CVIndependent

Tue09172019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

As I clambered my way up the trail recently, I passed two languishing young women. One of them regarded her sandwich with distaste. “I am going to toss this. I know there is a squirrel who will appreciate it.”

I cautioned, “We ask people not to feed the wildlife.” As I walked off, one of them opined: “What does she know? She’s hiking in a skirt!”

My sartorial preferences in trail wear aside, there appears to be a prevalent attitude that “organic” litter is copacetic: It will either evaporate into biodegradable thin air or somehow be devoured.

Does it vanish? At an outdoor education center, we set up a few experiments. We built a cage of chicken wire wide enough to allow small animals ingress and egress, but small enough to keep items secure from wind. Therein we placed an apple core, a banana peel, orange peels, chewing gum and tissue paper. After six months, the orange peels had dried out; the banana peel was a distasteful black; and the tissue had collapsed into an inert mass. Nothing had rotted or been eaten.

What about interment? We commandeered a terrarium and entombed the same items—some in sand, some in organic soil. Six months later, everything was still recognizable.

Indeed, the venerable Leave No Trace organization has done experiments more sophisticated than mine. Banana peels can take up to two years to decompose, while orange peels can linger up to six months. In an arid environment, orange peels, rather like King Tut’s mummy, will last indefinitely. Citrus contains a natural insecticide: Even the ants won’t touch orange peels. And chewing gum contains rubber, so it won’t rot.

But will not the timid woodland creatures enjoy my discards? Certainly at any rest stop on the trail, one is likely to see obese rodents waddling up and professing hunger.

But think about it: Do we eat banana peels or orange peels? We do not. So why would a squirrel? An apple core is edible, certainly, but if it is not part of the animal’s daily diet, it can change the animal’s biome to the point where it can no longer digest its normal food. Anyone who has experienced so-called “traveler’s tummy” from a change in water or cuisine while vacationing can attest to this. Unless one is hiking through an apple orchard, apple cores are not a part of the local ecosystem.

Realistically, does a humble apple core really cause that much damage? Our national parks are enjoying a plethora of visitation. Grand Canyon welcomes 6 million people a year. It is estimated that 10 percent of visitors hike approximately a mile below the rim. Let us be generous and assume that 90 percent of these sightseers will carry out their trash. But that, for our purposes, presupposes that the remainder will toss, say, something like an apple core. That’s 60,000 apple cores. We would be knee-deep in the execrable things.

So-called “empty calories”—such as those that come from white bread, processed foods and sugar—are not good for us. Why should they be good for wildlife? Animals need some fat to survive winter, but excess adipose tissue is just as bad for them as it is for us. At Alaska’s Denali National Park, there are signs asking people not to feed the marmots so they don’t get too portly to escape from the grizzlies. (Meanwhile, of course, the grizzlies are watching, muttering, “Go ahead; feed them, already!”)

Desert animals have a special difficulty. Many of these critters have no ready source of water: They get moisture from the food they eat. They cannot flush salt from their bodies, and excess salt will kill them.

Animals habituated to human food and, by association, humans, quickly become nuisances. Bears are the extreme example: They will rip off a car door to get at food. Smaller animals tear into packs and tents. Rodents carry hantavirus, rabies and tetanus. The ticks and fleas that inhabit their fur transport Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, relapsing fever and plague. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want them cuddling up to me.

Animals that are fed by humans will not collect and store enough food for winter. When hiking season is over, and the tourists leave, they face starvation.

The bottom line is, before we got here, the faunae did just fine on nuts, berries and occasionally each other. They do not need us.

Would the two young women who were tossing that sandwich have done so in their own living room? Certainly not. Then again, considering what my son’s college dorm room looked like, perhaps I should not be so sure.

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She hikes and works in the Grand Canyon.

Published in Community Voices

I try to be diplomatic. I really do.

When I was cleaning up graffiti deposited by an embarrassed-looking family, and the father muttered, “Writing your name on the rocks is an irresistible impulse,” I did not give into my own irresistible impulse and whap him alongside the head with my water bottle. I smiled and said something about how a national park belongs to everyone, and it is up to everyone to care for it properly.

When someone drops a tissue on the trail, I do not snatch it up and stuff it into the litterer’s ear. I say sweetly, “Oh, miss, you seem to have dropped something.” Then I stand there holding it out until she shamefacedly turns around to claim it.

However, the other day, I was hiking uphill at the end of a long day. I had (politely) mentioned to three other people that their loud external speakers were (a) disturbing nesting birds; (b) banned in a wilderness area; and (c) grossing me out. A young lady walked past with her device blaring, and I snapped, “Turn it up! I don't think they can hear it at Three-Mile Resthouse!”

My husband patted my arm and murmured, “I think someone is getting a little bit tired.”

I remember the halcyon days when someone talking on a cellphone was irritating. Now it is speakers. Loud speakers. Blaring out “boom boomda m#f#k#r shoot the b#h, boom boomda” all the way down the trail.

The “considerate” ones have it turned to a volume that you only notice as you’re passing or following. But too many seem to revel in how many echoes they can produce off neighboring cliffs.

What, I wonder, happens when a rap person meets a pop aficionado on the trail? Do they face off with a battle of the speakers? The noises certainly do not cancel each other out.

I would love to nail the speakers with a squirt bottle as they pass, but, alas, they are weatherproof. I suppose one could accidently bump into the irritant, knock the speaker loose from its moorings and inadvertently drop a large rock on it, but that might seem suspicious.

Drones are noisy as well as intrusive. We were sitting on the edge of an isolated cliff watching the birds fly by when a racket resembling a chainsaw intruded. A drone hovered overhead. The birds egressed. Fearless Leader clambered up the hill to inform the miscreants that drones are prohibited in national parks. The man said, “Oh, I didn't know that.” The young son piped up, “Yeah, you did, Dad. We saw that sign back there!” The kid obviously missed the memo to not snitch on dad.

Mom, nonplussed, demanded, “Why?” Fearless Leader was up to the challenge.

“We were just watching flocks of birds whirling around. They are gone now. The Park Service regards natural quiet as a quality we wish to retain. An artificial sound, such as a drone, does not fit into that narrative. Then, too, if the battery fails or the wind shears, the drone can crash into the cliffs, which leaves plastic debris and hazardous chemicals.”

Mom huffed off while the hikers in our group expressed awe. “That was magnificent,” one said. “I was tearing up.”

“Of course,” I added, “it would have been more satisfying to bring the thing down with a BB gun and stomp on it.”

“Agreed, but this was equally effective.”

It is a matter of differences in philosophy. Those of us who listen to the susurration of the wind or the gentle gawks of the ravens will never understand anyone who needs tunes badly enough to drag them along. Those for whom silence is oppressive do not understand why some of us value it.

There are individuals who hike to an isolated cliff top to watch birds careen by and clouds drift through. There are others who seek that same isolation so they may break the law to obtain a nifty picture to post on Facebook. What is really difficult to understand is their desire to—no, their insistence on—loudly sharing their choice of music. Ear buds are cheap; use them.

Maybe that is the answer: I shall invest in a bag of cheap ear buds. The next time I have to listen to “Baby Boy,” I can whip them out. “Obviously, you cannot afford a pair of these, so take mine.”

Dear me, that does sound a bit snarky. Maybe someone is getting a little tired.

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She works at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Published in Community Voices