Category: Culture

Poop bag insights from the land of bagpipes

In an earlier post I wondered at the curious way many dog walkers deal with their poop bags and what it reveals about how they think and what they believe. Not surprisingly, the reaction has been mixed.

“Seriously. You’re interested in poop bags?”

So I was happy to come across the works of two leading figures of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment that seem to support my conclusions and even provide additional insights.

Not about littering. Taking a step back, and contrary to what you might assume, the issue for me is not about littering. It’s not even about yuk. In some ways it’s the opposite.

A bag nestles in a natural cradle.

Most of the poop bags I see down by the Potomac River—my main bag watching spot—have been carefully set by something, in something, on something, or tied to something—rocks, trees, signposts, whatever (see photo gallery Poop Bags of the Potomac—part II). They are not merely tossed like a beer can or a cigarette butt.

Why? People I’ve talked to say that it’s to make them easier for the dog pooper to find and retrieve at the end of his walk. Well OK, maybe, but. . .

In reality, many, if not most, of the bags are simply abandoned. A poop bag I see one day generally greets me on my next and subsequent visits, each time a little more flattened down and forlorn. If it’s disappeared, it’s mostly thanks to the “poop bag fairies,” public spirited people, often bike patrol volunteers.

Before we meet our two Scotsmen, let’s take a quick look at how I have tried to make sense out of this so far.

High moral standards. I start from the premise that, for the most part, the protagonists are people who live around this area, which is the most upscale places in the nation. These are solid citizens, with impressive educational pedigrees, big houses, perfect lawns, high-achieving children, and professionally groomed dogs.

Official poop bag of
the National Park Service.

Our dog walker prides himself on his moral code and high standards in the matter of dog poop bags and everything else. He puts his bag down in a way that signals he will be back later to deal with it responsibly. That’s the kind of person he is. He is definitely not a litterer.

I’d go one step further. Since I’ve never actually seen a dog pooper set down his bag, I suspect that he chooses to perform his act out of public view. He’s like the true believer who prays in private, instead of putting on ostentatious displays of religiosity. It’s just him and the bag (and, of course, the dog).

At least up to this point, we could say that our dog pooper is a model of quiet virtue.

Sage of 18th Century
Edinburgh, Adam Smith
pondered the role
of morality in society.

‘Fit for society’. I believe that our first Scotsman, Adam Smith, would agree. We all know Smith for The Wealth of Nations, the Magna Carta of capitalism. But in many ways, his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was just as ground-breaking. Here he discusses economics a little, but mostly he examines what people believe, how they think, and their role in society.

Smith examined the relative merits of public vs. private morality, as exhibited by our dog pooper.

“Nature. . . endowed [man] not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men,” Smith wrote.

“The first desire could only have made him wish to appear to be fit for society. The second was necessary in order to render him anxious to be really fit. . . In every well-formed mind this second desire seems to be the strongest of the two. . .”

Smith concludes: “This self-approbation, if not the only, is at least the principal object, about which he can or ought to be anxious. The love of it, is the love of virtue.”

When dog poopers put their bags by, in, or on something, they are reaffirming their moral virtue, not to others, but to themselves.

‘Moral beauty’. But as we’ve seen, they often end up abandoning their bags. By the time the dog pooper returns to that stretch of trail, his mind is filled with other thoughts. He strides along, his dog trotting by his side.

How shall we judge a case like this, when personal moral standards don’t perform as advertised? Is our dog pooper, in fact, just a common litterer?

Adam Smith had nothing to say about this, so I turned instead to one of his Edinburgh colleagues, Henry Home, aka Lord Kames, a jurist.

Lord Kames, every
inch a jurist, examined the
the role of intent in
claims of moral rectitude.

Struggling through his essay Principles of Morality and Natural Religion I saw that, like Smith, Kames’s main interest was not just how people act, but also how they think.

As a pillar of the legal profession, Kames was interested in the importance of intent in judging whether a person deserves approbation or condemnation for a given action. If intent can be used in the courtroom to gauge the seriousness of a potential crime, it might be similarly dispositive as evidence of at least some degree of moral rectitude for dog walkers along the Potomac.

And sure enough, Kames maintained that a person must voluntarily intend to achieve some end as a precondition to establishing moral virtue, not just in issues of crime and punishment, but in that person’s broader relationship with society. He called it “moral beauty.”

“We approve …[good] ends as useful in themselves, but not as morally fit or right, where they are not considered as the result of intention,” he writes. “[M]oral beauty” proceeds from “intention, deliberation, and choice. . . ”

For Scottish dogs,
virtue means
maintaining steady bag

So our delinquent dog pooper still can claim at least a shred of his self-perceived moral virtue.

All well and good. But how about the dog?

I turned again to Lord Kames’s essay.  While the issue of intent is of the upmost importance for humans, he wrote, “we discover very little of intention, deliberation and choice in the actions of inferior creatures.”

Poop bags of the Potomac: Part II

Just when I think that I’ve see it all when it comes to dog poop  bags along the Potomac, up pops something new—maybe a fresh color, a novel setting, an unusual pose.

Bird watchers might see a thousand Hudsonian godwits, but except for some variation in plumage color and pattern, they’re all just about the same. But for bag watchers, every sighting is a visual event.

Here is a selection of dog poop bags I’ve spotted since my first gallery post. As before, nearly all are by, in, or on something. I think that’s really interesting (see article).

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.