Keeping America's Trees Safe From Small-Curd Bubble Wrap

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Keeping America's Trees Safe From Small-Curd Bubble Wrap

Down the postflood Mississippi, beating the bushes for the mother lode of trash
By Ian Frazier

In New York City, where I live, plastic bags get stuck in trees. Especially in the winter, the wind lifts them and fixes them by their handles in high upper branches, where they become, compared to ordinary litter, immortal. Nobody touches them. They rustle and luff in the breeze; they age to gray, fright-wig shreds. Something about them has always bugged me. I've thought about them, written short pieces about them, mentioned them to my friend Tim. We speculated about how to get them down. Tim is a jeweler. In his studio he made a snagging device of several short wire grapplers set at right angles to a rod ending in a sharpened, curved hook. We put the snagger on the end of a long, stout aluminum tube and fit that into another piece of tube. We now had a tool with which we could reach nearly 25 feet off the ground. We tried it first on old familiar landmark bags in my neighborhood. It worked great--the grapplers would inveigle the bag with a twist of the pole, and then the blade would cut it free. In just a morning we de-bagged almost the whole neighborhood.

Tim's brother Bill joined us, and we began to go bag-snagging all over greater New York. The three of us have known one another since we were kids; we've always liked to fool around outdoors. Bill is a musician, with good dexterity for removing the finer plastic shreds. Tim is tall and sometimes would stand on teetering chunks of concrete atop upended trash cans to set new height records for bag-snagging. Then we wanted to go higher and higher. We added more poles to the snagger until we could reach to almost 50 feet. On midsummer evenings we would go snagging until late, when the light faded, in the emptying streets of downtown Manhattan and along the Bronx-Queens Expressway and in parks in New Jersey. From a tree by a construction sight we snagged a heavy-gauge burlap bag that we used to carry the other bags. We also brought down plastic drop cloths, crime-scene-marker tape, sneakers, extension cords, promotional flags, bicycle chains, a part from a baby's crib, and a pair of extra-large forest-green stretch pants. Most people who saw what we were doing seemed to take it as a matter of course. We never came across or heard about anyone else doing it. After a while we had to conclude that at taking plastic bags and other trash out of trees, we were very likely the best in the world.

We began to think about expanding our range. What about the rest of the country? Maybe there was a mother lode of bags and other stuff in trees out there someplace. I happened to mention this to a guy from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and he said that in river valleys, floods often leave debris in the trees. I made some calls to towns along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis, where the flooding was bad in the summer of 1993. A woman who answered the phone at the city hall in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, said there was still a lot of stuff in the trees around there--plastic, paper, clothes. Bill and Tim and I all had some free time in August. We decided to take a road trip to the Mississippi, snagging any bags we saw along the way.

We loaded the snagger and poles into Bill's Taurus wagon and hit the highways in full bag-snagging fever. Bill drove; I scanned the roadside trees. (Tim, who had some last-minute work, would fly out to join us later.) Periodically we pulled over at rest areas and truck stops to check the trees there. We saw no bags, no bags, and more no bags. Bill was braking in high-speed traffic for bag sightings that turned out to be patches of yellow leaves or tent-caterpillar webs. In 1,059 miles between the Holland Tunnel and the Mississippi River, we snagged exactly three plastic bags. One was a classic white bag with handles, such as Korean markets use--perhaps the most common of tree bags, we call it the undershirt bag--in an elm beside the westbound lane of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the middle of the state. One was a Superior Ice Company bag in a honey locust on Highway 231 in rural Indiana; on the bottom of the bag it said, enigmatically, IS ONE ENOUGH? The third was a standard black plastic leaf bag in an ash beside Highway 50 in Illinois. As we crossed the Mississippi at Chester, Illinois, we were wondering whether bags in trees might turn out to be just a New York phenomenon. Then, in the cottonwoods along the Missouri shore, we saw it: plastic sheeting, reams of it, scrolls of it, exploded strands of it; filmy strips of plastic strewn and draped among the trees, dangling and drooping and corkscrewing around the trunks as if left by a welcoming committee just for us. A side benefit of being able to take stuff out of trees is that objects that would be eyesores to most people represent challenge and delight for us. We shouted for joy.

We spent about a week along the middle Mississippi, mostly in the broad floodplain on the Missouri side. The year before, parts of the plain had been under 50 feet of water. Here, as in New York, our main quarry was bags, but here they were sandbags. Sandbags are made of coarse-woven nylon sewn with heavy thread. During the flood, more than a million were used in the defense of Ste. Genevieve alone. Broken open, emptied, in colors of olive drab and soot black and khaki and beige and linen white and banana yellow, fraying sandbags flew from the branches of trees like stateless flags. We snagged them by the score. We found more trot lines, floats, and cane fishing poles than you're likely to see in trees in New York; also more tugboat hawsers. The Mississippi is stronger than the average New York gust of wind, and the objects it deposits in trees are bigger--milk crates, pallets, coolers, a sawhorse, a shopping cart, 65 feet of garden hose, a small room. Just downstream from the Ste. Genevieve ferry landing I found a tractor-tire inner tube well up in a cottonwood. After a lot of cutting and wrangling, I yanked the monster free, and I carried it out slung over my shoulder on a section of the pole. A man who had been fishing along the river was driving out on the field. He saw me in his rearview mirror, hit the brakes, and backed up. He was red-faced, with a rooster-comb of white hair and a potbelly. He leaned over to the open window: "What kind of a catch do you call that?"

"You call that a river rubber," I said.

"A river rubber," he repeated slowly, considering it. "What do you do with it?"

"Well, you can eat 'em, but you have to soak 'em a really long time."

"I imagine you do," he said. ''I imagine they'd be kind of stretchy and tough."

The river is as muddy as advertised, and all business. The breeze carries the smell of diesel exhaust and fresh paint. Tugboats push coal barges rafted together five across and five deep, a piece of horizon that approaches, fills the landscape, and throbbingly recedes. Local people do not swim in the river or water-ski in it. When we asked a waitress at the Anvil Restaurant in Ste. Genevieve why, she said, "Are you for real? It's gross!" They do fish in it. Forked sticks used to hold still-fishing poles line the riverbanks. While we were there, large mayflies were hatching, and fish were popping the surface inshore and well out in the current. I saw an expanse of back rise silently out of the water, followed by a dorsal fin, followed by more back--the largest fish I've ever seen in fresh water. I asked Bill and Tim whether they'd seen it, and they said they'd only seen the expression on my face. Over the years, the river has writhed so much in its bed around here that people generally don't live right next to it. This means that for long stretches between the fortresslike docks of coal yards and limestone quarries the riverbank still looks much as it did to Mark Twain--except for the occasional banner of drift plastic waving from the trees.

We followed the riverbank on foot for some miles, through groves of hard-used cottonwoods and willows, across flats where the mud was dry on top and squishy and wet underneath, through forests of weeds twice our height laced through with morning glory vines. Most of the bags were on low branches; some were in bushes we could reach by hand. Generally we took everything. Sometimes we stopped to look back at the improvement; trees from which bags have been removed are prettier than trees that never had any to begin with. In a bag-free landscape, imagination can pick its century. The marshy shallows simmered between the river and the levee: Birds sang, herons roared, turtles splashed, insects whirred, wildflowers puckered. The air was like something a dry cleaner would do to a stain when all milder measures had failed. After a while we went back to the car for some maximum air conditioning and John Anderson singing "Seminole Wind" on the tape deck and a quick run to the convenience mart for two 20-ounce Frescas that I drank within seconds of buying.

Many houses on the floodplain are abandoned. The flood left mud up to the second stories; a dead, gray, dried wash of mud also marks barns and trees. Grain silos are crushed and sagging, a school building is a tangle of wreckage under a roof. In what used to be the town of Kaskaskia, Illinois, only a few houses, all of them damaged, remain. Kaskaskia is one of the oldest towns on the river. It was a fur-trading settlement in the seventeenth century, and later a Jesuit mission, an English fort, and the first capital of the state. (A jump of the river in 1881 made Kaskaskia an island that sits closer to the Missouri side, but it is still legally part of Illinois.) The river flooded it in 1844, 1881, and 1973. A new 50-foot levee broke during the high water of July 22, 1993, and water up to 20 feet deep filled the town.

Bill and Tim and I walked on the open lawns by the brick Church of the Immaculate Conception (damaged, but still standing) and the boarded-up two-story colonial brick structure where the state legislature once met. We snagged some high sandbags, a length of red nylon cord, a doll's straw hat, beige plastic sheeting, and a catastrophe of a disintegrated black plastic tarpaulin--the last from an immense Missouri elm. Nearby, a shirtless man rolled a ride-around mower from a pickup bed and started the engine. We walked over to talk to him. He was mowing the strip that would have been his side lawn, if he still had a house there. He told us that his name was Robert Doza and that the flood had taken the house, which had been in the family since 1957, and a two-car garage with a Pontiac inside. He had a broad, tan, soft face with rueful lines around the eyes. The house had been all paid for, he said. When the water was deep, he'd come over to the house in a barge and stood on his roof and piled it with sandbags in an attempt to keep the house from floating away. He'd sawed off the side porch with a chainsaw and tied the porch, the garage, and the house to tall trees. He showed us the ropes still hanging from cottonwoods nearby. But storms had come, and waves had beaten the roof to pieces, and the water had twisted and wrung the house so badly that when he'd found it afterward in the neighbor's yard there wasn't even any lumber he could salvage. He said that unfortunately he had let his flood insurance lapse just before the flood--missed his renewal deadline by just ten hours, and State Farm wouldn't bend an inch. He said he knew it was his fault. He tried to return to the house after the levee had broken and the water had started to rise, he said. He took his four-wheel-drive ATV and put a life jacket on it and on himself and drove toward Kaskaskia, along the levee and on back roads, keeping to the high ground. In a few places the current was so strong over the road that he almost got washed away. He reached his driveway finally and tried to hook a little trailer to the ATV, but had to give up because the water was too deep. He said, "I thought if I could get the trailer hooked up, maybe I could at least save some clothes..." He looked away; his eyes teared; he turned both his lips into his mouth and pressed them together.

We drove as far north as St. Louis and as far south as Cape Girardeau, Missouri, looking for stuff in trees--or, often, just looking for the river itself. Roads don't go very near the river, usually. You can hunt for the river a long time in a car without catching a glimpse of it, and then suddenly you turn down a side road, come around a corner, and the wide brown bulk of it lunges at you like something out of a closet. Sometimes a side road leads you to a place on the river that used to be a steamboat landing. At a spot once known as Brickey's Landing, about ten river miles north of Ste. Genevieve, we found an abandoned inn from the last century and some foundations and structures of rusted iron. The channel swung conveniently near a sound limestone bank; from the falling-down porch along the inn's front you could see a long way across the river and upstream. The place was a nineteenth-century version of a rest stop on the highway. Mud in the inn's upstairs showed that it had been underwater for some time. There was a lot of plastic in the trees, and we spent a while with the snagger taking it out.

A badger-shaped man with a drooping mustache and a muscle shirt that said PETER FRAMPTON ON TOUR was digging in a midden just below the inn. In one hand he had a long, narrow trowel and in the other the butt section of a two-piece fishing rod, which he used to poke through the dirt. He said that after the flood, the eddy there had left so much stuff that he would have needed a U-Haul to carry it all away. He told us that he had once found the trigger mechanism from an old flintlock rifle at this spot, that he was a butcher, that he liked to read Hermann Hesse, that someone had swiped an arrowhead collection he'd spent 12 years building up, that he came out here to get away from his troubles, and that he was fucked up in the head over women. He said that after the flood he had found a 250-pound drift log here and had carried it out and dumped it in the front yard of a woman who had recently broken up with him--"a lot of work, actually, but it was good for me."

Often the only way to follow the river was by driving on the levees. Some levees are paved with a single lane of crushed limestone; rolling along it, a car is at the same height as an elevated train. You can look down into the rows of corn filing past, and through second-story windows of farmhouses on the inland side. Mourning doves and pigeons sometimes flush from the levee's sides as you approach, and rise from beneath the car. The land that was flooded is fertile. On one side of the levee are acres of gold-green milo, and dusty green soybeans, and corn tassels reddened by the declining sun. On the other side are cottonwoods, willows, marsh, and river. We scanned both sides with binoculars. Sometimes a scrap of black plastic trash bag on a branch turned into a crow and flew away. In many places, we found nothing at all in the trees--which, when I think about it, is actually good.

On County Road H leading to Belgique, Missouri, we came across the most spectacular stuff-in-trees location ever. It was an elm grove draped in what turned out to be sheets of bubble wrap. We found the remains of a roll of bubble wrap on the ground. Evidently, the full roll had floated into the grove during the flood and then had come undone and trailed itself through the branches as the water went down. It was the kind of wrap with smaller bubbles--"small-curd bubble wrap," Bill called it--and not a bubble was unpopped. We snagged bubble wrap from the elms for much of an afternoon. Teasing a long strand of it from benighted upper branches was a satisfying thing. Sometimes the wrap put up a fight. Tim broke the cutting blade of the snagger in a tussle with it. Finally we subdued the garbage all into about eight large leaf bags.

In former years our enthusiasms have sometimes been of a less constructive sort. For example, we used to get up early on weekend mornings and hit golf balls into the water from the shoreline of lower Manhattan, sometimes ricocheting them off piers, bridge supports, and once a passing ship. We have also golfed in the more regular way, played baseball, fished, and shot guns. Now all we want to do is go bag-snagging. As a companionable outdoor pastime, bag-snagging is ideal. It carries a bit of the willful excitement of vandalism, yet is its opposite. It lets you go places where people would otherwise stop you, lets you participate in the landscape without need for a tee time or a game license. It establishes small pieces of the country--the particular places where you have snagged bags--firmly in your mind. You feel differently about a place once you have snagged there. And when you take a big piece of plastic from a tree, you affect the look of the landscape in a dramatic way. The grove on the road to Belgique is now permanently affixed to my own map. After we had un-bubble-wrapped the elms, we stood around admiring them. The next day we came back to admire them some more. I could have sat among them all day.

Ian Frazier is the author of Great Plains and most recently Family, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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