In the 1960s there was an anti-litter campaign led by Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the United States. It was the first of its kind. People started hanging little litter bags on the dashboards of their cars. Public service ads with crying Indians and the message “Every Litter Bit Hurts” were part of the culture. In some regards the anti-litter movement and highway beautification efforts led by Lady Bird were a precursor to Earth Day and the beginnings of the ecology movement in the early 1970s.
When I moved to Cotuit in 1991 I was impressed by the example set by Professor James Gould — a retired college professor who is the village’s historian and a dedicated force behind the Peace movement on Cape Cod. Jim would take his daily constitutional from his house overlooking Little River, down Old Post Road past Mosswood Cemetery, and on into the village to collect his mail from the post office and stop by the Cotuit Grocery Store when it was run by his son Steve.
When I drove past him I noticed he was carrying a plastic grocery bag, the kind you feel guilty about throwing out, the kind that festoon tree branches around New York City. I figured at first it was for carrying the mail. But then I saw him bend over, pick up a piece of litter and drop it into the bag. A simple act done as a matter of fact as he walked along on his daily stroll. Usually you see the roadside litter crews in yellow jump suits followed by a Barnstable County Sheriff’s van, or the Cub Scouts earning a merit badge, not a guy getting his mail and cleaning up as he went along.
His example got me thinking about altruism and the notion of the unsung, anonymous donor, especially in a village like Cotuit where there are so many causes looking for money — from the art center to the Cahoon Museum, the library to the Kettleers — and a long standing tradition of charitable good works from buying open space to preserve the rural character of the village to banding together to ban piers, chase out commercial marinas, or trying (unsuccessfully) to have a historical district implemented to slow down the tear downs of the old houses.
A few years ago I took a plastic bag along with me for a walk and came home wishing I had brought four more. It became a bit of an obsession and I started crawling into the underbrush to fish out beer bottles or styrofoam coffee cup. The amount of empty nip bottles were staggering, indeed most Cotuit litter can be categorized in descending order of frequency:
- Empty nips (this season’s most popular brand is “Firecracker,” some cinnamon flavored thing I guess)
- Dunkin donuts coffee cups, lids, and straws
- Beer cans
- Poland Spring water bottles
- Cigarette packs
- Snuff boxes
- Empty pints of vodka
- Six pack rings
- Random paper
- Builder’s trash, eg pieces of shingles, plastic shutters
The nips are easy to explain — they are cheap, they are easy to conceal and drink, and if they are tossed into the bushes there is no incriminating open containers should you get pulled over. The prevalence of schnapps, vodka, and cinnamon flavored shots points to the mouthwash qualities of those flavors, as opposed to the reek of whisky. In fact, scotch and bourbon nips are very rare.
The pay off is a clean walk and not that slightly shitty guilty feeling I was getting as I stepped over yet another yellow labeled empty shot of Firecracker during my constitutional. Beach clean ups, especially on the outside of Sampson’s/Dead Neck are far more rewarding, with a lot of washed up fishing lures in the wrack line which can be buffed up, given new hooks, and save me $10-$15 a pop during bluefish frenzy (in a month).