Category: Culture

The poop bag puzzle

Poop bag parked
in a no parking

It was like an Easter egg hunt. Heading down to the Potomac at Old Angler’s Inn, I spotted three “No Parking” signs. At the base of the first lay a little green bag, knotted at the top. The next one yielded a yellow bag. At the third, no bag.

Not a bad ratio. 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 goes beyond disgust, and even the issues of trash and littering. The thing that makes it interesting is this: the places the dog poopers choose to discard their bags.

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

Nearly all of the hundreds of poop bags I’ve spotted on the trails down by the Potomac River have been placed deliberately—by something, in something, on something, or tied to something.

Search for a reason. Why should this be? Maybe the dog poopers use these visual markers—trees, rocks, signposts, etc.—to help them better locate and retrieve the bags at the end of their walk. Clearly this sometimes happens, 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 in the case of the “No Parking” signs, the poop bags were still lying there three hours later. Nearly always, once a dog pooper sets down his poop bag, it’s for good.

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.”

Poop bag fairies. 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 reveal some cue 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 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.


From Potomac trash to Southwest border art

They race down the river in floodwaters. They bob about in rafts of debris. They lie half buried in a muddy shoreline, and even hang strings from overhanging branches. They are plastic water bottles, the Potomac River’s iconic trash.

Two thousand miles away, in the desert along the Mexico-New Mexico border, artist Jami Porter Lara also keeps an eye on plastic water bottles.  These are big two-liter ones, not the 16-ounce size generally found in the Potomac.

Most of the Potomac’s plastic bottles had been swept off curb sides or parking lots and into creeks, and eventually ended up in the river. A few may have been tossed directly into the current by fishermen or picnickers. Either way, they number in the many thousands, a never-ending downstream migration of plastic.

The bottles on the desert border were also the product of a migration, but in this case of people from Mexico and Central America heading north. For them, water in plastic water bottles is not just a convenience, but a necessity. Without it they would perish from thirst. When they cast aside an empty bottle, they aren’t littering. It’s part of their fight to survive.

For Porter Lara, the plastic bottles stand as a testimony to a human drama of hope and perseverance, and this is one reason why she is drawn to them.

There are other reasons, as I discovered in her exhibit called “Border Crossing,” which is now in its final days at the National Women’s Museum in Washington, D.C. For her, these humble, everyday objects have inspired her to create art that invites us to cross borders of human perception and understanding. Her vision is something that our own Patowmack the Trickster—himself a master of shape-shifting—would appreciate.

Porter Lara’s pots fuse the past with the present to create what she calls “contemporary artifacts.”

Crossing borders. One of these borders is time. Many of Porter Lara’s bottles, with their twisting, organic forms, evoke mankind’s early use of gourds to transport water. Others recall ancient amphoras. Her works also reference the pots made by pre-Columbian peoples, shards of which also lie scattered in the Southwest border desert. But all are unmistakably representations of plastic water bottles, with their threaded tops and the five radiating indentations that lend rigidity to their plastic prototypes.

Another is the border between art and trash. Porter Lara makes her pots the traditional way. She digs the dry, crumbly clay out of the side of a stream bed, laboriously mixes it with water, and strains out the impurities. Then she molds the bottom of the pot in a plaster cast she formed from the bottom of a plastic water bottle.

She forms coils between her palms, which she then presses to the molded base and spirals up what will be the sides of the pot, pinching them together as she goes. After the pot dries she burnishes the surface to a sheen with a smooth stone. Lastly she fires the pots in an outdoor pit of smoldering wood, which she covers to reduce oxygen so that the clay surface turns black.

She calls her pots “contemporary artifacts,” combining ancient material and technique with present day interpretations. “By making plastic bottle forms out of clay, making them appear more like what we perceive as artifacts, my purpose is to hasten our awareness of the inevitability that these, too, will belong to the past,” says Porter Lara in materials prepared for the exhibit.

Man and nature. The final and perhaps most elusive border is that between nature and human artifice. Porter Lara’s pots express the idea that nature is not something apart from people. It is not pristine, nor should it be. Her pots invite us to view humankind is a part of the natural world.

“Saying that humans are only pollutants is a failure of imagination,” she says. “Yes, we’re destructive, but we’re also creative. . . . I want to create the possibility that we can see things differently and contribute to the world.”

I agree with Porter Lara about the ambiguity of trash. For a long time I have resisted condemning the flotillas of plastic bottles and other man-made detritus in the Potomac River. Instead, I look at it with interest.

A two-liter bottle, not on the border
between Mexico and the US, but
between Maryland and Virginia.

Of course I wish there was no trash, but not because it makes the river less lovely—that would take an awful lot more trash than what we have now. Mostly I don’t like trash because of what it says about the people who live in the river’s watershed. We are—as Porter Lara says—a part of nature, an idea which I find both uplifting and depressing.