Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
“The one thing I absolutely refuse to pick up is dog shit,” writer and photographer Bradley Maule tells me as we trudge up a steep trail in the snowbound Wissahickon Valley. “That said, I am cataloguing the dog shit. I’ve taken pictures of the dog shit. I file it by whether it’s loose or in a shit-bag.”
“You have different shit categories?” I ask. Maule nods, affirming: “Different shit categories.”
We’ve been hiking through a snow-dusted Wissahickon Valley Park in Northwest Philadelphia for about an hour, on a quest for litter. Maule has been trawling the 1,800 acre park at least twice a week, every week, for the last month and a half as part of a yearlong project he announced on his blog, Philly Skyline, under the heading “One Man’s Trash.” He plans to catalogue, and eventually display, all the trash he collects from the park in 2014. He hopes the collected mass will serve in equal measures as art project, public-service announcement and really, really disgusting trophy.
There’s also a data component, which is how Maule attracted the quiet support of the Department of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Friends of the Wissahickon — he’s plotting the locations of littering “hot spots” he comes across for them. In exchange, Parks and Rec is letting Maule store his collection in an empty shed.
I ask to see this shed.
“All I can say is that it’s in the park,” he says with a bearded smile. “They asked me not to reveal its exact location.”
Wherever it is, it has six recycling bins Maule uses to painstakingly sort each bit of inorganic trash (stuff that can rot or “attract critters” gets tossed) into categories: plastics, metals, clothing, sporting goods and so on. The report on his first week’s haul, posted online: “11 12oz Natural Light beer cans,” “2 bottle caps,” “½ Streets Department sign,” “1 Atlanta Falcons jersey (Michael Vick).”
Maule says on an average hike he easily fills two grocery bags, but today, the snow is making it difficult to find a single piece of trash. After another hour of hiking, submerged in the pristinely frosted trees, we still haven’t found anything. Not that a temporary lack of visible garbage is anything to complain about — the beauty of the Wissahickon is half the reason Maule is out here in the first place.
“When I started, a bunch of friends wrote me asking to help. I told them, ‘It’s called One Man’s Trash.’” he says, half-jokingly. “There’s definitely a therapeutic element to this.”
Maule started Philly Skyline in 2002, and his writing about the development scene and photography had built a solid cult following by the time he informed readers in 2009 that he was moving to Portland, Ore.
“When you’re Out West, it’s easy to fall under the spell of Out West. The longer I was there, the longer I wanted to stay and see and do and live Out West,” he wrote in a sudden farewell blog post. “It’s not you, Philadelphia, it’s me. Truly. ”
Maule had come to the decision following a cross-country road trip that zigzagged from one national park to another over the summer of ’09. He says he’d fallen in love with the natural splendor of the Northwest, and convinced his wife, who is originally from the Philadelphia area, to set down somewhere with more nature and less litter. They sold their row home in Fishtown and the two started off toward a new life Out West.
When Maule returned to Philly last year, though, he returned alone. He and his wife separated and she moved back to Philly in 2012. Later that same year, he’d lost his day job at a web hosting company. And he struggled to recreate his Philly Skyline success with a Northwestern-themed blog.
“I wanted to do writing and photography jobs, but so does everyone else in Portland,” Maule says. He tells his story in cautious bursts as we jump across streams in our still vain search for trash.
Despite his struggles in Portland, Maule says the decision to return to Philadelphia was a difficult one. “There’s amazing nature out west … the woods have always just been a part of my life’s periphery,” he says, referring to his childhood in rural Tyrone, Pa. But ultimately it was just as hard to ignore potential opportunities in Philadelphia — he landed a job as an editor and photographer at the blog Hidden City — as it was to say goodbye to the wild beauty of Oregon.
“Coming back to Philly — I knew I was leaving that. But, well, I like Mt. Airy; it kind of has a Portland vibe, and it’s right next to this.” He gestures to the glacé forest as we emerge from the trail onto a road near a stone arch spanning the creek. “This is the only place I should be living right now.”
The road has been salted, and we’re finally able to see what’s under all that perfect-looking snow. And at last, like a confusingly suggestive sign from the heavens, a discarded condom wrapper sits at our feet. Maule stoops down to photograph it, for future categorization, of course, and stashes it in a trash bag.
That and a few cigarette butts were the only garbage we’d pick up, but there is still a sense of satisfaction in removing such a ridiculous imperfection from a landscape that looks like it fell out of a Thomas Kincade painting.
Maule is indifferent. There’ll be plenty more trash, and a whole lot of dog shit waiting when the snow melts.
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