Travels on a Maine road less littered

Posted: September 09, 2011

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll

Back in the late 1950s I used to begin my suburban Philadelphia days with a two-mile jog. As the decades passed it slowed to a walk, and now it's a lurch.

Since 1978 when our family began using our beloved vacation house on Maine's mid-coast I have doubled that distance there during the summer. The embracing land and sea irresistibly invite me to spend more time on the road. Whether it's an osprey hovering under a brilliant sky, the air's fragrance, a skin-scrubbing sea breeze, or the thumping surf, along the way nature enraptures all my senses.

My course is on two-lane Route 209 and doubles back before reaching the village of Popham, site of the short-lived 1607 English colony. Usually with light traffic, that stretch runs from the entrance of our wooded driveway across a vast, conifer-edged tidal marsh threaded with its graceful saltwater Morse River on one side and on the other is an inclusive view across Atkins Bay near the mouth of the Kennebec River. Caught in a single glance further along are the dunes, beach and surf of Popham Beach State Park. The wake of an occasional lobster boat flecks the ocean and beyond is turtle-backed Seguin Island and its working lighthouse whose original version George Washington commissioned in 1795.

Since I began the daily workout in Maine any litter along the way has struck me as vandalizing the exceptional natural beauty of my route. Whether fouling a forest floor or the edge of a great marsh, it corrupts nature's visual authenticity. It also keeps my eyes open when I want to close them. Thus, rather than being highly moved by broad environmental considerations, years ago I began collecting trash principally out of a selfishly narrow wish to have the daily scene on 209 look as nature deserves to look.

When I leave our Maine house in the morning I carry a plastic bag to stow any roadside litter I collect. A red bandanna keeps my bald head from broiling in the sun. To feed my fantasy that it might scare off potential litterbugs, I give the bandanna a piratical slant above my right eye.

The litter is so thinly strewn that almost none of it is apparent from a moving vehicle. Although these eyesores are few and even one is too many, I don't collect everything. I skip oversize junk such as a plastic cooler box. A primitive and inconsistent hygienic sensibility keeps me from picking up trash particularly suggestive of another's bodily immediacy such as used napkins and tissues, cigarette butts, loaded diapers, and even the pink insole of a shoe.

Rejects are minimal, however, when compared with what I typically bag: beverage cans and bottles, cigarette packs, fast-food plates and cups, and, curiously, cash register receipts. From day to day, of course, I never know what I will gather.

Not only is the composition of any particular collection unforeseeable, but the same is true of elements of accidental design that litter can sometimes present. This summer, for example, I came across two pairs of symmetrical ovals that turned out to have a suggestive geometrical balance. One pair providing half that balance was a frame for eyeglasses, the other was a padded bra.

Whether broadly environmental or narrowly aesthetic, the case against littering is absolutely clear. Yet despite that clarity, what litter may connote can also be undecipherable.

What I have in mind has persisted over many years of my inconsequential collecting. It's an atypical item of unknown origin that has been mystifying me with what I choose to believe is its intriguing symbolic ambiguity: was this some spineless litterbug's mockery of me as a trash-collecting geezer, or could it have been a shy donor's gesture of gratitude for being one? At the end of one morning's walk I stopped to check our roadside mailbox because its door was open.

Tossed in there was the enigmatic item: half a sandwich of corned beef on rye with mustard.


Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author.

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