COMMENTARY: Gathering Trash for a Treasure

See why this must be a labor of love?

Out in the fresh air on a Sunday morning, the sun warming my back makes this hard work a religious experience. How else could I enjoy picking up trash on Highway 156? This job really means "Love thy neighbor,” heard so many times from the pulpit. My stylish church outfit, designed by the State of California Department of Transportation, catches the eye with a mix of tender lemon and lime green. A double deck of hats crown my head. An Adopt-A-Highway Helmut clings to the wide brim sun hat. So glancing down at my shadow I appear top heavy. 

It seems this “holy place” comes with a choir. Eighteen-wheelers thunder by, providing a bass roar. Pick-ups pitch in as baritones. Traffic whines off key. All leave a pulse of incense exhaust.

See why this must be a labor of love? Look here at the shiny orange can. Sure gets my attention. "Shock Top," the label reads. Beer brewed with orange peel and coriander. And lying there nearby is a shiny blue can.  "Belgian Ale" reads this empty. These two must be my communal relationship. I recycle the cans so the driver is not stopped with open cans of liquor. Retrieving empties gives me a relationship with an unknown driver who thoughtlessly tosses the empties out the window. I wonder if he ever wonders who picks up his garbage and why.

I pick up trash for more than our cause, which is peace. I do it for more than a beautiful highway. I do it for more than recycling. I do it for the biggest challenge ever faced on this planet. I do it to slow climate change.  Bundle up all the catastrophes: loss of species, droughts, floods, forest fires, exploitation of resources, air pollution, water pollution, over-population, over-fishing, poverty, disease and war. Shake them out and what do you get?  Climate change that threatens all life on this planet.

I'm wondering if the guzzling driver ever gives a thought beyond his own determination to arrive some place. I'm wondering if he uses his brains hiding under the "Shock Top" label depiction of a young man whose hair looks lawn-mown. For me, retrieving trash is one tiny step towards saving the planet. Rain can wash aluminum cans and plastic bottles into drainage ditches and canals then into Pacheco Creek then into the Pajaro River, which flows to the Pacific Ocean to swirl around in a huge garbage dump in the sea of life. On this Sunday morning, I pray for more young men and women to be truly shocked by what is happening to our planet, shocked enough to take their own tiny steps then help others to do the same.

Bringing this haul to my truck, I heave the bag into the truck bed to join more tidy bags then I guide my right hand around the tailgate, patting the fender like a cowboy who thumps the hind of his mount.  I open the driver side door, put my left foot on the truck’s “stirrup,” swinging my weight into the driver seat. Like the cowpoke galloping into the sunset, I motor away unnoticed, ready for the next trash round-up.

Mary Zanger

I came to San Benito County as a bride and helped build out the Zanger family businesses, best known as Casa de Fruta on Highway 156. In the off seasons, I worked as a pharmacist in downtown Hollister. Now my work focuses on nudging my community to remember the power of fairness and justice that promote peace.