Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Working Together, Apart

I was recently talking with another Mainer who lives a bit further south than I. She also picks up garbage on her beach. On her way back home one morning, she drove by a man wandering down the country lane. He too was picking up litter along the roadside. That roadside's gullies drain to the ocean & her beach. His time & work meant less garbage for her to pick up "downstream," and more time to enjoy the beauty of the place.

The tragedy is, there are no pristine coasts left in the world. Man-made debris has reached every corner. 80% of it is plastic, so it will be there beyond all of our lifetimes. But once in a while, you may still stumble upon a scene that looked like it once did. "In the quiet of the world," as my hero Tolkien would have put it. It's not because that place has escaped the indignities we've dumped on it. It's because somebody else has been there before you, and taken their time to make it better. Even if just for a while.

I was touched by the story of the beach and the road. The idea that a kindness done may trickle down & reach someone beyond your thought. It put in mind a work by another of my literary heroes, Robert Frost. His "The Tuft of Flowers" brings the point beautifully home. I reproduce it here in full, borrowing the wording from the Web site "Representative Poetry Online."

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,--alone,

`As all must be,' I said within my heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.'

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a 'wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

`Men work together,' I told him from the heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.'

Never think any of your actions are in vain. You may not even have the faintest idea whose world you're making better in doing them.


  1. This lovely post has come at a time when I am feeling a little low about my own litter clean up efforts - thanks so much for it - "Never think any of your actions are in vain." helps! Best to you.


  2. I would like to echo Ell's sentiments. My cleanup brought me down today too. I found a distressed gull on the beach and unfortunately he expired on the way to the wildlife hospital. The beauty of your post raised my spirits.
    Thank you.

  3. An individuals action can nourish an entire community.

  4. Lovely post! So often people walk right by when I'm picking up rubbish on the beach. Yesterday a lady walking her dog said "awful isn't it? And there'll be more on the next tide." And left me, ankle deep in smelly seaweed picking out bits of fishing line and plastic wrappers and nylon rope. Maybe she's got used to it. I can't get used to it.

    Knowing you guys - and others - are out there doing the same thing too, helps me go out again. Many thanks.

  5. A really lovely and inspiring post. Thank you so much! And it's really true. People, we are in this together. Never give up. All little bits count, all efforts great and small. Keep doing what you are doing. It occured to me one day (being a litter picker myself in Belgium/Europe). I thought why are not more people helping me? Why are not more people hanging up the posters against litter that I am distributing? And suddenly it hit me : it's not only about the number of people actually helping out but about the number of people seeing what you are doing, reading these posts, watching the videos about debris. The time will eventually come that they too will become aware of these global problems and will find the courage in their heart to take that step to help cleaning too. For some people it's a huge step and it takes courageous, inspirated people like us to lead by example and to never give up. What you guys do to clean those beautiful beaches on the other side of the world even inspires me to keep picking up litter (and I don't even live close to a sea ;))... I admire all of you!!! Eef

  6. Really enjoyed reading this post and the poem.

  7. Wow. Thank you all for the comments and stories. Feeling quite humbled, and energized!