Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Being picky

Elite SWAT litter picking team (Shall We All Try?)

Try organising a litter picking session in my home town in England and you risk being branded a 'do gooder,' which is a somewhat confusing insult when you think about it. Go on, think about it. Group and community activity is one of the things that suffers in urban life - possibly because anonymity and keeping yourself to yourself is one of the freedoms of being in a city. All being well, the city dweller has their own network, based on work or a shared interest, that creates a virtual village, albeit geographically scattered.

It has its major fairground attractions, but the price of living a door-to-car existence and not knowing your neighbours can also be a kind of brittle loneliness and a disconnectedness from the ground beneath your feet. Who do you know better? People on television, or your neighbours?  You can't ask Brad Pitt to feed the cat while you are away, and Jennifer Aniston is unlikely to attend your birthday barbeque. And that sofa dumped on the corner and the litter blowing around the street? Probably the council will see to it. Probably. Someone else, anyway.

In Kaneyama-machi today was litter-picking day. The area is divided into villages, and the villages into 'hans,' small sections responsible for their own patch. News of this kind travels fast (without the help of the internet) via an information clipboard which is read then handed on to the next house, and a village newsletter. Just to make sure, an announcement system  echoes round the mountains, chiming at 6am, 12 noon, and 9pm, and adds news of festivals, fire, flood and bear sightings, filling in any gaps. There is also a thriving grapevine. When we first arrived last year, I went for a run at lunchtime. When my wife phoned her mum 250km away in Tokyo at 4pm that day, she already knew. Running in the rain is big news, apparently, and anonymity is assuredly not assured. They are installing a fibre-optic high speed internet cable this year, but I'm not sure it will speed things up that much. Old style analogue valley-wide-web-cams have a thousand eyes and five hundred mouths.

At 5.45am everyone gathers at their village hall, then splits off to deal with their patch. At first I thought there couldn't be much to find. It is a small village and everyone here is pretty tidy, but we all managed to pick up enough to fill a bag, mainly with cans and bottles chucked out by passing motorists, the dirty gits. As funny as the contradictory need for both privacy and community is the droll love of seeking out beautiful places, then despoiling them in a casual, trivial, unconscious sort of way. The window winds down, the hand extends, the coffee can arcs outwards, and is forgotten before it hits the ground. Is the countryside the unconscious of the city? Errmmm, excuse me, hello....does this belong to you?

For myself, I am enjoying knowing my neighbours a little better. In our little group were the grandfather of a boy my son plays with, the grandmother from the house behind ours whose granddaughter plays too, the husband of the woman who runs the shop (related to my wife in some complicated way), the mayor's wife (spotted shovelling snow off their high roof in the winter), the woman from across the road (spotted high up a tree hacking at a branch - a theme is developing), my next door neighbour who took me to gather wild vegetables last year, and two ladies it will be much easier to get to know now that I met them doing this. While I am being picky, I will pick this. I can always go to the city to behave badly.


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