year, more than 800 volunteers collected 8 tons of litter from streams and rivers in Bangor, Brewer, Orono, Old Town, Hampden, Veazie and Milford. To join a cleanup in your area, call 992-4255, or visit http://baswg.blogspot.com/2010/04/5th-annual-regional-street-stream.html. Many of the cleanups, including Bangor’s, will be held Saturday, May 15.

It’s an opportunity to get outside and experience a new and surprising part of town, a chance to enjoy springtime in Maine knowing you’ve done your part to keep life here the way it should be.

I tug on a rope tangled in plastic tangled around the flooded trunk of a red maple. Above me, cars speed by, the passengers oblivious to the piles of their trash I am collecting. The cars rush by the stream, the woodcock, the groundhog, the blackbirds and me.

Catherine Schmitt of Bangor is the author of “A Coastal Companion: A Year in the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to Canada.”

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