When I was a little kid, the topics I became ridiculously invested in made at least some sense. I had my classic horse-girl phase, my wizarding school phase, my Warrior Cats phase, and on and on and on. My interests were largely inspired by the books I read, the movies I watched, or the beautiful majesty of horses I was so desperate to befriend. “Please, can we keep a pony in the dingy unfenced backyard of our duplex? I would take such good care of it! I’m sure our neighbors who regularly aim paintball guns at my bedroom window won’t mind one bit!” My mother, who grew up owning a horse, was not impressed and I remain ponyless to this day. I don’t know if child me ever thought much about what my adult interests would be. Did small Margo assume that I would still be jamming out to the Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron soundtrack? Did they dream of a future only reading the same mediocre wizard boy books? Regardless of what my past interests were, little me would never have guessed that I’d be fascinated by such complete and utter garbage.
I have a habit of calling things I love “trash” or “garbage.” I once confused a coworker of mine by calling a character from the X-Men my “trash son.” But here, dear reader, when I say garbage, I mean it. Trash, refuse, litter, rubbish, debris, and junk. When I say junk, I don’t mean the loosely curated shelves of an antique or thrift store. When I say I’m obsessed with garbage, I mean the kind we throw in dumpsters or find floating down the sidewalk like a late-stage capitalism tumbleweed. I spend a large portion of my free time wandering around town and picking up trash with one of those little grabby thingies and a five gallon bucket. I’m genuinely upset it’s winter, not because of the cold, but because the limited daylight makes it impossible for me to pick up trash on work days.
Let’s rewind a little bit and talk about the why and the origins of my trash obsession. I could look far back into my childhood and talk about the time I was absolutely devastated when a stomach bug kept me from attending a field trip to the local dump, but I think it all really started with mudlarking. I read The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner on a whim. It wasn’t a book that I put a ton of thought into selecting. I don’t really even remember putting it on hold, but it somehow fundamentally changed how I view trash. The Lost Apothecary is a novel that follows Caroline Parcewell, a woman who is spending her wedding anniversary all alone in London after trouble arises in her marriage. At the beginning of her journey, she stumbles on an opportunity to mudlark on the Thames where she finds an old apothecary bottle that starts a search into the bottle’s origins. Mudlarking is a hobby performed by people who live near tidal rivers like the Thames. When the tide is low, people can walk along the Thames foreshore in areas that are covered at high tide. Mudlarkers can find anything from modern trash to pottery dating back to the Roman occupation of Britain. People who mudlark commonly find hundred year old pipe stems, glass bottles, coins, buttons, and other items that people dumped into the river. Having become a bit of a backseat mudlarker, I do find the mudlarking in the book to be not exactly correct. Currently, people who do not have pre-existing permits to mudlark on the Thames foreshore cannot join the hobby. I find it a little weird that the main character would have an easy time having a permit-less mudlarking experience in London today. However, the book is still fun.
For hundreds of years, the Thames was a dumping ground for London’s unwanted refuse. Do you have human waste, animal bones, or rat poison? Dump it in the Thames! By the 1950s, the Thames was declared biologically dead. While the Thames river is now capable of sustaining life, the odds and ends of hundreds of years tell a story to those who choose to tromp through the mud and research the treasures they find. If you’re interested in finding out more about mudlarking, I’d recommend Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames or Nicola White, a mudlarking Youtuber who you can find here.
In September of last year, I caught Covid, the Big Ick, and spent a week stuck inside doing nothing. During that time as I napped on and off, I watched countless hours of mudlarking videos and felt a deep sense of jealousy. Why couldn’t I have somewhere to find old wet trash? I was stuck inside and just had my regular, indoor, completely dry trash. Once I was safe to leave my Victorian orphan sickbed, I vowed to find my own old wet trash. There was just one catch, you can’t mudlark without a body of water. The Thames is an ideal place to mudlark because it’s a tidal river with anaerobic mud, perfect for preserving finds. We don’t exactly have a plethora of places like that in Lawrence.
I decided to settle for what I thought was much less interesting and set out to start cleaning up trash in my own neighborhood. Unlike the Thames, the trash I find near where I live doesn’t usually have any historical significance. 99.9% of what I find is destined for the dumpster, but it doesn’t necessarily make the trash any less interesting. Early on, I lamented that the trash I found wasn’t cool historical trash I could take home. I was stuck with cigarette butts, parts of vapes, McDonalds cups, and liquor bottles. Woah! It was oh, so very different from the clay pipe stems, historical drinking vessels, and…liquor bottles that mudlarkers found. The more I cleaned up around my neighborhood, the more I realized that the only difference between the trash I found around me and the historical trash from the Thames was the base material and a few hundred years.
As I walked around my neighborhood, I thought less about my disappointment at the dearth of interesting garbage and more about the lives of the people around me. Who left this bic lighter at the bus stop? Are they missing it? What happened to the person who left this half a Pokemon card near a drainage ditch? Was the tear on the card intentional? Was it a fight with a friend or sibling, or did the card not interest the collector? The more I picked up, the more treasure I found. To most people, my treasures might seem like actual trash, but I love them. I’ve kept wheat pennies ( from 1938 and 1942), working lighters, Pokemon card halves, tiny pairs of scissors, roller rink tickets, and more. I started to take pictures of interesting trash finds and stayed out longer and longer. Now, my average Saturday trash walk can take place over 2+ hours with a good audiobook to keep me company.
Trash tells a story. I find that I think a lot more about the people around me and what we throw away. It can tell you what kind of people live in an area. For example, I find bottles and cups for more expensive drinks or restaurants in more affluent neighborhoods. I see cigarette butts and think about the people that smoked them. Were they waiting for the bus? Did they throw it out the window of a passing car? Do they think about where the butt will go, or does it not occur to them? Were they on time to work today or were they running a little bit late? I’ve had great conversations with people who want to know more about what I’m doing. If I was just walking without picking up trash, I could have missed out on so many great conversations with complete strangers. Sure, I’ve never found treasure in the traditional sense, but I have learned that trash tells a story. Let’s just be careful what type of story we’re telling. Also, please throw your cigarette butts away or I’ll spray you with water like a misbehaving cat. They’re a nightmare to pick up.
If you’re looking to go on a trash walk of your own, here’s a list of fantastic audiobooks I’ve loved listening to while walking.
-Margo Moore is a Teen Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.