For the sake of this story, we’re going to call my friend Jane, and Jane is the current manager of a northern Indiana state park.
That is literally as specific as she wants me to get.
I had sounded her for stories a couple months ago and she immediately replied that she had a perfect one for our site. Now I’ve finally gotten around to it. She asked that I keep her anonymous since state governments are not crazy about employees making unapproved public statement. But she’s 100% real, all right.
“Finally got around to do this story, huh?” she asked.
“I know, I know. I’ve had a pretty nasty backlog of–”
“It’s fine.” She waved me off and then nodded toward a two-gallon gas can. “Grab that, would ya?”
Like most park managers I’ve met, she’s perfunctory in almost everything. Park managers are like ship captains, and those that enjoy the job never want to be promoted out of it to become “admirals” (think Captain Kirk in Star Trek II, III and IV). Usually friendly and at-ease, she’s more used to making commands than conversation.
I handed her the can. She gave it a quick shake and then dumped some in the park’s Stihl weed whacker. The barn filled with the slippery smell of two-cycle gas. She primed it, flicked the choke and then gave it a tug. It roared to life. The brush cutting blades rotated into a yellow blur. After a minute she killed the engine, returning the weed whacker to its wall hooks.
“New carburetor,” she said. “Got some time now. How ‘bout a drive?” she asked-but-didn’t-ask. She was already hopping in the park’s Gator, transferring a dusty bag of tools from the passenger seat to the back.
Jane whipped the Gator out of the barn and then railed it down a trail into the park proper. Like most Indiana state parks, it was well-maintained but suffered from the perpetual shaggy grass syndrome that comes in the summers. With a skeletal staff, aging equipment and hundreds of acres to mow, it’s almost impossible to keep the grass neatly-manicured in any public park but the smallest.
But it wasn’t funding she wanted me to write about. Funding issues are an old, tired song.
“Hell of a coincidence, but your timing couldn’t be better. Yesterday I had a bunch of that s—t left on the brickwork by the lake. Then I found another spot this morning just south of the parking lot,” she shouted over the Gator’s diesel drone. “Easy to take pictures of.”
Five minutes later, Jane came to screeching halt by the small lake…which could also be described as a very large pond. Old brickwork lay in twisting paths around the lake, some of it recycled from a storage barn that resided on the property fifty years earlier.
She killed the engine and pointed. “There you go. Take some pictures.”
Parks are popular places to professional photographs, and becoming more popular every year. The old days of studio photos, with carefully-airbrushed complexions and draperies are dying off. People want more interesting backdrops. So they head to the parks. First, it’s free, and a hell of a lot cheaper than renting out a studio. Second, it gives options. There are hundreds of public parks in Indiana alone, enough to suit any occasion or taste.
But more than any factor is the rise of freelance photography. Digital photography and the increasing affordability of photo editing software has made the profession more lucrative and easily-accessible. Virtually anyone who wants to get into photography can. And people are getting photos to mark every occasion. Weddings, engagements, graduation, family photos…you name it, people want their memories documented by a professional eye.
But with this comes gimmicks, and now that high-speed photography has become commonplace (even most high-end smartphones can do it), the latest gimmick involves photo confetti. Inexpensive, easy to customize and memorable, photo confetti can be purchased for any occasion or purpose by the pound and makes for some of the most memorable photographs.
And it’s killing our parks.
“This s–t is getting worse every year. It’s not just me or the state parks. It’s state, county, local, hell the NATIONAL parks too, I’m sure, although they’ve got some rules against it,” Jane said.
She hopped out of the Gator and walked to the brickwork. Covering an area the size of a small living room were plastic white arrows, as small as a pinky nail. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, had been tossed into the air for a photo and them wedged themselves into the cracks between bricks, into the grass and into the dirt.
Jane bent down and picked one up and tucked it into her pocket. She cursed again, but as my article is PG-13, I can’t reproduce what she said.
“I can’t do a damn thing about it. I can’t stop people from taking photos. Even if it were illegal, there’s only ME. I tell them if I see them, but how many people go in and out of the park every day? Can’t sweep it away with a blower or a broom. Forget vacuuming it up. I’ve got a five-gallon wet-vac and I’d be emptying it every five minutes,” she said.
She bent down and picked them up in the most painfully laborious way. By hand. But this only lasted for a minute. And in a full minute, she only picked up about two dozen. These she walked over to the Gator and tossed in a bucket reserved for litter.
“This started about five years ago, but only here and there,” she said. “Maybe ten, twenty times a year. Back then I actually did pick up by hand. Me and the park techs,” Jane said.
Park techs, or park technicians, are the other full-time staff members. Mostly they’re called groundskeepers.
“Part-time kids can help out in the summer with it, but now it’s gotten out of hand. Instead of picking the crap up monthly or even weekly it’s several times a week,” she said.
Feeling guilty, although I had no reason to, I started picking up the tiny arrows. Although made of thick plastic, the glittering arrows kept slipping from my fingers and back into the brickwork. And my back started hurting after only a moment.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Trying to help, I think,” I said.
She shook her head and held out the litter bucket to me. “Don’t bother. It would take you three hours to pick up this mess, another ninety minutes for the other one. Just take your pictures.”
I brushed my hand over the bucket and the arrows fluttered into it.
“I did some rough math. I’d say I come across this twenty times a month, give or take. Twenty is pretty conservative, but I’ll use it. If I averaged two hours every time, and that’s also pretty conservative, that’s forty hours a month spent on picking this crap up. That’s a person’s workweek,” she said.
She turned, holding the litter bucket at her side and walked across the brickwork to the lake’s parking lot. I followed her. Although I wanted to snap pictures of the picturesque lake, which was cool and blue and inviting on the muggy summer day, I didn’t. She had asked that I keep the article, and park, generic.
I could see where our destination even before we left the parking lot. White plastic petals, each the size of a half-dollar, covered about fifty square feet of the picnic area by the parking lot. Although the pieces were larger and easier to pick up, the sheer number of them made the task daunting.
“Can you use the pick sticks with these bigger ones?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. “Too thin. They’d just keep slipping out.”
She got to one knee and started tossing the petals in. “I’m picking these up mostly because you’re here. I decided long ago that I can’t spend the time cleaning these up. I had to make a blanket decision otherwise it would sort of drive me nuts. But we don’t have the time for it because we don’t have the funds. But it bugs the hell out of me, not picking it up,” she said.
“Oh crap, sorry. Take your picture,” she said. “Sorry. Cleaned up a bunch.”
I took my picture.
Parks organization, in almost every setting, doesn’t work like most business organizations. Basically there’s an upside-down flow chart. In the parks, crap rolls uphill, not downhill, and the good park managers end up saving the worst jobs for themselves. It’s just part of the job.
Case in point, watching Jane pick up litter was like watching a skilled carpenter. She picked the petals up with quick, expert fingers, grabbing one, rolling it into her palms, grabbing another and then when she had a small stuck tucked into her hand, tossing it into the litter bucket. Something to see.
“I mean it’s not killing the plants or animals. At least I don’t think so. I’m sure some birds choke on them, but I haven’t seen it. I have seen them work their way into nests though. But it gets into the dirt though and piles up. Take a rake and drag through this grass, you’ll lift up a half-dozen kinds of photo confetti,” she said. “I found one the other day, must have been a graduation picture. From 2015.” She cursed again.
I stood watching her, not sure if I should help or stand there. Instead, I thought of a question to ask.
“What do you want people to do? Call to action and all that.”
At that moment, she let loose a string of curses so colorful that George Carlin might have blushed. Jane wasn’t just pissed, she was livid. She slapped her leg and stood up, leaving the majority of the petals there.
“Every time I catch myself picking it up and then I have to stop. Picking up crap is automatic. But I want people to see it,” she said. She stood back up, slapping her hands on her jeans and walked back to the Gator.
“Did you get your photos?” she asked.
She stopped and whirled on me. “But not of me, right? Or the park? I don’t want to hear about this. And I know a couple supers check out your site,” she said. “They’ll figure out it was me, of course, but it won’t be on record.”
“Plausible deniability,” I said. “One hundred percent.”
“Good deal,” she said.
I started to ask my question again, but she cut me off.
“I know. But I don’t know. How about f—–g STOP. That’s what I want,” She shrugged. “Probably won’t happen. It’s not the fault of the people, I don’t think. Not the families or newlyweds or couples. Or the kids getting graduation photos,” she said. “I hate that blame game s–t, but I guess if I dragged you out here, I need to aim my finger at someone.”
She tossed the litter bucket in the back of the Gator and slouched into the driver’s seat, hands draped over the steering wheel. “The photographers,” she said. “They know better. They buy the confetti, and I am sure there’s biodegradable options out there. If not, there should be. Either use that or don’t use anything. Or pick it up.” She chuckled at that thought.
“One I saw brought out a piece of canvas, like a drop cloth,” Jane said. “Laid it down and tossed it on that. That’s okay. But I’ve only seen one use it. The rest…” She mimed tossing confetti into the air. “Out of sight, out of mind. Think of a nice way to say that. That’s all I’ve got for you.”
“It’s plenty,” I said and when I looked down to tuck my notebook away, I heard the Gator start up and then whine away, shooting over the brick paths and back towards the barn.
Now it was my turn to cuss. It was almost a half-mile to the barn and my car. In ninety degree weather. I started walking.
Five minutes later, she came back on the Gator, smiling sheepishly.