Tag Archives: Plogging

Serving the Woods

The woods serve all purposes. Happy? Go to the woods and delight in nature. Sad? Go to the woods and cry on a log. Need to think? Wander, looking for the answer. Stressed? Hike until you are too tired to give a shit. Relaxed? Sit and stare at a ribbon of water slinking along the ground.

We discovered a patch of woods not far from the house at the start of the pandemic. We were cautious at first, fearful of trespassing. Quick online research showed that it was part of Gunpowder State Park. We also learned that the National Guard used the land for exercises. It was obvious the land had history, but we saw few people.

We had begun cleaning up the roadside and trash piles we found in the forest. While exploring, we found a spot near a small pool of water covered in animal tracks. At the house, I’ve used a trail camera in the yard for the last few years, ever curious about our nocturnal visitors. Invisible during the day, the night camera captures foxes, rabbits, opossums, moths, and the neighbor’s cats. It is an undisturbed peek into their world.

I began to set up my trail camera in the forest. Sometimes the racoons (or deer) would knock it over and all I would get would be a video of dirt and snuffling. One night, it was like the forest was holding a party and there were deer (including a piebald deer!), opossums, and raccoons (including a fat one that sat on his rump and faced the camera).

Piebald deer

The forest was a source of endless delight. In addition to the trail camera captures, we saw a salamander, a fawn resting, wild turkeys, chipmunks, snakes, spiders, and countless toads and frogs. One particularly hot day when I needed the woods because I was upset, I found a tadpole puddle drying up and spent the afternoon using some of the trash in the woods (jars and such) to gather as many as I could and move them to a larger pool. I returned home covered in muck, but marginally less upset.

Opposum

On Mother’s Day, we went for a hike and I decided to set up the trail camera at one of my favorite spots. I had never set it there, but I suspected animals came through the area from the tracks and scat. We only ever saw a family with portly chihuahuas and a guy with two elderly dogs in the woods. We had never seen them (or anyone else) in that particular section of woods. All the trash we found was old and the new stuff seemed related to the National Guard.

Raccoons on break

The next afternoon we returned so I could pick up the camera, but it was gone. I was devastated. Yes, I was upset about the loss of the camera and tripod (which I had had since I was in my teens), but I was more upset that this simple thing that brought me joy was gone. One of the parts that has been so hard about the pandemic is that you don’t have much to look forward to. Everything was canceled and you can’t make plans. Every day feels like a repetitive grind. Reviewing the footage from the camera had been one of my simple pleasures.

I spent the next few days trying to get in touch with the state park, hoping that a ranger took it or someone found it and turned it in. I was horrified to think that someone thought I was setting the camera up to poach, or worse yet, they would use it to do so. I finally spoke to a ranger and explained we had been cleaning up the woods and how I lost the camera. I put up signs, but it was gone. I was sad and angry for months.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The park ranger told me about their volunteer program. He sent me the link and Patrick and I registered to become state park volunteers. We’re now an official part of the litter patrol. Cleaning up the woods is cathartic and oddly enjoyable. We now serve the woods as the woods have been serving us. There is a balance in the give and take.

Digging Glass

It began with a few fifths.

Booze, that is; the outdated measurement itself – embossed on the heels of the innumerable bottles we have plucked from the tree line along Factory Road – when taken into account alongside its more modern metric counterpart (750 mL), hints that this area has been a popular drinking spot since long before Old Grand-Dad was a twinkle in your father’s eye.

Even today, the winding little Baltimore County byway – bordered by private and state-owned forest, as well as the handful of homes clustered near Factory’s southern terminus – is an anomalous throwback to an earlier, pre-code time. It’s a two-way street, though its oddly narrow, unmarked width might lead one to reasonably conclude otherwise. A rural cousin of the now-congested horse-and-buggy routes of old east coast cities like Boston and Philadelphia – now paved, but never built with cars in mind. Much like a pre-pandemic world forced to retrofit to a new reality…

Directly or indirectly, COVID-19 has informed almost every decision we’ve made since mid-March 2020: staying home as much as possible, to minimize our chances of exposure; thoroughly cleaning anything that comes into the house; taking regular walks, to counter the inertia of daily teleworking; ordering a reach extender to more safely bag the litter we find along our favorite route – Factory Road. Sometimes, as we collect the trash, I wonder how often (if ever) it crosses the minds of those who so casually toss their half-smoked butts, Wendy’s wrappers, and empty White Claws out their windows, at speed. Also in the regular mix: dental floss picks; used latex gloves; home pregnancy tests; and spent shotgun shells.

Then there are the anomalies, like the rusting cylinder of nitrous oxide in the drainage ditch beside the road, or the pay phone in the nearby woods. Their origins – a great source of speculation – don’t really matter, as these items are today as much fixtures of the surrounding landscape as the gentle hills, the rocks and trees.

Some three dozen trash bags later, and with the roadside now clean enough to draw the occasional encouraging honk from passing cars, we turned our attention inward, beyond the tree line, into the woods. More fifths, and four-fifths, gallons and full pints – the cast-off bones of clandestine late-night benders. The more interesting ones – embossed or easily identified brands; unique shapes, sizes, and colors; unfamiliar names – come home with us.

The rest get recycled.

Digging glass from the forest floor led us to discover several old trash pits – most likely the detritus from a couple of overgrown foundations in the woods and their one-time occupants. I spent a few college summers working for a South Jersey DPW, where I learned to build amateur forensic profiles of people based on what they threw away, how much of it, and how often. Stacks of well-read Sunday papers. A neatly polished-off handle of Myers’s – just like last week’s, and the one from the week before that. Bag upon bag of meticulously landscaped brush.

The glass bones that litter these lonely woods tell their own story. Heavy, green Coke bottles. Car polish. Zinc-lidded Mason jars. A Depression-era knockoff Vaseline. Amber Clorox bottles. Turpentine. A 1940s hair crème. Mustard. Ketchup. Soft drinks. Booze, of course (and nearly as much aspirin). And hundred-year-old bottles from breweries killed by Prohibition. Together with midcentury license plates, a rust-flaked Radio Flyer, and the odd horseshoe, they comprise the long-forgotten ruins of a routine that one day, not so very long ago, left home and never came back.

We’ve resurrected several items from the forest floor. Much of the glass has cleaned up beautifully. Apothecary bottles of all colors, shapes, and sizes now line our kitchen sills like the usual snake-oil suspects. Beside a blue-tinted Ball Perfect Mason jar, a King Syrup bottle holds freshly cut flowers from the yard. Even an ordinary glass salt shaker that would have been at home on any Cold War kitchen table once again fulfills its intended purpose.

Like a flood of cheap, single-use plastic, COVID-19 has upped the ante for our disposable culture. Bits of the old normal will eventually be recycled, repurposed, to be sure. But I sometimes wonder, as I stand at the kitchen sink, scrubbing off the latest haul, what those who will kick about the woods, the riverbeds, and shorelines a hundred years hence will make of what we threw away…

More photos @digging_glass

The Long Short Journey to Factory Road

People travel to experience different cultures, learn about history, watch wildlife, and meet new people. When COVID-19 hit, I had thousands of miles of work-related travel stretching in front of me. All canceled. Suddenly my days were spent in one room, mostly in one small space, huddled in front of a camera and monitor. Our travel days were over.

The first few weeks were both still and chaotic, everything happen all at once and then waiting for the next scary thing to happen. The March weather and pandemic emotions surged up and down. WPT and I began taking walks in the late afternoon, our commutes now reduced to feet instead of miles. Our usual walk wasn’t enough. We had too much energy to burn, too much to talk about. We tried walking to the post office, but with no shoulder and cars zipping by it wasn’t fun. The walk to the main road was boring. One day we tried Factory Road.

I had avoided Factory Road for five years. Right after our offer on the house was accepted we drove out to see it. To make sure it was all real. We took Factory Road on the drive back and a fuse melodramatically burned out as we traveled down the dark, isolated road, filling the car with an acrid stench. The road isn’t wide enough for a center line to divide it. It looks like it should be one way. Cars have to slow to pass one another. The exit onto the main road seems fraught with danger with a bend obscuring oncoming traffic.

Walking down Factory Road was different. What was dark and foreboding in a car was now lush and peaceful. What was scary at 40 mph was really rather pleasant on foot. The hills provided a physical release from pent up anxiety and energy. WPT and I had found a perfect quarantine walk. We saw deer, a fox, plants, and once we even watched a bald eagle glide overhead. We also saw a lot of garbage. It was evident that people used the road as a dumping ground, throwing food and bottles from their cars.

After the second or third walk, WPT and I discussed the garbage situation. It bothered both of us. I ordered a grabber online and we started picking up garbage on our walks. We did this methodically, starting on one side of the road and meticulously working our way up one side. We’d haul the bags home and put them into our garbage.

We learned that residents and visitors to Factory Road favored Twisted Ice Tea, Fireball, and by god they loved their Jägermeister. We found a pregnancy test and Christmas lists. We found a whole pay phone.

We’ve also met a few locals and said hello. Garnet, who sometimes bikes the road while we walk, talked to a man who explained the history of a farm implement and how he repurposed it to stop mailbox baseball. A woman in an SUV berated him for existing outside and asked if he wanted to be kidnapped. He called her a Karen and biked away.

Mailbox Defense System

One afternoon, Garnet asked to see what was along the ridge inside the section of road that belongs to the state. We plunged into the woods and at the top of the ridge found nothing more interesting than a path for power lines. On our walk back down, we found nests of bottles and other detritus. We had discovered an archeological site worthy of studying semi-rural partying in the 70s and 80s.

Our daily walk led us down more and more paths to research. We looked up pitcher plants, the history of bottle marks, and how to tell the age of Coke and Pepsi cans and bottles. WPT researched the history of Glen Arm, Factory Road, the nearby Copper Works, and the surrounding areas for further clues. Every day brought new spring plants and more old garbage.

We now travel Factory Road much as we have traveled to other states and countries. It had always been here, we just needed the opportunity to slow down enough to see it. We aren’t done exploring Factory Road…and neither are you.