Month: April 2018

The poop bag puzzle

Poop bag parked
in a no parking

When I spotted the three “No Parking” signs, I was pretty sure what I would find at their bases. I just had that feeling, like a bird hunter approaching a hedgerow or a trout fisherman stalking the head of a pool.

What I found was this: At the base of the first sign sat a little green bag, knotted at the top. At the second sign lay a yellow bag, similarly knotted. The third sign was bag-free. A pretty good ratio, I thought. It comes from knowing where to look.

There’s not much in the world of trash more disgusting than bags of dog excrement. But the poop bag phenomenon is not just disgusting,  but also interesting, for this reason: Why the dog poopers put their bags where they do.

Like a blue banner, a poop
bag beckons to hikers on a path
near the Potomac River.

The fact is, nearly all of the hundreds of poop bags I’ve spotted on the trails down by the Potomac River have been placed next to something, in something, on something, or tied to something.

Hunters and the fishermen can explain why quail and trout hang out in certain places because they’re a part of nature, and must behave rationally in order to survive. But contemplating the mind of a dog pooper takes us into the realm of human nature, which is much more complex and mysterious.

Search for a reason. I can only think of one rational reason why dog poopers do what they do. I’d like to think that they put the bags by these visual markers—trees, rocks, signposts, etc.—to help them better locate and retrieve the bags at the end of their walk. And undoubtedly this is sometimes the case, such as when they put the bags on or by their car.

Here’s at least one bag that will
be reunited with its owner.

But the poop bags at the base of the “No Parking” signs were still there when I returned three hours later. From my observations, once a poop bags is set down, it’s there for good, pelted by the rains of summer, covered by the falling leaves of autumn and the snows of winter, there to greet the wildflowers when they return in the spring. That is, unless the bags are picked up by a uniquely public spirited person called a “poop bag fairy.”

There must be another reason why dog poopers place their poop bags where they do. I have some ideas that seem plausible even if they are not backed up with any empirical data. I admit I’ve never actually seen someone put a poop bag by a tree, let alone spoken with the dog pooper who has done so. Nor have the bike patrollers and rangers I’ve asked. The poop bags just appear, like crop circles in the fields of English farmers.

Pinned to the ground, escape
is no option for this bag.

So I’m offering the following thought experiment as a way of framing the issue and hopefully to encourage others to present their own ideas.

A likely scenario. We’ll imagine our dog pooper, a nice gentleman in his mid-60s wearing a tan coat and pressed corduroy pants. He turns onto the towpath by the C&O Canal, half pulled by a yellow lab with that grin particular to this breed of dogs when their tongues are hanging out.

The man looks appreciatively into the woods and at the river beyond. His lab sniffs about the edge of the path.

Abruptly the dog stops, spins around three times, and jackknifes into position. On cue, the man slips a yellow bag out of his sleeve and bends down. He coaxes the nuggets into the bag, vaguely aware of their softness and warmth. He knots the bag’s corners and pulls them into two little ears.

See photo gallery

‘Poop bags of the Potomac’

Now comes the critical moment. The man could take the bag with him, swinging it at his side like a squirrel hunter after a successful day in the woods. Or he could simply throw it into the weeds. But he does neither. Instead, he approaches a nearby oak tree, and at its base he sets his bag, its little ears standing erect. The man turns away and he and the lab resume their walk.

The dog pooper’s mind. Why did he set the bag by the tree? I believe that the answer has to do with how the dog pooper thinks—and in many ways, how we all think.

A sign misses one important detail:
a poop bag at its base.

Like the rest of us, he lives according to a set of personal standards of right and wrong and good and bad. His standards establish his patterns of behavior in all aspects of his daily life—personal cleanliness, filing taxes, honesty in dealing with others, and on and on. He’s proud of his standards and considers them to be high.  He runs his finger along the top of his picture frames to check for dust. His landscaping company encircles each of his trees with a ring of dark mulch.

Obviously, he is not a litterer. In fact, he despises people who litter, and dismisses them as his social inferiors. Yet he himself set down his poop bag, and walked away.

The operative word, I believe, is “set.” His act was deliberate and intentional. He didn’t toss the bag aside, like some goober dropping a Twinkie wrapper out of the window of his pickup. He took care of his poop bag as a man who takes his obligations seriously, including his responsibility to maintain the public spaces he enjoys. Implicit in his act was the notion that he was somehow dealing with the bag.

As he continued his walk his mind shifted to his work at the office and to his family. Every step increased not only his physical and temporal distance from the poop bag, but his mental distance as well. When he ultimately arrived back at the oak tree he ignored the bag and headed straight into the parking lot.

He opened the rear hatch of his Range Rover and his lab jumped in. Just after turning into his subdivision his mind flashed an image of the poop bag he had left by the oak tree. “Darn,” he said to himself. “I forgot the bag.”

‘You take care of it.’ To his credit, at least our hero intended to deal with the poop bag himself. For others, intentionality means leaving it to somebody else.

A poop bag punctuates a sign
telling people to tend to their trash.

Take the broader issue of trash. This area down by the river is a “trash free zone,” which means there are no trash cans; what you bring you take out. The Park Service supplies plastic bags, but from there on, it’s up to you.

It sounds like a good idea, both because it keeps park maintenance costs down and engages park users as stewards in protecting what they value. Yet I’ve actually seen these same Park Service bags, stuffed with soda cans and food wrappers, tied to the trash-free zone signs.

In the same way, at least some dog poopers place their bags by trees or signposts not as markers for themselves, but for others. “Here’s my poop bag, all tied up and ready to go,” they are saying in effect. “You take care of it.”

Evolution to religion. I offer these ideas as a starting point for solving the poop bag puzzle. There may well be other explanations. People think and act the way they do for all kinds of reasons.

For example, some clues could come from our evolutionary history and our deep ties with kindred species. Many animals—and famously wolves and dogs—choose very specific places to perform their bodily functions to mark territory and attract mates. Does placement of poop bags by people express something from our distant evolutionary past?

Do your poop bag photos turn out lifeless and dull? Here are some tips.

Maybe it has to do with aesthetics. Carefully placing a poop bag in just the right spot may be a dog pooper’s way of expressing pride and affection for his pet and its unique production.

A carefully placed offering peeks
out of a storm sewer vent.

Perhaps it goes beyond mere aesthetics and enters the realm of religion and magic. In nearly all faith traditions, believers carefully place their images and offerings by something, in something, or on something, like children putting their tooth under the pillow for the tooth fairy.

I could go on, and maybe I will in a subsequent post. But for now, enough is enough. It wouldn’t do for the writer to appear odd or eccentric.

Poop bags of the Potomac

I started taking photos of dog poop bags along the trails by the Potomac River after I started to notice something odd: In virtually all cases, the dog poopers had carefully placed their bags by something, on something, in something, or tied to something.

This was clearly an aspect of human behavior that needed to be documented. And so I set off to do just that.

Over time I found that my photos of these little plastic sacks, each with its unique cargo, served as more than mere documentation about the workings of the human mind (see ‘The Poop Bag Puzzle’). I began to appreciate how many of them challenged—and occasionally complemented—their natural settings with visual statements about the relationship between man and nature. Some even aspire to rise to the level of art (see ‘Poop bag portraiture’).

Following below is what may be the world’s first photographic excursion into the world of dog poop bags. Each photo has a message, and many can even lay claim to a certain kind of beauty, some even bordering on the sublime.


Poop bag portraiture

I’m pretty sure that I’ve photographed more dog poop bags than anyone. I’ve learned a lot, some of which I’m offering here as tips to photographers.

  • Develop a relationship with your subject. As in photographing babies or hamsters, get right down with the subject. You must get your knees dirty.
  • Imbue the bag with emotion—joy, loneliness, steadfastness. Don’t be afraid to zoomorphize the bag, with its knotted ears, imaginary eyes and maybe even a shy grin. Is the bag likeable, or is it repellent?

See related article ‘The poop bag puzzle’ and a poop bag photo gallery

  • A photo—even a single photo—should tell a story. What was going through the dog pooper’s mind when he set down the bag? Was he careful or careless, and what did that say about the pride he felt toward his pet or his political views?
  • Try different angles. Explore how the poop bag relates to the bark of the tree behind it and the soft moss and herbs on which it sits. Give your subject a sense of place.
  • Light can be your friend or your enemy. Direct sunlight can reflect off of the bag and create an ugly white glare. Conversely, too little sun can take all of the life and excitement out of a brown or green bag. A slightly overcast day is ideal, particularly if the light comes at an angle to create subtle shadows and depth. Backlighting can be an effective way of infusing the colored plastic with an inner glow.
  • Occasionally try making the bag just part of the composition, letting it occupy a small—but crucial—spot on the canvas. Study how this technique was used by the artists of the Hudson River School, with their carefully placed human onlookers or a distant locomotive designed to express man as a part of a rich and ever-changing natural world.

As for equipment, I’ve used professional SLR cameras and lenses, point-and-shoot cameras, and cell phones. For me, the cell phone is the clear winner. The quality is more than adequate, and they draw less unwanted attention from passersby.