I set my fly rod up in a few methodical steps, shedding my worries like a monarch before flight. I tie on a fly and approach the water’s edge, looking for signs of feeding fish. An onslaught of rain has left the water high and dirty, and the promise of high tide ensures it will continue to rise.
Only a minute passes before I spot my first target. It moves slow along the top of the water, winding in and out of the riffles toward me. I ready myself by planting my feet and assessing the best method of execution. I set my rod down, extend my casting arm as far as I can, and snatch a 32-ounce Styrofoam cup from the creek — I look all around for someone to take my picture.
The foam cup is only one of many items. Nearby are a variety of beer cans, the remnants of a chicken-neck package, a frayed rope tangled in the oyster bed. I collect what I can carry home to dispose of, but the progress is not measurable. Plastic bottle caps, cigarette butts and fishing waste abound.
It is becoming all too common for me to see trash everywhere I go in Charleston. The waterways, sidewalks and beaches are all victim to the same problem. With so much hysteria associated with the banning of plastic bags and the transition to eco-friendly straws, it’s difficult to see the issue improving.
On a recent trip over the Cosgrove Bridge, my jaw rested somewhere between my shins and thighs as I witnessed dozens of trash bags busted open, lining the roadsides with their contents. A waste truck had lost its load, and while the city scrambled to remedy the mess, a steady wind took its share into the Ashley.
Accidents aside, the bulk of the issue comes down to personal responsibility. While some of the trash can be chalked up as sea refuse washed in from afar, our own community is making ample contributions. Whether dispatched from a car window, blown out of a truck bed, or improperly disposed of, that piece of trash sets the tone for how we experience our city.
If this viewpoint is too dramatic for you, I encourage you to take the casual, self-centered approach of “Not my problem,” the perfect remedy from the ailment of being a mature and likable person. I then encourage you to dispose of your waste on the floor of your house. Your dog will love it. Your neighbors will remark on how you never, ever forget to get your garbage can from the street, largely in part because it’s never there. Upon reaching maximum capacity, I encourage you to stick to your guns, take it one step further and buy a larger house.
With the future of Charleston at stake for a number of reasons, the least we can do is keep its waterways, roadsides and sidewalks clean. As the number of inhabitants steadily rises, we must set a standard for how the city should look. I am encouraged by community cleanups and the Clemson fan who regularly picks up Orange Grove Road (bless you, child), but each of us who inhabit this place are responsible for its appearance. In a time when politics and public opinions have left the entire country polarized, I would like to believe we are united in the desire to keep this city beautiful.
Evidence of that beauty arose just this past week when the azaleas began to flaunt their stuff, an indication we have turned a corner and can look forward to spring. The perennial blooms make certain pockets of the Lowcountry a sight to behold as once untamed shrubs transform into bounteous blooms. Trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I can do little else but admire the flowers.
But there, at the base of their foliage: a cup, a McDonald’s bag, a soda can trampled and worn. While the beauty of the azaleas remains, it is partially undone by not only the sight of the refuse, but by its quantity.
As the light turns green, I slump in my seat, feeling discouraged, beating myself up for not coming prepared. You knew better, Aaron. You should have brought your fly rod.
Aaron Wood is a writer and chef living in Charleston.