They Move Rubbish Below


I often pick up litter when I'm out walking, or complain about it when I can't pick it all up. I also try to do other things to improve my local area e.g. cleaning it with soap. Yesterday I decided to go one further than my normal litter picking.

I live near a river, and hate seeing litter in it - from plastic bottles and crisp packets, up to heavier items that have been chucked in. Recently a bench on the public footpath had become corroded and hadn't been fixed; some vandals then broke it off and threw it in the river. The Council weren't keen on fishing it out "because of health and safety reasons" (even though a few men with a rope and hook could have pulled it out easily when the water levels were low). So I decided to tackle it with two friends and a step ladder, since it's sometimes the only way to get things done.

Since I didn't have a hook or rope, it meant getting into the river. That was the first problem. I climbed down a vertical 8 foot wall. I was wearing shorts and plastic shoes, but it was hard going to move along the river bed, which at that point is made up of slippy rocks. One fall and I'd be swimming in the deeper water. So I took my time, and when I found an item I carefully hoisted it above my head after finding secure footing, so that my friends could then reach it from the river bank and pull it up.

The first item - a rusted Council sign

The first bits of rusty metal were easy enough, though I was immediately coated in orange and green slime. The first excitement came when I found a hollow metal bed frame. I hoisted it up and watery mud poured from the tube ends. But once it was on the bank, a huge eel wriggled out of the tube. My friends managed to flick it back into the river, unharmed, and luckily it just missed my face where I was stood looking up to see what the shrieking was about. The eel swam into a gap between some rocks so I moved on carefully after we checked that the bed head didn't contain any more surprises.

I'd never seen an eel before, let alone a large one, so that was pretty amazing.

I made my way carefully along by the wall. The stones were irregular and slippy with algae, and there were big gaps between them (unknown how deep), so lots of chances of falling or twisting an ankle if I didn't take my time. I eventually reached the bench.

The bench. My original target.

The hollow bench frame was again full of water, with dangerously-rusted sharp edges where it had snapped, and bits coming away. Again, it would have been easy for a few men with basic equipment to pull it up from the bank without needing to go in the water, but I was forced to do it the harder way.

I got it up against the wall but we couldn’t get it any higher. It was just too slippery and heavy. Mmm.

This shows the height of the wall - the bench was about six feet long. I could only just reach the path with my fingertips if I fully stretched my arms up.

One of my helpers ran home to get some rope while I held the bench up.

Then I felt tugging on my feet. And I thought of eels and piranhas and flesh-eating crabs.

I looked down to find that small fish had gathered and were pulling at the skin between the holes in my croc shoes. And, as I stood there, more and more came, and bigger ones, maybe five inches long, all nibbling at my ankles and skin. I tried not to be paranoid and just enjoy the affection, but it was quite creepy at first as they all gathered and nibbled away while I had to stand still.

I was too busy holding the bench to get a close-up so there are no good pics of the bigger fish, but you can see two of the tiddlers that were the first arrivals nibbling my ankle in this photo. Soon there were around a hundred fish there!

Then there was a further challenge as a big spider came down the wall towards me.

I'm scared of spiders, even though I love them as much as any other animal.

I leaned away.

Then it crawled onto the bench I was holding, and headed towards my hands. My grip wobbled. But it wasn't me in trouble. It was the spider, who fell into the water and began to splash away in panic.

One of my helpers held onto the top of the bench so I could pluck a dock leaf and pick it up, overcoming my fear. I passed it up to the helper and took the bench again. The spider was safe, and crawled off into the undergrowth.

My other helper returned. She'd had to cut her washing line because she couldn’t find any rope. Sacrifice. We got it looped around the bench. I had to edge into deeper water to get to the other side, away from the rusted edges (the bench had been in a poor state for years, but not maintained).

Even then, I wasn't sure if we could succeed. I couldn't get enough grip on the slimy wood to lift it. Time for Plan B. Every author has one.

A helper held the bench upright with the washing line. I wedged a stepladder amongst the rocks, climbed carefully up the wall and onto the path, then pulled the ladder up behind me.

Then two of us lay on out bellies and reached down to get hold of the bench. We managed to haul it up the wall and onto the path.

Some of my treasures.

Now everything was out, we moved it off the footpath so it didn't block the way, and carried all the items to my own garden where it wouldn't be a danger to anyone (a bit of a trek, with many breaks!) Along the way I rescued a butterfly from the river by tying leaves to the washing line and dangling it in until the butterfly climbed on and could be hoisted out and put on a flower. The butterfly was grateful.

I’m still surprised we succeeded in getting the bench out without incident.

I then gathered up some rusting Council roadsigns that had been dumped on the grassy bank, and added them to the growing pile.

I was due for a meeting and needed to clean up, so the sensible thing would be to call it a day.

However! I also knew that there was a shopping trolley embedded in a sandy river bank further up. It had been there, uncollected, for so long that it was mostly hidden. Obviously it would present a danger to anyone paddling at that edge of the river in the summer, once it broke down into sharp and rusting edges, hidden under the water's edge.

So, I grabbed a spade and headed to the river bank. I splashed around and dug for ages but we ran out of time and still couldn’t move it, and by then I really had to head off for my meeting (now without time for a shower, only a change of clothes - yuck!)

"Hi ho hi ho it's off etc, we did dig dig dig ... shit, can't sing that, Disney will sue me."

My new art installation

Mr Grumpy Scruffy Bastard, of Scotland

Good news: the Council then collected the river items from my garden very quickly, and said they'd finish digging out the trolley and take it away (the twelfth I've found in rivers during the last few years - ever since supermarkets stopped doing money-deposit locks on trolleys, they've increasingly ended up as a new form of litter). Likewise, I have had positive experiences in liaising with the Community Assets team at the Council (covering Nithsdale) whenever I have reported items that were too big for me to move, or litter areas too expansive for me to clean.

So there you go. The amount of litter increases year on year, in line with the growth of roads and houses and human population. In fact, I dread looking at population counters like this or this - amazing use of statistics tied to something incredibly depressing. Population multiplies every environmental problem. When I was reading about another species going extinct yesterday, I was reminded of how, just as human population clocks increase, the numbers of species going extinct also increases. It's possible that we are now wiping out other species and making them extinct at the rate of about 100,000 species a year (up to 10,000 times higher than the average historical extinction rates). Of course, my actions as an individual count for nothing in the face of that. My achievements, my failures. Irrelevant. But you either sink into despair, or you continue to act and try to do the right thing.

So let's keep acting to preserve the world. It's the only thing that stops me having nightmares of a Britain where every green space is turned into this:

Image by Lukas Drinkwater, (no relation), titled "Garden/prison hell in Newbury". Usually Councils let developers build these, then - without any hint of irony - give the estate names like "Pleasant Field" and "Green Wood" and "Meadow View", even though those were the very things destroyed for the sanitised executive homes. This won't change, because as our population grows, no politicians or party will say anything about the issue, and they all just make manifesto pledges to build more houses.

I'm such a cheery soul. Peace and love.

Update: 2019-04-26

Today I had a nice letter from Dumfries & Galloway's Community Assets Manager (Nithsdale), thanking me for what my friends and I had done on Riverside Walk. The Council are launching a new initiative called Neighbourhood Champions in mid-May, to "capture some of the wonderful work our residents and communities do are doing to improve the area". I may be interested in taking part, but will also put together a list of people and organisations they might want to include and celebrate, who do good work and have done far more than me including: D&G Eco warriors beach cleans, Incredible Edible Dumfries and the South West Railway Adopters Gardening Group (SWRAGG) (read more about them in my article about train stations); The People's Project (though I was less happy about them being involved in cutting some trees down); the Dumfries lady in an automated wheelchair who picks up litter around the town, and so on. I will have missed out a lot of worthy groups and individuals, but I'm sure people will point out my many omissions. So many people doing good things: it's good to focus on that when we feel


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