Spring (Roadside) Cleaning with Two Bags and Two Boys

“I don’t want to go outside!” Leif is curled in a ball on the couch, scowling at me. “I don’t like going outside!” His face is scrunched and stubborn. He’d rather play Mindcraft.

“Come on, Leif! It will be fun!” I have been waiting for days to walk along our half-mile stretch of road front and pick up the trash revealed by melting snow. I have two small garbage bags, and a healthy dose of determination.  But I need help—from two small boys—for the litter is often over the edge of the road, down an embankment, and tangled in a thicket.

Leif stomps over to the door, fists balled, his 5-year old shoulders hunched. Kai, age 9, is already putting on his shoes. He is game. Leif reaches for a pair of tall rubber riding boots that are too big for him.

“Why don’t you wear your sneakers,” I suggest. “We will be walking.”

“I want to wear my boots!” He throws the boots to the floor and stuffs his feet one by one into his sneakers. Still muttering, he follows Kai out the door. It is a beautiful day, finally. It is sunny and somewhat warm, if a bit windy. I hold Leif’s hand and we walk.

About 30 yards down the road, I see my first target—a piece of heavy plastic wrap, like those used for cases of bottled goods. It is over the side of the road, down a 25-foot slope in the middle of our muddy pasture. I point.

“I’ll get it!” cries Kai.

“No, I’ll get it!” yells Leif, springing his hand free from mine. Eager to encourage Leif’s interest, I guide Kai to a tossed Styrofoam cup several yards to the side. Meanwhile, Leif runs up to the plastic wrap and just as he reaches it, steps his foot right into a sink hole of black mud which oozes up around his ankle. He starts wailing.

“My shoe! Look at my shoe!” He is beside himself. “I need my boots!” He has a point.

I encourage him to dip his shoed foot into a stream of water running about a yard away. He sits down and sticks his foot in, still upset. He takes off his shoe, aghast at his black sock and rinses it too. Then he stands up and puts his foot back in the shoe, only to find that he had sat in a bush of burrs, which are now stuck to his bottom. He starts wailing again. My determination flickers. I wonder if we will make it.

“Oh, Leif!” I coax him up the steep slope to where I am standing and spend the next five minutes pulling burrs off his pants. Burrs itch! He whimpers. “I want to go home!” I know.

I nearly turn around, but we have barely begun! Kai is ahead of us. I grasp Leif’s hand gently, reassuringly, and we walk together for about 10 steps. Suddenly Leif is gone, running ahead of me, calling to Kai: “Where is more garbage?”

Soon both boys are hooked, running back and forth into the brush and back to my garbage bags.

As an adventure, this task has it all, as is evident in their running commentary. There is hidden treasure (Look—another can in the bushes!). Challenge (How am I going to reach it?). Indignation (Who would do such a thing?). Disgust (Ew! It smells!). Righteousness (More beer bottles and cigarette boxes!). Pride (I got it!). Purpose (I am helping Mother Earth!).

As my bags fill, Leif scampers along, forgetting about mud and burrs, happily spying trash under leaves and behind trees, crying “Mother Earth is happy!”

Soon the bags are full and we have not yet finished our loop. “OK, boys, let’s go home. From now on, we’ll have to walk by any trash we see. I can’t hold anymore.”

“But I’ll hold it!” Kai cries. “I’ll carry whatever I find!” He is determined.

“We need to help Mother Earth!” Leif agrees. I end up stuffing every last bit we find into the bags. 

At last, we reach the house, bags bursting. My arms ache. I drop the bags beside our fence. I am happy. So are the boys.

“I don’t want to go inside,” Leif exclaims. “Can we stay out?”

*

So which is it: Do we take care of what we love? Or do we love what we take care of? Which comes first—love for the Earth or the act of taking care of it? Often it is assumed that love comes first. Because we love, we do. But what if doing comes first?

When we take care of something or someone, we make movements in relationship to it that change who we are. We move with it, for it, because of it. The patterns of movement that we make orient our senses to the feelings that doing so brings.

If we succeed, if we can see the difference our caring makes, then we feel pleasure. We made something happen—something good! Not only do we learn what to want, we unfold capacities for moving in relation to it that we did not know we had. We grow. Our hearts expand. And as they do, we feel love for whatever it is that is giving us the opportunity to have this experience of ourselves. This opportunity to give.

This love is not simply an emotion. It is a pattern of movement—a physio-spiritual orientation that infuses our perception, alters our desire, and impels action. It is not simply altruistic, for it emerges out of the pleasure we take in our own activity. It is, rather, a sensory orientation toward another, a willingness to welcome that other as a cause of our being. Love, in this sense, is a cycle of nature, as regular and unpredictable as the seasons and the weather.

Of course, it does not always happen that taking care of something leads to love. If the challenge seems too massive, if the movements it requires do not align with our own capacities and resources, or if our efforts yield no palpable results, it is likely that our movements of taking care will lead to disillusionment, indifference, even despair.

On the other hand, if we can find a way to make a move, however small, that aligns with who we are and what we have to give—a move that encourages others to do the same—then love will grow. It is inevitable.

Kai and Leif despise litter with an intensity that surprises me. Leif won’t walk by a cigarette butt in the grocery parking lot without calling attention to it, and often bending down to pick it up. He has taken care of Mother Earth. He loves Mother Earth.

She loves him back. 

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