Back to the message on trash

Forty years after the 'Crying Indian,' too many still don't get it

May 16, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

This spring marks 40 years since the famous "Crying Indian" anti-trash campaign, featuring a television commercial with a character actor known as Iron Eyes Cody in the part of a Native American in buckskin. The commercial came from Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council, launched as a sustained public service effort to get people to stop littering.

In the 60-second spot, Iron Eyes paddles his canoe along a pristine river and into in a modern, industrialized city. He sees trash everywhere. When a passing motorist tosses a bag of garbage out of his car, it lands at Iron Eyes' feet. Turning to the camera, the Indian sheds a single tear.

"People start pollution," says the announcer, "people can stop it."

Was that public awareness campaign effective? I believe so. There was a discernible change in public behavior and an improvement in the landscape's appearance by the 1970s, the dawn of the modern environmental movement.

But there are 100 million more people in the country today — 100 million more generators of trash. And while obviously millions of Americans got the no-litter message and passed it along to their kids, it's just as obvious that many others didn't. Look around. Trash is still common, on city streets, on the sides of suburban roads, in gutters, bubbling out of storm drains, tumbling into our streams and rivers.

We let up on the message for some reason — people didn't like being repeatedly admonished, or other environmental concerns took priority — and I think we assumed that, once a generation of Americans changed its behavior, their kids would simply learn and follow.

But it's time for another campaign, and right here in Maryland.

We could start on taxpayer property, at a specific place in Baltimore County: Gunpowder State Park, in the area of Jones Road near Pulaski Highway.

I wrote about this area in a recent column. It's a wooded flood plain that attracts a lot of teenagers and families because there's a large parking area, a small beach area and some elephant-size boulders that are fun to climb as the Big Gunpowder Falls goes rolling along.

It's a nice area. But the state should close it to visitors until they stop trashing it. Human beings do not deserve access to this place because of the way they abuse it, and I've seen the evidence spring after spring.

I hiked in there again one morning last week, when no one was around, and I was disgusted with the trash, which included soiled baby diapers left on top of the boulders. As usual, there were beer bottles, plastic bottles, foam swimming toys, plastic bags. I've never understood the mentality: Visit a place because you enjoy it, then trash it. Somebody help me understand that.

Disgusted, I was about to leave when a great blue heron stepped out from behind one of the boulders.

Now wasn't this ironic and iconic, I thought — the Chesapeake region's most famous bird appearing in this trashy tableau.

I have seen plenty of herons but have never witnessed one snare prey. So I gave it a minute, stood perfectly still on one of the boulders covered with trash.

The heron stepped into some slack water next to the fast-moving current below me. The tall bird with the long neck tilted its head slightly. The neck was so slender that the heron's head, with its long bill, seemed to be almost too heavy for it.

But in the next instant, I saw how finely coordinated this tall, awkward-looking creature was. The heron thrust its head into the current and, quick as a twitch, came out of the froth with an 8-inch, silvery herring in its beak. The fish struggled, but the heron won, gripping the herring in its bill, then raising its head to the sky and chug-a-lugging the fish down its gullet. The heron's neck expanded to three times its thickness. The bluish-gray hackles on the heron's breast splayed, and the herring continued to shake inside the bird until the herring could shake no more.

I felt lucky to have been there at that moment. Other people might not care if they ever see such things. They might just want to sit on a rock and drink a beer. That's fine. But take your beer bottles — and your soiled diapers — with you. The heron deserve better.

Listen to Dan Rodricks on Midday, weekdays on WYPR, noon to 2 p.m. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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