July 19, 2004

A Clean Shawsheen

by Linda Anderson Krech

Lumber, footwear, shopping carts, and, of course, tires... the Shawsheen River in NE Massachusetts has been home to a lot of junk for a long time. You know how it goes—junk attracts junk, breeding, multiplying, with a magnetic pull for more and more of the same.

But almost 20 years ago, Bob Rauseo, from Tewksbury, MA, appeared on the Shawsheen scene and began to turn the tide and break the momentum of junk. Bob and volunteers from the Shawsheen River Watershed Environmental Action Team (SWEAT) have been dragging, lifting, carrying, sorting, and hauling out whatever does not belong there, on weekends, evenings, or whenever they can find the time.

During the first few years, the cleanup efforts were few and far between. But in the early '90's the community's efforts increased significantly, and even included the help of some local scuba divers. For several years the group had access to dumpsters, which provided a free and simple manner of disposal for the trash. But access to the dumpsters ended a few years ago and that meant a whole new dimension of involvement for the volunteers. They needed to start sorting it all out, piece by piece, and then they needed to start (are you ready?) paying out of their own pockets to get rid of it. Paying to get rid of other people's garbage. Hard to imagine? It just makes sense to Bob.

"If I spend $70 on cleaning up the river, many people think it's such a big deal. But if I spend $70 to play 18 holes of golf, no one would blink an eye." And Bob's point is well taken. We tend to think about work and play as separate animals altogether. To spend one's leisure time hauling trash from a river does not fit with the common image of recreation or hobby. But what makes work and play so distinguishable? Is play pure fun? For even the most avid gardener, there can be scorching heat, black flies and mosquitos, disappointments, frustrations, and sore muscles. For Bob this hobby makes sense. He loves canoeing and rivers, the beauty and fresh air, the sun and the shade, the exercise, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and the sense of camaraderie. One of the main differences between this and serious gardening, for example, is that there are no visible, tangible improvements in Bob's own life. His yard looks the same and he has nothing to actually show for his time and efforts. Just that the river is running healthier and freer.

Finding homes for all of the trash is a challenge all its own. "Small tires go to one place, large tires go to another, glass, metal, lumber, appliances... it takes a lot more time and a lot more money to get it all sorted, but it's the only way we can do it now. And it is more ecologically sound." Bob, formerly the Residential Director of Riverside School in Lowell, MA, has found a creative way to dispose of certain things. For example, the lumber that is dredged up is first dropped off at the school so that some of the boys can work on it for their community service project. They pull out all nails from the wood. Then it is loaded up again and donated to the boy's camp, where it is stored for firewood.

"When I was a kid we were taught not to litter. It was a big deal—the message came through loud and clear and we got it." But it seems that littering has made a comeback. The flow of bottles, cans and convenience food wrappers is steady and strong, according to Bob, with no sign of letting up. Fortunately he is not a quitter. It strikes me that what Bob is doing is noble. Of course he enjoys what he is doing in many ways, but he is not the primary beneficiary of his efforts. The river is, and the river belongs to all of us. Thanks, Bob.

Linda Anderson Krech is a staff member at ToDo Institute.

Posted on July 19, 2004 9:37 PM
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