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Opinion: 'The litter-picker was in the post. I was snookered'

Rory McNab shares his newfound love of collecting litter along Dublin’s Grand Canal, which has provided an unexpected pick-me-up in lockdown.

Rory McNab

AT THE BEGINNING of this third, seemingly interminable lockdown, I had not imagined that I would end up finding solace in picking litter.

Yet there I was, standing on a frigid, damp canal path on a frosty January morning, peering into a soaked carrier-bag containing a DVD copy of SAW and what appeared to be a small sex toy, awash with solace.

I hasten to add that this was not my carrier-bag. I had fished it from the murky waters of the Grand Canal using a telescopic litter-picker some moments before and, overcome by the same prurient interest that makes rummaging through the draws of an AirBnb so irresistible, I peeked inside.

It is surely a sign of how we as a society have been laid low by Covid-19 that nosing through some discarded rubbish along the banks of a man-made waterway has become a rare highlight in my calendar.

But, like the previous owners of that carrier-bag and its truly haunting assemblage of contents, we must all find our own unique ways of coping with the emotional turmoil of lockdown.

Civic duties

It was sometime back in April that I began making vague allusions to my desire to start litter-picking. Spurred on by the sort of geographical Stockholm syndrome engendered by travel restrictions and a noticeable increase in the volume of rubbish appearing in the canal – particularly disposable masks and coffee cups – I pledged to take action.

Of course, months passed, and this urge to act never amounted to anything more than occasionally browsing through Amazon’s selection of litter-pickers. In search of the perfect picker, I would spend hours reading astoundingly in-depth reviews which compared the respective pinch strengths of various models.

I would find myself delirious, feverishly scrolling through obscure litter-picking forums where the pros and cons of telescopic handles were debated with concerning passion (pros: longer reach; cons: compromised picker durability and strength).

Eventually, a loved one would intervene and I would emerge from this daze; disturbed, dishevelled but without actually having purchased a litter-picker. This situation would repeat itself every couple of months or so.

However, in early January, unable to bear the prospect of another lockdown spent in the company of a man who browses litter-picking message-boards without actually participating – like some sort of insipid refuse voyeur – my girlfriend did what any reasonable person would, and contacted Dublin City Council on my behalf.

Within an hour we were informed that all the requisite litter-picking materials would be sent to us within 3-4 working days. My procrastination was over. I was snookered.

Why spoil a beautiful city?

The canals in Dublin serve a unique function in the city. Despite having been constructed in the late 18th century for the prosaic purpose of connecting the Liffey to the Shannon, they have become micro-habitats for various plants and animals, otherwise lost to the surrounding urbanity.

Twin thin slivers of greenery whose waters and vegetation provide homes for moorhens, mute swans, otters, mallards, bream, perch and all manner of insects. For locals, the verdant walkways along the banks offer respite and a valuable link to nature.

It will therefore remain one of the great urban mysteries as to why many people when faced with a canal, feel compelled to try to fill the thing to the brim with discarded bicycles, traffic cones, and general election posters dating back to the mid-noughties.

Thanks to this bizarre impulse, you are sadly far less likely to see a perch gliding by when peering into the canal’s waters as you are to be greeted by the gurning face of a forgotten Progressive Democrat, frozen in time on a piece of A2 corrugated plastic.

It seems a grim cosmic certainty that the more people you have spending time in one place, the worse it becomes. Each summer for example, when thousands descend on the canal’s banks to drink, the water-way soon resembles an improvised landfill for empty cans of discount continental lager.

As such, throughout the past year of lockdowns, there has appeared to be a marked increase in disposable plastics, cans and other debris ending up in the canal – or perhaps I simply became more aware of an unchanging problem.

What’s more, Level 5 restrictions have prevented regular litter-picking volunteer groups, such as Friends of the Grand Canal – who typically meet on the first Saturday of every month near Leeson Street – from being able to meet up and carry out their vital work.

In search of litter

In the context of being amongst a group of volunteers collecting litter, perhaps clad in high-vis, your actions seem laudable and community-oriented. In the absence of this, I feared that it would simply look like I was carrying out court-mandated community service, and so I set out at the crack of dawn one Saturday morning to avoid being spotted by anyone who might recognise me.

What I quickly discovered was that litter-picking transforms your relationship with your surroundings. You can do things and go places that would otherwise cause concern for passers-by.

If you happened upon a random person frantically rummaging through some reeds by a tow-path, you would probably give them a wide berth. But if they’re holding a litter-picker, rapidly scooping empty Snickers wrappers into a bin-bag, their actions immediately have context and purpose. And instead you might wonder what sort of person had consumed so many Snickers on a tow-path.

So, very soon after setting out, emboldened by this sense of purpose, and feeling like some sort of civically-engaged vigilante, I had clambered down onto a sort of ledge which ran along a length of the canal.

Clutching onto the overhang of a low wall for support, I was able to retrieve whatever debris had drifted to the canal’s edge, as well as dredge out some old cans and bottles which had sunk to the silty floor. There was even a large piece of folded linoleum that I managed to heave from the water.

This had the unfortunate effect of angering a pair of nearby swans who began to paddle threateningly close to me, hissing wildly as they passed. I assume their agitation was more to do with the feeling that this strange man hanging over the water’s edge was encroaching on their territory, rather than arising from any sentimental feelings they may have harboured toward the linoleum. Regardless of their motives, it was an unnerving start.

But as the neighbouring path began to fill with people out for their morning walk, I realised that several seemed to be saying something to me as they passed. Taking out my headphones, I realised that the occasional passer-by was greeting me with a cheery, “Thank you so much!”.

While my main impulse for taking up litter-picking was an earnest desire to have some small positive effect on my local area; this was followed embarrassingly closely by a craving for the sense of moral superiority afforded by such an evidently praise-worthy hobby.

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While friends discuss sourdough starters and other lockdown projects, there is a self-satisfying thrill in being able to say that you’ve spent the morning using a sort of litter-harpoon to spear an empty Skips packet from a lock, thus preventing the possible suffocation of a duckling. I have been morally dining out on this with no sense of shame since day one, and I have no intention of stopping.

Buoyed by praise

The praise of passers-by has consequently proved an unexpected, and pathetically significant, boon. While it was initially somewhat awkward finding a suitably insouciant response, I rapidly came to enjoy the plaudits, quickly firing off expressions of gratitude whenever I heard someone say: “Thank you” or “Good work”.

So one day, while stooped over the water trying to scoop out an entire bag of rooster potatoes (some people…), upon hearing someone effusively chirp: “Great job!”, I instinctively shot back with a: “Thanks very much.” When I turned around, I was greeted by the bemused face of a man who had stopped to help and then praise, his buggy-dwelling infant son for successfully zipping up his own jacket.

He half-tutted at me; I, a man clutching a sack of dripping spuds who had attempted to hijack the praise intended for his child, before moving off. It was the only moment thus far where I’ve been tempted to join the debris floating in the canal.

Litter-picking has proved tremendously grounding. It helps create a firm sense of association and investment in place. While there are many days that the prospect of rolling out of bed early on a Saturday morning has seemed daunting, this is a self-imposed deadline.

Local councils can be very accommodating with arranging pick-up times for bin-bags, as well as providing useful information on sorting collected recyclables.

There is a sense of serenity to be found treading out on a misty morning to help in some small way an important piece of nature. The knowledge that your actions are helping to make an environment more habitable for wild animals is incredibly rewarding – no matter how ungrateful two swans, in particular, may appear.

Rory McNab is a journalist, editor and writer living in Dublin whose work focuses on politics, pop culture and satire.  

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