When Hugh and Elizabeth Blackmer moved to Martinsville in 2005 to be near Hugh’s older sister, Alice Skinner, and her husband Wickham, it was natural that the couple should take to the town’s roads.
“I had done some running,” says Elizabeth. “So I did the St. George Days 5K and the Lobster Festival 10K. And we had hiked—we hiked the whole Appalachian Trail in pieces when we were in our 50s [and living in Lexington, Va., while Hugh worked as a science librarian at Washington and Lee University]. It was all day hikes. We would drive to Georgia, to Connecticut for the weekend. We had a sabbatical one year and took a month off just to do it in Maine.”
“For me,” admits Hugh, “walking in St. George was at first mostly a matter of, ‘Okay, it’s necessary to get some exercise if I’m going to eat the way I want to.’ And the roads connect in interesting ways and there is always something nice to look at. So it has been several years that I’ve been doing the seven-mile loops of walking Ridge Road to Glenmere and back along Route 131 or walking Ridge Road and going north.”
When the possibility of doing the Blueberry Cove half marathon as walkers came up in 2013, the Blackmers began doing that as well. The walking made them aware of the trash that gets thrown from cars, so they also began participating in the annual roadside cleanup event sponsored by the town’s Solid Waste and Recycling Committee each May.
Between the walking/hiking and the roadside cleanups, the Blackmers acknowledge that the stage was pretty much set for what came next—an intense combination of the two that has involved the regular clean-up of 15.8 miles of road (and two public parking areas) over the last 11 months and a commitment to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Well, this was my idea,” says Elizabeth as she sets out to explain why the couple began doing this. “After the presidential election last November l decided I wanted to make a contribution to my community and I wanted to make it be something nonpartisan. I also wanted to see the results, I wanted it to be tangible. I thought about it for a while and what I came up with was picking up the trash. I figured I’d be walking by the driveways of all the people, not just one group of people. And I appreciate the beauty of the area and I enjoy walking the roads—we’d been out on the roads all this time, walking, hiking.”
The criteria she set for pickup was anything larger than a cigarette butt and within 10 feet of the pavement.
“So I went out myself and started picking up the trash,” Elizabeth continues. “The first couple of times I could only walk about a tenth of a mile picking up the trash before the bags got too heavy and I had to walk back home. The next day I’d go pick up the next tenth of a mile. There was a lot of trash on the roads at the time. When people pick up in May there never seems to be enough people to pick up all the roads and it’s only once a year. So things had accumulated and some places are never gotten to. Eventually I got more effective at it. I got a grabber stick and I got a vest and I learned to leave the bags by the side of the road and then drive back to pick them up.”
Gradually, Elizabeth covered a larger and larger area that eventually covered most of the roads in the southern portion of the peninsula. And after a while Hugh joined her. From November 4, 2016 to September 19, 2017, one or both of the Blackmers picked up trash on each of 114 days. They filled 70 standard black trash bags with pure trash and 190 grocery bags with recyclables and returnables. They brought in 2,890 returnable cans, glass bottles and plastic bottles valued at $144.50, which they donated to the town.
“I really don’t feel judgmental about people throwing trash out their windows,” Elizabeth says by way of reflecting on how she feels about all that trash. “Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, they kind of stratify in different ways in different communities.”
But she does note that she and Hugh noticed a shift in the amount of trash they were picking up this past summer. “The first time around these roads was the most. After that it was things we hadn’t seen or things that somebody had thrown since then. We went away for a month in the summer and when we came back I thought, ‘Okay, there’s going to be a lot of trash.’ But there was hardly any trash. Since then there’s been a difference. There are many fewer returnables.”
Accounting for the change is difficult, but Elizabeth is convinced that seeing her out picking up the roadside trash has had an impact on people’s attitudes. “At first when people would see me picking up trash by the side of the road they’d swerve around me like I was a cow or a moose. Then people slowly started to nod or wave. Or if I was at their driveway they’d thank me for picking up the trash.”
With so much less trash to pick up, Hugh says, they decided to change their strategy. “A month ago we started picking up cigarette butts. And the funny thing is that when you pick up the butts it is impossible not to count them. We picked up 8,300 in that time. Of course many had been there for a long time. But in a section of road near here that we had already picked up once, two weeks later there were 358 additional butts on the ground.” Elizabeth adds that she has read that worldwide cigarette butts are the most common litter.
Asked what the strangest things the couple has picked up have been, Elizabeth doesn’t hesitate. “Things that nobody has used! A pencil that has never been sharpened, a shot bottle of vodka that has never been opened, bottles of water that have never been opened.”
Of this picking-up-trash project, Hugh says, “It’s kind of a pleasure at this point. There is a feeling I have now of belonging to something. People wave and I wave back.”
For Elizabeth there’s a satisfaction in the concreteness of the results. “I wanted to make a contribution to the community and I feel happy that it has worked out as well as it has. I look at the roads and they’re clean. I look at the Drift Inn parking lot and the Marshall Point parking lot and they’re clean. And I appreciate the people who have gone out of their way to say thank you. And I feel happy that people have changed their behavior. I don’t think it is an oddity or a coincidence that there are far fewer cans to pick up than there were.” —JW
PHOTO: Julie Wortman