Barack Obama once said, ‘If you were to ask, “When in human history would be the best time to be born?” The time would be now.’ But on this particular balmy July morning I was hammering a sign next to my parents’ backyard gate, that led into a National Trust owned meadow, “Do not throw your faeces covered tissues here, you revolting cretins.” So I’m inclined to disagree with the former President of the free world.
The summer holidays had only just begun and already, tourists swarmed into the Lake District in their droves, like ants coming out of gaps in paving stones. My grandmother always poured boiling hot water over them and down the tiny holes they clambered from. ‘Nothing gets rid of an ant infestation like boiling water.’ She’d say. From then on, I always imagined water tanks, like you see in New York, scattered over the Lake District storing boiling hot water, ready to be tipped over and down onto disobedient tourists, who have no shame in throwing used nappies, tampons or wet wipes into bushes or long grass. Or leaving disposable BBQ’s simmering away in fields, whilst nonchalantly tossing empty bottles and cans into lakes and rivers. It’s a shame Covid-19 didn’t just target and wipe out the wrong ‘uns in the world; rapists, murderers, litterers, influencers etc. Maybe it would have eventually developed into a more intelligent strain and become such a virus, living hand in hand with good, honest people, similar to how trillions of bacterial particles live on us everyday. But we’ll never know because the goody two shoes at Astrazeneca and Pfizer had to stick their noses in and steal Captain Tom Moore’s thunder.
I had decided to wait until evening to pick up the faeces covered tissues. I thought it best to allow a crust to develop before picking them up with my litter picker. I would then walk around the area, bin bag in one hand, litter picker in the other and attempt to clean up as much rubbish left behind as possible. Over the years, such a service has left me angry and bitter. Why should it be down to me to pick up everyone else’s litter? I barely had enough time over the summer to wild swim, paddleboard and drink Tempranillo in my parents’ hot tub whilst listening to Morrison Hotel on repeat, as it was. However, ever since taking up Pilates on the shores of Coniston Water hosted by a white witch named Awesome Wells, for a very reasonable £45 a session, I found a zen-like mentality had begun to wash over me, and decided against letting my frustrations get the better of me. Instead vehemently telling myself, I was incredibly fortunate to live and grow up in such a beautiful part of the world. And if litter picking every once in a while allowed me to continue living this way, then so be it. Besides, if anger did begin to lurk once again, I could always vent by writing a novel about a litter picker in Cumbria who one day snaps and becomes a serial killer. If there’s one thing publishers are looking for these days it’s a story about a white, middle-class male not happy with his first-world problems.
At around 7pm, after spending more time than I would’ve liked prying an annoying piece of sirloin from between two back teeth, I decided to go and carry out my good deed for the day. I rose from the sun lounger leaving behind a perfectly shaped sweat patch of my body on the cushion. Then went inside and upstairs to pull on a Sea Shepherd t-shirt to show anyone and everyone I meant business, and quickly put to the back of my mind the fact I’d eaten tuna sandwiches for lunch.
I tried on a few pairs of shorts, deciding which went best with my tan. If I was going to show the world what a good Samaritan looked like, then I wanted to do it in style. I walked purposefully to the garden shed, donning a gold rimmed pair of aviators, put on a pair of gardening gloves and collected my tools before striding out of the garden and into the meadow, waiting for me like a battlefield denouement.
I held my breath and closed my eyes as the flies bolted from the tissues. I didn’t wait to inspect how much crust had developed over them and quickly stuffed them inside the bin bag. I had cleared the first hurdle. I looked back at the sign and wondered if I had perhaps been a little excessive. And just as quickly dismissed such drivel. Pleasantly, the rest of the meadow was unscathed. The odd chocolate bar wrapper dropped here and there and a National Trust coffee cup left on the odd drystone wall. At the other end of the meadow a gate leads into a huge park nestled on the southern banks of the lake. I looked down at the masses of people still enjoying the last of the sun. My heart sank. I already knew I’d have my work cut out for me. One bin bag surely wouldn’t be enough. Barely 200 metres into the park and I was already half full. I was faced with the uncomfortable decision of deciding what litter wasn’t quite as bad as another to leave behind. Once I hit the main area, people began to swarm around me like I was the second coming, thinking I worked for the National Trust. ‘Mate, I know it says no BBQ’s but can I just light one small one?’ ‘Well, I don’t actually work here, but no.’ ‘You don’t work here?’ ‘No.’ ‘Here, Cheryl, he don’t work here. Get it lit.’ He bellowed, walking away. Excuse me, can I just put this nappy in your bin bag?’ ‘Well, it’d be easier for you to take it home. You see, I don’t actually work for the National Trust…’ ‘Yeah I know, you just told that man. But there’s no bins to put our rubbish in, so can’t I just put this in your bag? It stinks.’ Before I could answer, the young lady threw the nappy into the bin bag. ‘Thanks hun.’ She waved, walking off. It was at this point I wish I’d worn my headphones; drowning out all exterior noise, or at least pretending to. I put my head down and carried on, trying to skim along the outside of the crowd, unless an obvious piece of litter could be seen. After 10 minutes and the bag nearly full, a young man in black tracksuit bottoms and a vest approached me holding several empty beer bottles. ‘Here pal, can I give you these?’ ‘No sorry man. I haven’t got the room in the bag and there’s still more litter for me to pick up. The best thing to do is take them home and put them in your own bins.’ He looked at me confused. Four more of his friends came over, all carrying empty beer bottles and cans. They asked the same question. I gave the same reply. They looked just as confused as their friend. ‘So all this litter is yours is it?’ One finally asked. It was my turn to look confused. ‘No, of course not.’ ‘Well why not pick our litter up too?’ ‘Because technically you’ve not littered yet, you’ve got the opportunity to take your rubbish home and put it in a bin. Recycle it.’ The confused looks were dancing around at will now. ‘Well if you’re gonna be a fucking prick we’ll just leave our bottles here by the lake.’ One proudly announced. ‘Lads’, I began. ‘There’s no need to behave like this. Just take your bottles and cans home. What’s the problem? You brought them here, now just take them home too.’ I was internally pleased with myself for not folding to the pressures of this gang of youths and staying remarkably calm. No shaking knees, no quivering voice. Unfortunately, I could tell not one of them understood a word I had said, and without a couple of finger puppets at hand to explain further, I walked away and carried on.
It wasn’t long until the bin bag was bursting at the seams. The aggravation I had received played on my mind, despite my best attempts to let it wash over me. In fairness, there were no bins around for people to dispose of their litter. It seemed the National Trust was more than happy to charge customers to enter their park and once in, ceased caring about what happened to the state of it. Or care that the litter would inevitably blow into the lake and down the river. I guess if it’s not shown on Instagram, it’s not really there.
My last act of the day was plucking filled dog shit bags off a decorated tree. I left the now overflowing bin bag at the park manager’s office door, in the hope it might awaken some guilt. Though I knew deep down it was a lost cause.
Walking back towards the way I came, the group of youths walked across me, empty handed, making their way to the car park up ahead. They briefly looked up, then down at their feet and carried on. Once a hundred metres away, looking down from a banking, they finally found enough courage to shout obscenities at me. I smiled at the fact a gang of young men were only brave enough to shout insults at me from a safe distance. And smiled even wider, grateful that they were only brave enough to shout insults at me from a safe distance.
I walked back along the lake, noticing a few more bits of litter scattered here and there, telling myself it would be impossible to collect it all in one go. By the lake I saw the empty cans and bottles purposefully left behind by the gang. To their credit, they did exactly what they said they would. I walked towards the pile, thinking of the wildfires blazing across Europe. The volcano erupting in Japan and the floods wiping out towns in America. Perhaps Mother Earth was beginning to resent us being here. I didn’t blame her. The sooner she wiped us out the better. There were too many bottles and cans for me to carry in one go. As I turned, a father and his young daughter walked over and picked up the rest. ‘They were horrible those lot. Here’s you trying to do some good. It’s a shame. Where are we taking these?’ Asked the father. Just up here, a two-minute walk away.’ I replied. The three of us walked back towards the office. I retracted my previous thoughts.