Category: Trash

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.

And then there were three

First a duo. . .

I hesitated to do back-to-back posts on dog poop bags since I don’t want this website to appear unserious.  But today’s report clears up a little more of the mystery surrounding the special place these little plastic sacks occupy in the world of trash. It also shows the risks of rash conclusions.

. . . then a trio.

About midafternoon near the footbridge by the C&O Canal at Lock 8 I spotted two dog poop bags. As usual, they were carefully placed, in this case at the base of a sign warning about littering and about this being a trash free park.

When I returned an hour later I found to my bemusement that the poop bag pair had become a threesome. I was about to continue on when in the distance I saw a man with a dog on a leash and his daughter riding a scooter. They were headed my way. I waited, thinking there might be a connection.

An old lockhouse, a
revered national park,
and a carefully placed
offering.

Eureka! The man picked up the third bag and he and his daughter continued on the path up the steep hillside to the parking lot. A bright red cardinal in the bushes broke out in song.

But then, partway up the hillside, the man tossed the bag on the ground and continued on his way. He did it in such a natural, offhand manner. I felt let down and confused.  Until I noticed that the

A tossed poop bag isn’t
the end of the story.

girl had also left her scooter there lying on the grass. The man was clearly going to let his daughter and the dog into their car and return for the two items.

Problem solved. Every dog poop bag has its little story and the endings can be sad or, at least in this case, happy.

One piece to the poop bag puzzle

I think I found a missing piece to the puzzle of dog poop bags.

All us who know the C&O Canal towpath know about dog poop bags. Leash in one hand, bag in the other, at the strategic moment he or she swoops down to capture their prize and tie a good secure knot. What happens next is the puzzle.

I’d like to think that most dog owners do what’s responsible and the little bags end up in the household trash. But evidence to the contrary lays alongside the towpath path like little blue, yellow, and black sentries.

A dog poop bag patiently awaits
its owners.

It’s not just that I don’t like dog poop bags. It’s that there’s something going on here that transcends the subject of an unsightly and particularly disgusting kind of trash. I’ve noticed that the bags are not randomly tossed aside, like beer cans or plastic water bottles. Instead, most are carefully placed at the base of a tree trunk or post, by a rock, even in the end of a hollow tree. Why do people do this? I have some ideas, which I will write about later. But for the moment, I just want to pass along this one incident, since it’s breaking news. It also happens to be good news.

The bag I found today was leaning against a tree on the side of a little path that connects the canal towpath to the parking lot at Carderock. It was white and a little bigger and floppier than most.

I knelt down to take a picture of it. (Yes, I really do take photos of dog poop bags, and I’m not the only one. There’s at least one other, naturally a Brit. ). Just then I noticed a threesome approaching me on the towpath—a man, woman, and a dog. Happy for the chance to give my shot a little context I waited for them to get closer so I could make it a foursome.

They must have seen me. What were they thinking? I knew what I was thinking—that I must have looked pretty foolish.

I headed to my car, and just before I got in I glanced back and saw something I had never witnessed before: The man picked up the bag and took it with him. Their car happened to have been parked right next to mine. I could see that they were a nice couple, with happy smiles and scruffy clothes. Their dog looked friendly.

Of course I’ll never know if my obvious interest in their dog poop bag had anything to do with their asserting ownership of it. I don’t think it did.