The ditch was full of blackberry vines, and the vines were tangled with doughnut wrappers, plastic water bottles, and cigarette packets. Getting the trash out of there was a prickly challenge.
The tongs make it easier to reach in among the prickles. If you´re lucky they´ll get a clean grip and lift the litter up and out in a single motion.
But if the object is smooth glass or plastic, or if it´s decayed over months of exposure to rain and sun, or if it´s heavy, well. Tongs no good. You pull your coat-sleeve down over your gloved hand, and go into the briars up to your elbow.
Sometimes you give up and leave it in there. Especially when there is excrement involved. We are volunteers. We don´t touch toilet tissue or human waste, not if we can help it.
I have learned over several years of "ditch-pigging" to not consider how the refuse got there. I stopped
being angry at people who feel that litter ceases to exist
when it leaves their possession. I ceased wondering what others
think of me and my ongoing appearances along the roadsides, salad tongs
in hand, a great black bag of trash slung over my shoulder.
Picking up litter along the pilgrim trail is lowdown, low-status work. Prisoners are often made to do it. It´s part of some state-sponsored humiliation for drunk drivers. In Spain,
litter-picking is not really approriate for women. It is certainly no
job for a self-respecting man, not without a wage-paying city contract.
But I learned not to think too much, at least not while I am out there.
You do it, you dispose of it, you do not think about it. Not if you want to stay peaceful.
Just getting the wrappers out of the bushes without bloodshed is enough reward, at least for that moment.
This is not sainthood. It is not public service, per se. It is just showing up for a job that needs to be done, than nobody else will do, that no one notices.
We come back each year and do it again, me and some hardy volunteers, some of them from very far away. Each year there is less trash. That is encouraging.
If we stopped picking it up, the trash would come back.
Thousands of pilgrims pass this way each year, almost 200,000 of them in 2013. It takes only a small number each day, contributing a couple of meusli-bar wrappers, a cigarette butt, a Coke can, a sweaty t-shirt, a busted flip-flop. Into the ditch. Invisible. The undergrowth covers it up.
Most of them do it out of habit, without even thinking. If they do think at all, the reasons are glib.
It´s heavy. Pilgrims must reduce the weight they carry. I can´t carry this trash, it is not useful to me any more.
I will leave my broken boots along the trail. Another pilgrim can use them.
If they don´t want me to litter, they should put trash bins out here.
Spanish people don´t give a damn about taking care of their environment, so why should we?
Oh my god, look at this picnic place. Look at this mess. Why don´t they clean this place up?
Take a picture. Put this on the internet! It´s outrageous!
Outrage is fun, it makes you feel really righteous, especially if you never litter, yourself. But if all you do is complain, that trail of water bottles just stays out there, glimmering across the first mile out of Revenga de Campos. The beer can you leave there today attracts three more tomorrow.
So, I tell the pilgrim, Put some action into your words.
Pick up a bag, pal, and put some trash in it. Carry it to the next trash bin. It´s not rocket science. It´s not difficult. It costs you nothing. Nada.
Two hundred thousand pilgrims this year... If just a few careless people each day can turn sections of a UNESCO World Heritage site into a dump, just a few people each day can get it back into pristine condition. It won´t take longer than a couple of weeks. And if pilgrims police one another, and each one picks up whatever scrap he sees along the pathway, we could keep it that way.
We pick up trash in December. Why then?
There´s a long-weekend holiday in December. By December the frost has killed off a lot of undergrowth, and the refuse that "disappeared" in July is now on display and easy to spot. There aren´t many pilgrims on the trail, so we won´t get in one anothers´ way.
And the cold freezes the excrement in the bushes. The murky water inside the bottles is ice. It doesn´t stink.
And OK, I do think while I am out there. This year Kirstie joined us, a chain-smoking woman from Carlisle in Northern England. She was a philosopher, a theologian even. This was her Advent discipline, she said.
In December Christians observe Advent, a period of penance that leads into Christmas. Picking up trash on a pilgrimage trail is perfectly suited to the season. Camino trash-pickers maintain the road that pilgrims walk toward God. We believe in what the pilgs are doing. So in essence, we are "preparing the Way of the Lord."
Our hands are cold, our skin is pricked and nicked, our faces wind-burned. We are footsore and tired-out at the day´s end. But rewards come right alongside. Our food tastes extra good. We sleep very deeply. We slim down fast and feel pretty good, really.
We are ditch-pigs, but we do the work of angels.