COLUMN: What is progress? And other thoughts while cleaning up trash.

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

I had the opportunity this weekend to participate in the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper event, Sweep the Hooch. The Valley Times-News and LaGrange Daily News have covered some of the meaningful work CRK does. And I, being new to the area, thought it would be a great way to spend a morning. 

I was joined by about 20 other people who woke up on a Saturday to put on some muck boots and clean up trash in West Point Lake. It was concerning, rewarding, joyful, and every feeling in between to pick up pieces of styrofoam next to the beautiful lake. It was lovely to be around people who care deeply about the environment and who walk the walk to help it. 

I got my garbage bags and gloves and made my way down to the shore. The water had been lower this year, according to the organizer, revealing lots of wood debris. The mild shock of seeing the shore pockmarked with tons of pieces of trash quickly melted into an understanding of how this happened. We know pollution is a problem. However, knowing there is a problem is quite different than being confronted with it.

Email newsletter signup

I started grabbing chunks of wrappers, vape pens, and cigarettes; clambered over rocks to grab tennis balls and water bottles; and stooped to get handfuls of styrofoam. So much styrofoam. After five minutes, the organizer, Joanne Vandewater, came by to give me a tip.

“Don’t worry about the small stuff, you’ll be in that spot all day,” she said. 

I looked around to see other people with bags filled with decomposed water jugs, pieces of sheet metal, and larger pieces of styrofoam.  There were three tires found in the half a mile we covered. Joanne was right, I had spent five minutes standing still picking up all the trash I could grab. It would have taken me weeks or months to clean up the shoreline, not including the plastics and debris buried under the soil. I swung the trash bag over my shoulder and looked for the bigger picture. 

This is not said to discourage or depress people on the state of our planet. Actually, on the drive home, after taking a group picture of the almost 40 bags of trash we picked up, barely scratching the surface, I felt good. There were tangible ways to help my community, even if they felt insignificant in the big picture. Forty bags of trash is not nothing, it is very much something. 

However, the bigger picture was also seen. I thought about the beautiful cover of ‘Paradise’ by John Prine. The verse in mind goes, 

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel

And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land

Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken

Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

With all that is going on with a mining company wanting to buy land near Okefenokee swamp and Georgia politicians profiting from it, along with my personal experience at West Point Lake this weekend, that verse kept replaying. 

What is progress? Is the ability to keep your Coke cold in a styrofoam cup progress? Is mining for titanium dioxide to make sunscreen, progress? Or is protecting our land and natural resources the mark of humanity’s progress? As a native Atlantan, where most of the trash on the river comes from, it is easy to forget what’s beneath our feet or in our drinking water. How can the progress of man come at the cost of those things? 

To me, seeing people commune on a gorgeous Saturday to clean up the mess we have made on a beautiful lake, felt like progress.