The Nuisance Grounds

“WELCOME TO OUR NUISANCE GROUNDS”, as Margaret Laurence, writer of The Diviners, aptly named that hidden place where garbage is tossed, shoveled, moved around and buried.

Photo Credit: D'Arcy Norman 2009 Spy Hill Landfill

Photo Credit: D’Arcy Norman 2009 Spy Hill Landfill


There is no judgment in writing this piece because I contribute generously, as well, to the dump (now, politically-labeled the landfill), it’s just that every spring, I seem to churn the soil and dig our communal secrets up again. They present themselves on the surface in the form of litter.  The story of winter refuse surrounds us.  We drive by it, step over it, complain about it and then wait for someone else to pick it up.

I met a homeless gentleman named Frank, three years ago, when I started picking up litter at a location where I walked my dog, Max, daily (still do).  Frank was one of five people who thanked me during that period of time.  I had been picking up a full heaping bag of litter every day for three months and he would sit and drink a beer, roosting on one of the slopes, gazing over the whole of the pond at the center of the flats.  He would place his beer can in a a plastic grocery bag and tuck it under a tree and after the sixth day, his neatly tied package would be offered up for pennies, nickles and dimes.  He said good-bye to me on his last day, after months of watching me pick.  He was heading for Vancouver for the winter and he thanked me for ‘making the place look good’.  I told him that the place was going to be named after him, Frank’s Flats.  The name has stuck.

A jogger thanked me.  She put down her plastic water bottle while doing her laps around the pond and asked if I would please not throw it away.  She told me that she would be picking it up after her run.  She said that the place looked great, because of me.

A man, getting up in years, thanked me.  He was walking his old pooch on the trail.  He asked, “You’re not from the city, are you?”  I said…”I live here. I’m a teacher.”  He thanked me.

A high school student thanked me.  A couple had been sitting on a bench that over looks the pond.  It was after school and they were curled up and smooching.  As I approached, they reorganized themselves and while I picked up plastic slurpee cups and chip bags and straws and fast food packages, they observed.  As I stepped past their bench, the boy called out, “Heh, thank you.”

Debbie thanked me.  She even told me that when she walked her dog, Rosie, she was going to start bringing a little bag with her and do the same.  This was such a warm and wonderful offering, one of the best things that happened to me that first spring and summer.

And so it went…for three months; I was observed by many and because I was observed so closely, I became interested in reactions and fascinated by the isolation that became  my experience.  User group members of the facilities above the flats and my encounters with them became a social experiment.  I became fascinated in the huge chasm that came between me and ‘the others’, more than the distance between two complete strangers…bigger than that!

To this day,  when I pick garbage, it’s as though I become invisible.  I am, all of a sudden, from a different social status.  If I was a city worker, I would be given higher status.  But, I am not a city worker.  That’s why I began thinking that the ‘garbage man’ must fit into one of Carl Jung’s archetypes, most likely a part of ‘the Shadow’.

There are all kinds of volunteers operating in the City of Calgary, picking up that packaging and advertisement that we unleash on to the wind, not giving a care about where it all blows, as long as it’s out of our sight.  If my readers are familiar with Christie in Laurence’s The Diviners or Mr. Jonas, the junkman in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, you will realize the greater archetype that lives with the ‘garbage man’ or even the ‘janitor’, now labeled a caretaker.  Below, a spark note excerpt about Mr. Jonas, Chapter 35, Dandelion Wine.

“Mr. Jonas, the junkman, comes into town with his horse Ned and his wagon. He sings as he rides, and people line the streets to look at his goods. No ordinary junkman, Mr. Jonas had lived as a businessman in Chicago but decided to spend the rest of his life making sure that one area of town got a chance to take what the other side considered junk. He traveled through the town and only asked that people took something that they truly wanted, something they would use. Then the adults of children would put something of their own that they no longer had any use for in the wagon, and Mr. Jonas would be on his way, singing.”

From Christie, in The Diviners,

“By their garbage shall ye know them,”…The ones who have to wrap the rye bottles in old newspapers to try to hide the fact that there are so goddamn many of them. The ones who have fourteen thousand pill bottles the week, now. The ones who will be chucking out the family albums the moment the grandmother goes to her ancestors. The ones who’re afraid to flush the safes down the john, them with flush johns, in case it plugs the plumbing and Melrose Maclaren has to come and get it unstuck and might see, as if Mel would give the hundredth part of a damn. I tell you, girl, they’re close as clams and twice as brainless. I see what they throw out, and I don’t care a shit, but they think I do, so that’s why they cannot look at me….”

Similarly, Father Kevin Tumback used to tell a story on Ash Wednesday about a Rag Man…a metaphor for Jesus who traded parts of himself for the wounded parts of others.

I was just thinking, as another season of litter-picking faces the volunteers in our Calgary communities, it would be an awesome thing if we all became a bit more conscious…aware of our communications with those who are picking up our communal waste.  It would be a wondrous thing if the ‘garbage men’ were valued and appreciated.  It would also be a spectacular thing if we elevated ourselves as a collective, more conscious consumers, more attentive stewards.

You are welcome to join me at Frank’s Flats.  You only need to bring gloves.  Be in touch.

May 10, 2014 Frank's Flats

May 10, 2014 Frank’s Flats

May 16, 2014

May 16, 2014


Amazed about the orange bag filled with litter…someone else picked today!

P1160719 P1160775


Changing the Landscape: One Bag at a Time

Corey, paid by the City of Calgary to pick up other people's garbage.

Corey, paid by the City of Calgary to pick up other people’s garbage.


This area has been cleaned up from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.


There’s always some interesting trash fanning out on the flats.


Thanks to my cousin-sister-friend, I have Haida Gwaii rubber boots!


One Bag: May 1, 2013


Arch, of the City of Calgary crew.

Justin, responsible for city parks on the south end of the city, sent a crew out to work at Frank’s Flats and so I met them there.  Winter has left a mountain of litter down at the Flat’s, a very sad thing after all of the work I did to maintain the situation last year.  It was a joy to listen to the crew members talking about their concerns about plastics and those sorts of topics, while they worked.  I feel strongly that if citizens do not wish to take any responsibility for the sort of mess that is accumulating EVERYWHERE, then their taxes need to pay other people to take care of the clean-up.  I don’t believe that working a limited number of volunteers in a limited number of situations is the answer.  This changes NOTHING about the consciousness of the individuals who are routinely irresponsible.

I watched a dog owner stand in the parking lot today and watch his brown lab go down into the Flats to do its business.  When I asked him if he was going to go down and pick it up, he called his dog, put him in his vehicle and drove off.  This is what I’m talking about.  In fact, here is a photograph from one big clean-up at the Southland dog park.  This is despicable!  The sad thing is that by the time this clean-up is done at Frank’s Flats, there will be the same amount of human waste piled high…only it will be primarily plastics and paper products.  What variables have contributed to the creation of such an ‘entitled’ society?

January 1 Off Leash Poop Pick Up

January 1 Off Leash Poop Pick Up

Changing the Landscape: One Clear Bag At a Time

March 25, 2012 12:00 p.m. Weather: -3 degrees/fog and snow, both.  I decided to hit the east slope of the park that edges on the mall and retail businesses.  It’s interesting how the findings change…many flyers, receipts and different sorts of snack packaging, mostly McDonalds.  I also found all sorts of foam products: appliance packing liners, foam packing peanuts and that sort of thing.

Flyers! A Problem With Advertisement!

This past week, Rick Harrow of the City of Calgary, delivered a box of 250 clear bags to my door, as well as a litter picker.  This was a genuine way to show appreciation and I am glad for what seems to be, an endless supply!  I felt more optimistic, (or rather, realistic) today.

More Plastic!

The Gospel reading for this Sunday was the story of Lazarus and in some way, I felt as though I was resurrecting a wee piece of land as I pulled the discards out of the tall grass and from under the trees.

The gulls have returned to the pond.  I noticed them yesterday as well.  This is a sign that spring is near.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. Stephen King

The Bag is Filled: Time to Put My Feet Up and Gaze Upon the Difference

Changing the Landscape: One Bag At a Time

March 24, 2012 1:30 p.m. 4 degrees intermittent cloud

I didn’t even want to go out today to pick up other people’s garbage.  What do people care anyway?  Out of some sort of self-discipline, I went ahead.  I didn’t feel enthusiasm, but did it out of care for the birds who will be soon nesting in the area and other wildlife.  Driving through the construction zone for the new Deerfooot expansion, I kept in mind how wildlife is already being crowded out by our consumerism and our development.  This is the least I can do.

March 24, 2012 Any given day, I pick up at least 20 Tim Hortons cups, with plastic lids.

After picking, I took my stacks of over 23 Tim Hortons cups to the store, neighbouring the park.  I left my stack in the van, but went in to explore this franchise’s alignment with their own sustainability report.  I found one small sign that encourages people to bring in their travel mugs and save ten cents on their cup of coffee.  I was lucky to find both the manager and the owner, willing to speak with me.  It was a sensible conversation.  The owner listened to what I had to say about the sustainability report and the goal to reduce packaging by 5% every year for the past three years.  He heard what I had to say about implementing a deposit program for returned cups. (I could get rich on a program like this.)  He heard what I had to say about the need for a recycling program that guarantees the scrubbing out of the poly lining and that these cups should NOT be landing in our landfills.  He told me that there would be some follow-up in terms of his input at a future meeting with his fellow business people.  I’m going to hold him to this.

Lattes! The Highschool Market!

Off of the Tim Hortons website….

At Tim Hortons, we are aware of the environmental impacts of our packaging and waste materials. We are attempting to deal with the litter issue in a variety of ways:

  • We have anti-litter messages on all of our packaging items, including a “Do Not Litter” message on all of our take-out cups. Sadly, many people do not pay attention to these messages but we continue to work with other members of our industry to tackle the litter problem in a meaningful and effective way.
  • To ensure a clean community many Tim Hortons restaurants sponsor local clean up events and activities in their communities.
  • We have waste reduction strategies to try and combat litter from its source. Tim Hortons is one of the few quick service restaurants to offer china mugs, plates and bowls to guests eating in our restaurants. This helps to reduce paper waste being created in the first place.
  • All Tim Hortons restaurants sell reusable Tim Mugs. And while a Tim Mug may not be a practical solution for all guests it does provide a good alternative. The incentive for purchasing a Tim Mug is that the first coffee is free (coupon included inside the Tim Travel Mug) and each refill gets a 10 cent discount (hot beverage discount applies to any travel mug fill).

I’m also really wondering about the burned pages of this particular book…every day for more than a month I have trashed these. 

As I pick up other people’s garbage (for example, I found Coach Harvie’s notebook, ripped and soaked on the edge of the park today…) I think about the garbage collectors written into several of my favourite novels.  I’m going to write a separate post about that some time in the future.

Frank’s Flats: One Bag at a Time

March 3, 2012 12:30 p.m. Blue sky, with bright puffs of white cloud.  11 degrees and very blustery wind.  Today’s finds were primarily plastic bags of every size and variety.  I filled the bag quickly on the first hill because I wanted to drop it to the bin and get on with a good off-leash with Max.  It doesn’t take long to fill a bag with trash at this location.  This makes me very sad.

Day Five

Blue Skies

I felt discouraged as I passed so much garbage along the way.  I wondered if I could possibly make an impact?  One person…one bag at a time.

Long Shadows

When Max and I were heading home, we came around the edge of some trees and bumped into Frank, who was the witness to our project today.  Frank says that this is his special place in the world and that he comes here often to sit and observe the world. The place, he says, is called Frank’s Flats.  I smiled and was glad to know that someone likes the place as much as I do. Frank had the day off and so was sitting in the bright sun, sipping on a beer.  He took this close-up of Max and I.

Max and Me: Windy Day March 3, 2012

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. Gustave Flaubert

Experiencing My Landscape: One Bag at a Time

March 1, 2012 4:30-5:30 p.m. Weather -3 degrees, completely white sky, although for a short while the sun was visible, soft and white behind thick cloud, eventually, it had no chance.  It disappeared.  The coolest thing was the silhouette of a grey blue aircraft flying past its brightness.  We met no one on our walk today.  In the end, I collected from one section of the hill, placed the bag in the bin and then went exploring, empty-handed.

Findings: MUCH insulation, plastic, two Tim Horton's cups with lids, plastic sandwich bags, 2 cardboard boxes


Nothing Much Has Changed at the Bin

Max Waits Patiently as I Pick Garbage

Something is Wrong With This Picture!


Something is Wrong With This Picture!


...and this one.


...and this.


It is Your Landscape