The Sacred Art of Litter Picking
“Picking up a can
From the river
And then another
On and on
It’s like a devotee
Doing countless rosaries.”
These words are from Dominique Mazeaud, an artist who for seven years from 1987 conducted “The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande,” picking up litter from the river for a day, on the same day each month.[i] I can’t claim to have been so diligent in my litter picking, but I do resonate with her blend of art, ritual and activism.
Back in March, I put out a call to clear up a tributary of Boundary Brook that runs along Barracks Lane, as part of OxClean’s Spring Clean. A group of 12 adults and 8 children turned up. We picked up 25 bags of rubbish and recycling, and it was fun. The kids were passionate litter pickers – tapping into some ancient foraging instinct, combined with an attraction to all things shiny, and the blessed permission of adults to dawdle and poke things with a stick.
There was a bit of competition about which of us would have the honour of donning the rubber waders and delving into the murky pond, just off the cycle path. The lucky winner pulled out bed linen, a pair of shoes, and several large slimy parcels of undelivered newspapers. Meanwhile, I picked up the detritus of various kinds of drug-taking nearby. It made me sad and tired, wondering about the lives of the people who had sought their highs there. I felt motherly towards them, as I picked up their rubbish. I sent prayers for them as I worked. When we had done what we could, some of us stood together and called on the spirits of the place, giving gratitude, and asking that this small gesture of care and reparation be carried out on the winds to the wider world.
There is something very beautiful about litter picking, when we approach it not out of resentment or guilt but as an act of love. As you clear a place, you give it the gift of your attention and you become intimate with one another. If it’s your home, you find things you’ve lost; you put things in place; you clear your mind. If you temporarily take responsibility for a public space, you become more intimate with your neighbourhood, and the other creatures and humans that share it. In turn, you begin to feel a greater sense of belonging.
A home or a place that has been cared for is very generous with what it gives back. You can feel this as soon as you go into a home or garden that is well-loved. Whenever I go back to the place we cleared in the Spring, I feel welcomed. Over time, perhaps a place cared for in this way could transform from being a patch of ‘wasteground’ to a sacred grove where you could come for inspiration. I am not talking about gentrification, only loving the margins for being exactly what they are: a haven for wild things and people on the edge.
Our ancestors brought, and indigenous people everywhere bring, offerings of herbs, flowers, fruit, songs and dances to the spirits of a place, knowing, as we tend to forget, that their survival depends directly on the bounty of the earth. I also like to bring these things, or make something of beauty from found objects there (ala Andy Goldsworthy) as a gift for a place. But offerings come in many guises, and in this age, I think what’s most needful, in our back streets and right across our earthly home, is the gift of paying attention, clearing up and taking care.
However you do it, litter picking is good fun, especially with kids. It makes a difference and it makes you feel like you’ve earned your lunch. Litter picking with love, let’s call it the Sacred Art of Litter Picking, is deep work, which brings healing to the wild margins and streams both within and without. In a wonderful slip of the tongue my friend Ally Stott, who is organising a litter pick on Saturday in the same place (see invitation below) just told me she’d been thinking about clearing up ‘this piece of mind’ for a while. I think I might join her.
This blog is also being featured on The Nature Effect blogspot: http://www.thenatureeffect.co.uk/blog.php?id=18
[i] (Read more about this project in Suzi Gablik’s wonderful book, The Reenchantment of Art)
Thanks for this, Jackie,
Makes me feel better about litter-picking – I’ve known it as a rather self-righteous exercise that brought out aspects of myself I don’t relish! But what you say here makes a different kind of sense. I’ve been having a bit of a roller-coaster time lately, and this could be just the thing. The allotment will be fine without me…..
Lovely post Jackie. Andy xxx
Hi Again, Jackie,
Sorry I didn’t make it yesterday in the end – I realised that the allotment and I did need each other and had a fulfilling time there instead.
Looking forward to seeing how it went at some point.
Thank you for helping me deepen this practice. Some of the best conversations with the earth come out of picking up the things each of us feel don’t belong there. It’s hard not to get mad sometimes, but this post is a powerful antidote to that feeling, which doesn’t change anything and the only person it has an effect on is me.
My mother started me on this, actually, she’d take us beautiful places to pick up trash. I’m glad your kids are growing up with this experience too.