Plogging in paradise

| 03 May 2019 | 11:15

    It’s a gorgeous spring morning and I’m jonesing for a sweat. Since it happens to be my 37th birthday I am determined to get that sweat, somehow, ‘en route from my kid’s school and my office. Ah, a trail run at the park.

    I love these woods. Before I worked or lived in this county, I’d hop in the car with then-boyfriend Joe and his best friend on a Saturday. We’d drive 45 minutes somewhere – I paid no attention where – to play disc golf. I’d wonder, as dusk fell and the big field sparked with more fireflies than I’ve ever seen: have I died and gone to heaven?

    Eventually Joe and I got hitched and moved to the farm across the street from the firefly field. That run-down white cottage was where I had my first baby six years ago. Our little three-pack family used to have dates here, Joe and I debating my handicap while Kai munched foraged wild grapes in her stroller. Everyone we passed on the course either was a friend or felt like one. “Just another day in paradise,” we’d greet each other.

    These woods were where I walked, and walked, and walked with infant Kai strapped to my chest, in moonlight, in snow up to my thighs, in the brutal summer heat when we’d come stick our feet in the stream. When I got into foraging, I’d bring Kai here and gather hickory nuts, which with a newbie’s enthusiasm I painstakingly cracked and sprinkled over pancakes. (Three kids in I don’t do that anymore.)

    Today, April 3, there is nothing to forage. Oh well, there’s a beer can. I pick it up.

    I’m “plogging,” a word I just saw in Oprah, which I skimmed at the library because it was a “green” issue. It’s a new Swedish craze, a mashup of “jogging” and the Swedish “plocka upp,” for “picking up.” Not exactly a slam-dunk climate-saver, but it does kind of scratch that primal foraging itch. Jogging and scanning, scanning and jogging, your brain having finally, mercifully shut up, then ping! A hit of endorphins when you spot the prize you’re looking for.

    Plogging along, I pounce upon a nearly full Vitamin Water on a picnic table, wondering after it’s too late whether it belonged to that dog walker in the distance. Another beer can on the ground. I stop at a garbage can and fish out a plastic bag to hold my booty. In go shards of glass bottles; an empty 12-pack Pabst Blue Ribbon box; a toy car with a busted wheel. I’m following the trail of the lesser known disc golf course in the woods, the one where the locals head when the world-class course up the hill gets crowded.

    Someone has left an old three-gallon paint bucket next to one tee pad. It’s brimming over with beer cans. I pour out the rainwater and empty the beer cans and disintegrating cigarette butts into my bag, replacing the empty bucket. I’m really plogging now.

    Talk about a testament to the power of language. Here I am combing the woods for some young punks’ empties on my birthday, just because someone cleverly combined two words into one. Glamping, freegan, sexting, bromance, hangry… a cute mashup can launch just about anything into the cultural spotlight, turn the kind of work formerly assigned to low level criminals into an uplifting eco-friendly fitness craze.

    Before “plogging,” picking up other people’s trash was more of a fringe activity. It was something I noticed about Joe from early on: he’d collect cans and Styrofoam cups in his golf bag when we were out playing, and empty them into the next trash can on the course, no put-upon look, no comment. Sometimes he would do the emptying in front of a group of golfers – who from the drinks in their hands looked like prime littering suspects – and say, “Hey fellas” with a big smile.

    I stumble upon a second lazy man’s garbage pail, then a third – an empty Purina cat litter bucket overflowing with oversized cans, heavy on the Twisted Teas. What is happening? These buckets didn’t used to be here. I pour the rainwater out slowly, careful to keep the cigarette butts in, and take them with me. Sorry boys, no more crap pails on every other hole. I can’t run anymore with all these buckets bumping. Now I’m plalking – also a thing. The fourth bucket I have no choice but to leave behind.

    What a strange tangle of decent intentions and degenerate slobbery. What does it mean to be proactive enough to bring a bucket into the woods, but too lazy to carry your empties a few more holes to the garbage can? Maybe it means you’re young and used to being picked up after. So you expect the park employees (who do an incredible job keeping this place looking like a slice of nirvana) to follow you around the woods with a hand-size claw on a pole?

    I spot an empty Bud Lite dangling from the branch of a sapling. Someone’s whimsical idea of an ornament? I can hear my mom’s voice when we’d leave our dirty plates on the table: What am I, the maid?

    Loaded down like a bag lady, I come upon a group of golfers. This is kind of awkward. I give a nod and pick my way as quickly as I can past them, unable to summon even a ghost of Joe’s brand of good natured rapport. As I haul my cargo up toward the parking lot, the park worker, busy spreading mulch around a sycamore, doesn’t look my way. It strikes me that it may be out of chivalry. For all he knows I am a bag lady, eking out a living collecting cans to redeem. I wonder how much I’d get if I brought these to the grocery store. No, enough already. I have an actual job that I should be doing right this minute instead of being elbow deep in this rank stew.

    I feel my temperature rising, when from behind me, a golfer hollers: “Thank you!”

    “You’re welcome,” I yell back. Such a little thing, but it puts the bounce right back in my step. I toss my payload into the recycling and garbage cans and slip into the driver’s seat, smelling like swilly beer, wondering whether the birthday plog might become an annual event.