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

Frank's FlatsIt’s official.  The City of Calgary has determined that Frank’s Flats, this year, is city parkland and I now have their support with the crud that mounts up at the location due to the user groups that are just a little irresponsible!  Yeah!  Justin Brown assured me that I would have help with the spring clean-up and he followed through, sending out a team that scoured the slopes, much quicker than I could possibly do ONE BAG AT A TIME.  So, now it is for me to maintain the park and hopefully solicit some support from other like-minded individuals in the area.

Nature is at its finest in this area, even when it is filthy.  The ground squirrels pull the plastics into their nests, not comprehending that this is human waste; but they adapt to the function of such plastics and paper.  Even on the nesting platform being used by Osprey, there is a huge piece of plastic that bats in the wind.  I am amused watching the activity on this platform and watched the grand predator try for over an hour to chase a Canadian goose off of the platform.  When I left the park that evening, the goose was continuing to fight for the nest in the sky, neck outstretched at each nose dive from the beautiful falcon.  This went well into the next day, but finally two days later, the goose had succumbed to the stubborn bird.  Please see fantastic images capturing this event on the Birds Calgary blog.  Now it is fun to watch the male bringing home the catch of the day routinely.

As sun was setting one evening, I watched six white swans fly overhead.  The muskrats are back and ducks of every variety are nesting.  A coyote who was guarding a spot under  the evergreens has finally disappeared, likely pressured out by all of the human presence and back onto the wilderness corridor on the other side of the fence.

Frank’s Flats is a beautiful spot for nature lovers to watch wildlife at its best.  I want this place to be safe and solicit the continued support of the City of Calgary, Bishop O’Byrne high school, South Fish Creek Recreational Center, Shawnessy Library and the various retail stores (Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Tim Hortons, Wendy’s, Jugo Juice) in the stewardship of this land.

I encourage my readers to take some responsibility for stewardship of your own surroundings.  Teach your children by being a living example of how to care for other species.


The Gyre

gyre [dʒaɪə] Chiefly literary


1. a circular or spiral movement or path
2. a ring, circle, or spiral


(intr)to whirl

[from Latin gȳrus circle, from Greek guros]
I went back to the location where, for three months or more, I picked up a bag of trash a day; mostly plastics and fast food containers.  While drinking my coffee this morning, I spent time watching a couple of TED talks.  They got me wondering about the landscape that I had tended.

After listening to the artist, Dianna Cohen, I then moved on to Capt. Charles Moore.  By the time I had finished these two films, I became determined to make a conscientious effort to minimize my consumption of plastic even though the globe is deeply entrenched in its production, use and thoughtless discard.

Unfortunately, when I went back to Frank’s Flats, an idyllic place for many ecosystems and a harbour for waterfowl, I found so much plastic and waste that it brought me to tears.  I just find our community so detached from its actions.  I don’t really know what steps I can take to contribute to a change.  I pick up one bag of garbage every time I visit this special location.  It is a piece of land that I hold dear.


Changing the Landscape: One Bag At a Time

Highschool Slope

April 13, 2012 5:00 p.m. Weather: Warm…no wind…melting…snowy patches.  The snow melted, so Max and I headed out for Frank’s Flats.  It seems that I’m on maintenance process now…clearing up the daily litter of the folk who use the park.  There’s much to be done right along the edge of the pond, but the work is going to be so tedious.  I need hip waders AND a good rake.  Any one able to donate hip waders?   I picked up over forty plastic straws at the location photographed above.  I continue to be nervous about the red ants on this slope, after suffering from their bites for an entire week during this process.  I think the hip waders might be a requirement here, as well. 

I have received electronic mail from a representative of Home Depot’s CEO in Atlanta, Georgia.  Apparently they are looking into the status of the Shawnessy store and the surrounding land.  Likely they are trying to assign jurisdiction and responsibility on the city…if so, that will be annoying because they will be missing my point about stewardship.  I will be hearing from Patricia on Monday.  Looking forward to that discussion and moving ahead with clearing the site of  such outrageous litter.

It was a Straw Day...hardly filling a third of a bag. What a change in the park!


This evening, at the Palace Theater, here in Calgary, there is a viewing of the new documentary, 40 Days At Base Camp produced by Dianne Whelan.  Apparently, it is very powerful and captures the intensity of the human waste that is left strewn across this sacred terrain and what some very brave individuals have been attempting, in order to clean it up!

Changing the Landscape: One Bag At a Time

April 11, 2012 12:00 p.m. Weather: 13 degrees, windy, intermittent cloud/sunshine  Findings: I focused on cleaning up the flats of plastics again, then, up against the fence and a walk around the perimeter of the pond.  It takes much patience to pick up the straws and bottle caps.  I notice that the plastics around the water actually break down into smaller and smaller bits.  These make the picking difficult.  Time to bring in a rake.

April 11, 2012

I spoke to Eric this afternoon.  He is part of a landscaping company that is sub-contracted to sweep and clean up the litter on Home Depot’s frontage.  It’s interesting that for image-sake, the company pays someone else to make them ‘look good’.  Where the garbage is heaped up out of view of the customers, nothing is done.  “Oh”, Eric said, “that is city property, we’re told.”  I am looking forward to working with Home Depot’s team, taking on the stewardship of this grand MESS!

Eric cleaning up the Blvd. When I spoke to him, he said…”This is no easy job.”

The Home Depot Value System as Presented on the Company Website

1. Taking care of our people:

The key to our success is treating people well. We do this by encouraging associates to speak up and take risks, by recognizing and rewarding good performance and by leading and developing people so they may grow.

2. Giving back to our communities:

An important part of the fabric of The Home Depot is giving our time, talents, energy and resources to worthwhile causes in our communities and society.

3. Doing the right thing:

We exercise good judgment by “doing the right thing” instead of just “doing things right”. We strive to understand the impact of our decisions, and we accept responsibility for our actions.

4. Excellent customer service:

Along with our quality products, service, price and selection, we must go the extra mile to give customers knowledgeable advice about merchandise and to help them use those products to their maximum benefit.

5. Creating shareholder value:

The investors who provide the capital necessary to allow our company to grow need and expect a return on their investment. We are committed to providing it.

6. Building strong relationships:

Strong relationships are built on trust, honesty and integrity. We listen and respond to the needs of customers, associates, communities and vendors, treating them as partners.

7. Entrepreneurial spirit:

The Home Depot associates are encouraged to initiate creative and innovative ways of serving our customers and improving the business and to spread best practices throughout the company.

8. Respect for all people:

In order to remain successful, our associates must work in an environment of mutual respect, free of discrimination and harassment where each associate is regarded as part of The Home Depot team.

Changing the Landscape: One Bag At a Time

March 31, 2012

This is the first day since my Lenten journey began that I haven’t been outside, changing the landscape, one bag at a time.  I decided that today I would head out into nature, the way most people do…with the intent of taking it all in; no garbage bag…no rubber gloves, no rubber boots.  It was a glorious day outdoors at 12 degrees, although the last couple of hours it has looked as though the clouds are stirring some weather up.

At two o’clock this afternoon, I had a meeting with Tim Coldwell, Chandos Vice President of Corporate Accounts and his wife.  We spoke informally over a coffee, about the project, my findings during the project and the nature of the solutions that will be offered.  I really appreciated Tim’s accountability on behalf of Chandos and their handling of the South Fish Creek Recreational Association, specific to the clean up.


Prior to meeting with me,  Tim took a walk around the site that has been primarily cleared during this stewardship journey of mine.

I brought along a brief, explaining the points on the Chandos website that I most admired and wondered about, along with a few photographs from my archives of the project.  I’d like to post a couple of the vision statements here.

Under Communities

In the communities where we do business our people keep us connected. We support the passions of our people with corporate donations to the charitable causes that our employees and friends are involved in. With this approach, we contribute to the communities that create our business opportunities.

Under Sustainability

Like the spaces we construct, we are an organization built to last. Our planning, decisions and daily actions are all guided by the notion that we are here for the long term. This sense of corporate social responsibility has resulted in our position as the green building contractor of choice – these are just two examples.

We built the first LEED® buildings in the prairies and have developed award-winning expertise in construction waste diversion. Where others saw a financial burden, we saw an opportunity to demonstrate leadership by diverting construction waste at no incremental cost – now standard on all projects. Last year alone we diverted more than 300 train cars of waste from landfills.

Tim flipped over the paperwork that I had prepared and began to draw a map of the area where I have been picking litter.  His map was a good one and he made reference to the slope that has recently been frustrating me.  Since clearing all the large pieces of foam, insulation,  and industrial packaging, there now remain countless wee pieces that will require raking or they WILL end up in the pond and have impact on the environment.  He has agreed that I won’t have to clean these up.

A series of events will now take place as a follow up to the meeting.

1. A team will be established to go out sometime within the next week or two, to rake and clean up the remaining small, but countless items on the slope and the flats that edge the asphalt.

2. The large and obvious items that remain, edging the pond and the fencing will be cleared away.

3. When the ice melts, one or more Chandos employees will bear hip waders/rubber boots and clean out the remaining industrial garbage from the job site.

4. Tim and I will follow up with an inspection of the area before landscaping is pursued.

5. A case study may be developed based on this site by Chandos sustainability department in Edmonton…a study that might convey the importance of environmental issues to every extent for the sake of employee training, specific to expectations.   Words from their website

Put yourself in your client’s shoes. Ask yourself what they expect and what they appreciate. Think about how the small details can make a big difference in the lives of those you serve. Engage Chandos today for industry insight, recent achievements, issue analysis and more.

6. Tim has approved a contribution to the charity of my choice, a cheque for $1,000.00 to St. Albert the Great Parish, earmarked for our recent drive to support the Feed the Hungry Program.  At 1.97 per meal, this means that Chandos will provide 500 meals for one Feed the Hungry event.  I am most grateful for this contribution.

I felt that the hard work of these past many days has been rewarded through Tim’s authentic listening and the willingness to set in place, appropriate action…action for a better community and a healthier environment.  The culture of the landscape is many-layered and many-faceted.  High school students need to be better stewards, busy or not and teachers and administrators need to encourage this.  Sports facility users need to walk to their garbage/recycle bins and take a degree of pride in the sports center that is now theirs.  South Fish Creek Recreational Association needs to take a stance of pro-active control wherever possible, rather than a stance of defeat.  This is NOT an insurmountable problem.  The landscape CAN be changed, one bag at a time.  The retail stores…Home Depot and Wal-Mart need to look in their back yards.  It’s a disgrace!  Time to take responsibility for each wee piece of land and not wait for someone else to do it!

From Chandos…

Changing the Landscape: One Bag At a Time

March 9, 2012 3:30 p.m. 13 degrees and VERY windy!  Findings: Plastic bags from every business in the surrounding area.  No witnesses to today’s journey, but I got a photo of my springtime footwear, rubber boots.

Necessary Equipment For This Job :0)

Some hockey parents were putting back beers in the parking lot as I left.  They had better darned well pick up their beer cans!

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. Elmore Leonard

The Melt is On!