One overworked cliche says it's better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. Confronted by the volume of thoughtlessly discarded trash, littering our streets and parkways, Oak Park writer Susan Messer decided to bend over and start picking up one piece of rubbish rather than curse the litterbugs-then another piece, then another.
Truth be told, though environmentally-conscious, Messer didn't give much thought to litter until recently when a friend, Patry Francis, who lives in Cape Cod, Massachussets, illuminated her with a blog entry.
Writing on her Simply Wait blog, Francis told of going for a walk and picking up 10 varieties of items as a way of meditating on her life-in her case, shells from a nearby beach. Messer liked Francis' idea, and thought leaves would be an obvious choice here in Oak Park. But it was a little too early in the fall for 10 varieties. Looking around, Messer noticed another type of ground covering that had fallen not from tree limbs but from human hands.
Litter is a relatively new phenomenon which only truly entered popular consciousness in the last half century. According to the online Etymology Dictionary, the term "litter" was first used as a verb meaning "to strew with objects" in 1713. Litterbug, in the in sense of "scattered oddments, disorderly debris" was first used in 1730. But the term wasn't used commonly in modern times until after World War II. The American Public Works Association standardized the term "litter" in the mid-1900s. "Littering," as in "the act of dropping litter," was first used in 1960.
Already an avid walker, Messer set off last October from her North Lombard Avenue home with an empty plastic bag in hand. When she returned it was literally bursting with garbage. She blogged about her experience on the Simply Wait site, writing, "I can confirm that once you start paying attention, a lot of the litter you'll see as you go about your business has something to do with cigarettes, and an awful lot has to do with eating and drinking. I can also confirm that litter gives permission to litter because I've now started to notice that these pesky discards tend to occur in clusters, sometimes in extremely heavy clusters."
Messer experienced a rapid perceptual shift.
"I started to see litter everywhere," she wrote. "Right on my front lawn, all along my way, tucked into bushes, lying in parkway grass, bunched up in gutters, I saw litter: water bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers, potato chip bags, Styrofoam cups. Cigarette packs, more cigarette butts. Scrunched-up newspaper pages. Pens and pencils. Coffee cup tops."
Last month Messer's simple eco-friendly routine was spotlighted as part of a Chicago Tribune Magazine cover article titled, "The Power of One." The piece asked the simple but profound question, "Can one person change the world?" The answer was clearly "yes-in small but significant ways."
For Messer, who speaks quietly but intently about the things she believes in, grand, sweeping gestures are foreign. Small but significant steps suit her.
"I'm not a zealot," she says.
A long circuit
On a beautiful late-August morning, Messer allowed us to join her on her latest stroll-a departure from routine. Her solitary forays along Oak Park's parkways and streets are normally a time for review and reflection. She likes to muse and mull over ideas as she treks her route, her mind focused partly on the ground before her, partly on scraps of ideas and lofty concepts.
There are rules.
"It didn't take long to see that I couldn't pick up everything I saw, so I set limits," she said. "Nothing too gross [wet food, dog dropping], nothing too big or heavy to fit in my bag." Make that bags.
"My husband was the one who suggested I take two bags, one for garbage and one for recycling," said Messer. "It was a great idea. Now I don't have to sort out the recyclables from trash."
Within several minutes after our photographer leaves, Messer settles into her quiet routine, intent on the task at hand.
"It's sort of zen," she said after a while. Not so much the act of picking up litter, but her experience of the act.
Several blocks into our walk we run up against the observer effect, the phenomenon familiar to scientists which refers to changes that the act of observing will make on the phenomenon being observed-or in this case, someone being questioned incessantly by a reporter. Messer's answers come in pieces, between silences as she walks over to pick up litter and comments on the items she finds. She loses her train of thought several times as she looks about and stops to bend over and retrieve trash from the parkway.
Messer said she keeps up her weekly litter walks because, quite simply, they make her feel good.
"I feel I've accomplished something," she said. "And in a quiet, simple way. I'm not a big organizer. I don't live a high-profile life."
Messer is hesitant to appear judgmental about those who leave the items she's picking up. Asked to offer a motive for why people litter, she thinks a moment.
"I think it's a basic lack of respect and awareness for what this place is," she said. "You know, the Earth, our communal home. It seems to me that if people really knew that, I don't think they could do it."
The best solution to the problem of litter, she noted, obviously would be for everyone to not do it in the first place.
"It doesn't seem like this is something you should need to be told not to do," she said, more puzzled than critical. "I mean, I wonder sometimes, do they do this in their own homes? Do they finish a can of pop and throw it on the floor? Or their McDonald's bag?"
Messer acknowledges a fear that people might get the wrong idea about her activities.
"I sometimes feel embarrassed a bit when there's other people around, and they see me do this," she said, worried that she'll be viewed as some weird bag lady.
"But then, I'm neurotic," she adds with a quick laugh.
Halfway through the walk, she gratefully hands off an increasingly hefty bag of recycling to her companion, who wonders about some of the more notable-or just plain weird-items she's come across in her walks.
"I found a single high-heeled boot once," she recalled. "Keep your eyes open. You never know what you'll find." Indeed, a few blocks from home, both bags near full, she calls out, "Oh, a toothbrush." No toothpaste tube though.
As we approach Messer's neighborhood after trekking some 30 blocks, a bit sweaty and thirsty, fingers slightly numb from the weight of the recyclables, as if to underscore the apparently unending stream of litter, Messer spots a beer bottle on the parkway in front of her neighbor's house, walks over, picks it up and stuffs it into my bag.
"It's never over," she said as we head around back to the recycle bin by her garage.
Those interested in reading Susan Messer's blog entry can log onto by clicking here..