Back in 2001 a group of city workers came into my backyard while I was gone to “trim” the large trees that grew all over the neighborhood. They left a tangle of branches that literally covered the expanse. My azaleas were mangled from the affront on them as the huge sections of the trees fell carelessly down to the ground. It was a stunning and unexpected mess, but I assumed that a crew would soon enough remove the debris as part of the work, so I tried to remain calm.
A week went by and then two until it became obvious to me that somehow my yard had been forgotten as the tree trimmers moved along in their work. Still attempting to be kind I called around and found out from the city of Houston that it had indeed been a mistake on the part of the crew to leave the tangle of trees branches. I was assured that the matter would be resolved within a few days. Unfortunately yet another week passed with no sign of the expected cleanup. I could see that my grass was beginning to grow yellow which fueled by temper. When I phoned the city again I was in no mood for excuses and demanded action. After a great deal of paper shuffling I was told that according to records my backyard should have been one hundred percent free of the refuse.
It’s a good thing that I was not speaking to the clerk in person because I’m not sure that I would have been able to contain myself. After insisting that I was going to stay on the line until I was able to talk with a supervisor I finally spoke with a quite official sounding man who patronized me from the get go. Essentially he apologized for the confusion and assured me that my name and address would be placed on a list. He noted that city workers were on a new project in my area and they would come to my house as soon as they had finished that task.
Somehow I felt caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that I suspected was never going to end. I suspected that I might have to visit a city council meeting armed with photographs or even attempt to see the mayor. In the meantime my lovely backyard was suffering and I realized that it was going to die if I didn’t take charge and do the labor myself. The problem was that it was an incredibly overwhelming task. Nonetheless I made mental plans to get to work on the weekend if nobody had come by then to take responsibility.
Within a day or so, my emotions were focused on something far graver and more important than my landscape. I had watched in horror as the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed from a terrorist attack. I was in a state of disbelief and horror that evening and needed something to keep my mind busy. I looked out the window at the mess that had so enraged me and decided it was a good time to begin the process of taking control of the situation. I went to work and began cutting up the huge limbs and carrying the pieces one by one to the front yard for pick up by the garbage man. After an hour or so I had not made a visible dent, but the sweat labor had been good for my state of mind. I was accomplishing something in a world gone mad.
After a time some of my neighbors began to notice my trips back and forth and without saying a word they joined me in my efforts. None of us were in the mood for conversation, so we just worked on reducing that pile of destruction one branch at a time. Before long the curb was laden with enough wood to make a nifty bonfire and the azaleas along my fence line were once again visible, looking a bit worse for wear but still very much alive. When the sun began to set we had not completed the task, but we had made a very good start. Over the coming days we would finish the project while also watching the work of digging out that was taking place in New York City. Ultimately my yard was returned to its former lovely state, and with much more effort New York City rose from the ashes of that dreadful day.
I learned then that seemingly impossible tasks begin with small efforts and then grow to fruition with cooperation and determination. It reminded me of the old stories of stone soup and Johnny Appleseed in which the important thing was to make a start and then work together for a worthy and common cause. When I recently saw a post from a friend I was inspired all over again. The suggestion was for each person who visited a beach to pick up and dispose of three pieces of garbage. If we all followed that idea over time we would soon have far more pristine waters. There were comments from several individuals insisting that the problems with pollution and garbage are so big that such a plan would not even scratch the surface, but I found myself enchanted with the idea. It seems to me that most beaches have enough visitors each day that the combined endeavors of each person would be huge. Think about our waters getting a daily cleaning from everyone willing to spend probably less than a minute to dispose of trash that they see. I thought of ways to expand this idea to all sorts of places including city streets, and I became quite excited by the possibilities. What if we carried some of those cheap disposable gloves with us so that we might be ready to spiffy things up wherever we go? Surely with a nationwide concentration on doing such things we would do wonders.
I once worked in one of the KIPP schools and they had a rule for the students, “Leave any place that you go better than you found it.” It meant that our kids not only cleaned up after themselves but took the initiative to take care of any additional problems that they found. Our big crews made quick work of the process of caring for our environment. Why can’t we make this a way of life for everyone?
Sometimes we expend a great deal of time and emotion complaining about situations just as I did with the mess in my backyard. While the city workers were indeed responsible I was actually hurting myself by refusing to rectify the situation on my own. We so often see a bad situation and then want someone else to take care of it. Maybe we should begin to think about doing the right thing in our own backyards.