Thursday, July 05, 2012

`A Wingless Animal that Litters'

In the drug store parking lot someone had deposited a broken desk drawer, a sofa cushion leaking stuffing and the contents of an ashtray. On the beach, amid the rotting seaweed and catfish, we stepped over bottles, cans, an ice cube tray, the lid of a cooler, a child’s shoe, cigarette filters, diapers and a thousand undifferentiated bits of plastic. In the spiny center of a sprawling sego palm, across the quadrangle from my office, someone had pitched a bag of trash from a fast-food restaurant. Timothy Steele in “At the Chautaqua Channel” (Toward the Winter Solstice, 2006) writes:

“Swelled by the recent storms, the channel rushes
Under the highway and across the beach,
Cutting a furious path to the Pacific.
The channel’s banks, like calving glaciers, slide
Great slices of their sand into the torrent
Whose tumbling waters bear a wealth of refuse--
Styrofoam cups, beer cans, McDonald’s wrappers,
Condoms, flip-flops, cigarettes butts and Pampers.” 

Reading these lines, I thought of Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower” (1710), with its concluding torrent of disgust: 

“Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.” 

What has changed in three hundred years? Steele leaves the commentary to a bird: 

“A short-billed mew gull stands on the far bank,
Watching the sorry spectacle flood past,
And, if she were a lexicographer,
`A wingless animal that litters’ might
Well be her definition of a human.”

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