As a volunteer trail steward, I hike the trail knowing that I have special responsibilities. I can’t just breeze through on my daily hike thinking I can ignore things like branches across the trail, invasive thistles sprouting up in the way of hikers, and trash carelessly tossed aside. I just can’t. And since I hike the trail nearly every day, I’ve pretty much seen it all. Oddly enough, the single most common piece of trash I’ve ever seen is facial tissues. I’ve even written about this before, three years ago nearly to the very day, and nothing has changed.
I think that perhaps those who toss tissues believe they will quickly degrade and not be noticed. But as reported by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), toilet paper, which is designed to degrade quickly (unlike facial tissue), can last one to three years in the outdoors before it totally degrades. So perhaps you’re counting on me to pick it up, and I suppose you’re right, as I do.
But in this day of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), is that really something you want to put on someone else? So please just carry your own tissues out. Thank you for your consideration.
Whenever I turn a corner on the trail and spot a discarded facial tissue (which happens with some frequency) my heart skips a beat. Ahh, I think, some hiker has left something of theirs behind for me. I approach it, casually lean down, pick it up, and slide it surreptitiously into my back pocket, hoping that no one sees me. This is because I am fundamentally selfish. I want the tissue experience to be mine and mine alone.
Just think of the metaphysical implications of the placement of that artifact. Was it left in the middle of the trail, it’s otherworldly whiteness in stark contrast to the reddish brown soil, to spark contemplation about life’s fleeting nature? Or was it deposited just so with folds carefully applied, to make one consider the nature of art? Or perhaps it was discarded almost without thought, as a commentary on the disdain with which the hiker contemplates the natural world that surrounds them.
I guess we will never know if any of these are the reason, unless I happen to witness someone in the act of placement, when I can ask them their intent. Meanwhile, I will continue to gather these symbols of humanity’s fleeting dominion wherever I find them.
Well, that was fun.
But seriously, people, tissues are trash. If you pack it in, pack it out.
Today I was reminded why it’s important to have people dedicated to hiking our trails and doing all of the various jobs required to keep them well cared for and safe to use. Hiking along the Rattlesnake Cuttoff Trail, from the Montini property to the Overlook, I was surprised to see a tree across the trail (see pic). I was surprised, as I didn’t recall any storm or high winds recently. But there it was anyway. I immediately took a picture and sent it off to the Chair of our stewards group, Joanna Kemper, who will work with the City of Sonoma to have it removed.
On my way back, I pulled out my handy Leatherman knife, which has a fairly good saw blade, and hacked off enough branches so at least the trail could be used until the City could come in with their chainsaw (see pic). This is, of course, just one of many jobs that we volunteer stewards perform.
For example, Fred Allebach is very active in various physical trail maintenance activities such as cutting drainage channels to make sure water flows off the trail as soon as possible. Lynn Clary has been known to hike his battery-powered Sawzall saw up the trail to take care of an overhanging limb. We likely all pick up trash when we see it.
Speaking of which, what do you think is the most-encountered piece of trash? Beer cans? Nope. Coffee cups? Close, but no cigar. It’s facial tissues. Yep, the hands-down favorite discarded item of trail hikers. And just think of it — I get to pick it up and put it in my pocket. So…yeah. Please don’t throw things on the trail. Just don’t.
We do other things too, such as raising money to do trail work that we can’t do ourselves, soliciting donations for building benches, pulling invasive non-native plant species, cutting back poison oak, and leading school trips. But it’s a labor of love, as we all love the trails and the properties they traverse. And we know that many others do too.
Far and away I pick up more facial tissues on the trail than any other type of litter. Just the other day I picked up four in one day. The photo to the right depicts one of them. So I feel compelled to insist that tissues are trash. I simply don’t understand what people are thinking. Do they imagine that tissues decompose within a few days of hitting the ground? Well, they don’t. Do they simply not care? Probably.
But if you toss your tissue you’re making me pick it up. And I pick them up, despite potentially exposing myself to disease. After spending the first five years of my childhood on an Indiana farm ingesting all kinds of microbes, I now have an immune system made of iron and antibodies. But that doesn’t make it OK for you to toss your tissues.
Tissues are trash. Carry out whatever you carry in.
Over in my other blog, I recently wrote about the things we carry. But this post is about the things we choose not to carry with us when hiking on the trail — basically what we toss aside as trash. Not that I condone such behavior — far from it. How could I when I am required (as a volunteer steward) to pick up whatever someone throws away?
And what you (the collective you, not you personally) throw away tends to be fairly predictable. I would say that most things fall into one of these categories, listed in order of perceived occurrence:
- Tissues. Far and away the item I pick up the most are facial tissues (see pic). Yeah, you’re saying “Yuck” right now and for good reason. However, in all of the years that I have been picking these up, I’ve never gotten sick (knock on wood).
- Drink containers. Actually tied for second are drink containers and food wrappers of various kinds. Drink containers can range from the frequent (coffee cups, soda cans) to the less frequent (vodka bottles). You can imagine how amusing I find it to walk down the trail in the morning with an empty vodka bottle in my hand.
- Food wrappers. By “food wrappers” I mean everything from a candy wrapper to a banana peel (see pic). Banana peels are frankly rare (thankfully), but candy and gum wrappers are not. But at least they fit in a pocket better than a banana peel.
- Cigarette butts. Being still in a multi-year drought, finding a cigarette butt scares me. The thought of someone with fire walking around among all that dead grass just above the city of Sonoma is horrifying, but people apparently do it. It is yet another thing that people do that defies the rules (such as bringing their dogs or bicycles onto the trail). If you are smoking up there you had better hope that I don’t run into you.
I’m certainly not the only steward picking up trash, but since I hike the trails nearly every day I have a fairly good sense of what people toss aside. If you have found something I haven’t mentioned, feel free to post a comment below. Extra points for items bigger than a coffee cup.