Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Fall 1994, Volume 11.3



Steve Sherwood

Wilderness as a Psychic Dumping Ground: The Psychology of Littering

Steve Sherwood (M.A., University of Montana) teaches composition and creative writing at Texas Christian University. He has published essays, articles, and a short story in
Writing Center Journal, English in Texas, Empire, Northern Lights, Outside, and New Texas.


I brought our pickup to an abrupt stop, causing trash to shift forward in the bed. Fifty feet back, in the grass along the road, something unnatural had caught my partner Leroy's eye. He ran back for it and reappeared a moment later with a disposable diaper pinched between two fingers.

In a mournful voice, Leroy said, "How could anyone drive through the most beautiful place in the world, roll down the window, and toss out a Pampers?"

We asked this question often during three summers spent picking up litter in Rocky Mountain National Park, but we never came up with an acceptable answer. Fifteen years later, still seeking one, I've turned to naturalists, psychologists, and sociologists for help. Unfortunately, few address the question directly. Like Henry David Thoreau, they often speak of the rejuvenating powers of wilderness but seem to overlook the price of renewal. For in loving nature, and drawing strength from it, we take more than pictures and leave more than footprints. Indeed, we leave behind the worst parts of ourselves. The easiest answer as to why people defile their most beloved park lands is that litterers are vandals with little sense of the damage they do, whose parents raised them badly. This may be true, but litterers do more than show a casual disregard for the environment. For many, littering may provide a means of asserting personal freedom, setting territory, even soothing fears; people may mark the wilderness to make it less threatening. Littering may also be a necessary catharsis—the material expression of psychic garbage. If so, then for litterers, and perhaps for all of us, the wilderness may serve as both spiritual recharger and psychic trash dump.

Naturalist Ann Zwinger illustrates the damage littering does to fragile tundra, where trash takes decades to biodegrade. Even the smallest piece of litter, she says, "cuts the light to the plants it covers, killing them within a few weeks" and "Fifty to one hundred years of plant growth can be snuffed out by a beer can" (381). The Park Service posts anti-littering signs, issues tickets up to $500, and prints pamphlets to educate park visitors about the damage being done. Yet despite the agency's best efforts, tourists go right on littering.

Social psychologists call littering and vandalism depreciative behavior. At first glance, then, we may assume that people who litter find little to appreciate in the wilderness. The time and money they spend getting there, however, contradicts this assumption. While working Trail Ridge Road, I overheard many tourists reverently remark on the gorgeous vistas. All too often, after they took a photograph, the same people wadded up a film box or a candy wrapper and casually threw it off the viewpoint.

Such conflicting behavior is in no way simple and, as I've suggested, goes beyond ignorance and apathy. To understand it, we might begin by asking why litterers bother to visit national parks. What are they seeking? Complex though the answer may be, chances are they're looking for some of the same things as the rest of us—beauty, solitude, fresh air, a sense of renewal. As Thoreau says, "When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood" (183), from which "come the tonics and barks which brace mankind" (181). John Burroughs, too, went to the wilds "to be soothed and healed, to have my senses put in tune once more" (274).

But perhaps our depreciative tourists are seeking something more tangible than were Thoreau and Burroughs. Perhaps they're after a token of what's rare and good in nature—a fistful of wild flowers, a chunk of petrified wood, a snapshot of breathtaking scenery—one last memento of the vanishing abundance. Nature writer John Fowles notes that "man is a highly acquisitive creature," with "a constant need to seek new objects" (660). This need may express itself in the fever of thrill seeking and peak bagging, which in recent decades has rekindled in the most round-bellied of flatlanders, some of whom are daring even to collect fourteeners. As our wilderness dwindles, even our most environmentally attuned hope to grab what they can, as the following passage from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire suggests:

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed… come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. (5)

Most of us, then, including litterers, want to sample the beauty and bounty of the wilderness. If these qualities fail to move us, however, there's always the promise of freedom. Who among us hasn't dreamed of wandering wherever our legs would carry us, answering to no authority but our own? Abbey tasted such freedom and urged the Park Service to grant tourists the same privilege, saying, "for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right of any free American" (Desert Solitaire 55-56). In the wilderness a person can escape the restrictions of "excessive industrialism," he writes. Our wildlands might also someday provide "a refuge from …political oppression," a base "for guerrilla warfare against tyranny" (130).

Unfortunately, while wilderness serves as a symbol of freedom, tourists confront a different reality. Laws aimed at protecting our parks and wilderness areas seem to restrict their every move: Don't collect firewood, flowers, or berries, they're told. Don't fish, hunt, or camp without a permit. Above all, don't litter.

These well-meaning restrictions may actually drive some tourists to commit acts of depreciation. Psychologist Daniel Stokols writes that when crowding (and presumably restrictive laws) threaten personal freedom, an individual may attempt to reestablish it "through the enactment of…forbidden or threatened behavior" (257). That this behavior might include littering Abbey illustrates through the following scene in The Monkey Wrench Gang. Seldom Seen Smith says,

"Any road I wasn't consulted about that I don't like, I litter. It's my religion."

"Right," Hayduke said. "Litter the shit out of them."

"Well now," the doctor said. "I hadn't thought about that. Stockpile the stuff along the highways. Throw it out the window. Well… why not?"

"Doc," said Hayduke, "it's liberation." (65)

Abbey hits his target, as usual, and in the process captures a part of the psychology of littering—the quiet exultation that comes from defying authority. Like Seldom Seen, many Americans may resent the government's failure to consult them before building roads like Trail Ridge. Recalling the number of diapers I picked up in my brief career, thousands of them certainly are littering the shit out of them. Of course, having been on the receiving end of these acts of rebellion, I find unacceptable the morality that equates tossing a beer can with casting a ballot for emancipation. Besides, research by forester Richard C. Knopf counters the image of litterer as lonely freedom fighter. Knopf divides tourists into "escape-oriented veterans" and "the relative newcomer" most interested in group activities like picnicking (210). He found the car-bound picnickers to be significantly "more opposed to management regulations intended to control their personal behavior than the… Type 1 veterans" (210). So it follows that Knopf's Type 2similar to the "mechanized tourist" Abbey berates in Desert Solitaire (49)is more prone than, say, an Earth First! member to litter our wilderness in the name of liberty.

Those unmoved by the need to assert their freedom may litter to express the ancient, and related, need to establish territory. I say related because by setting territorial boundaries people define a secured space within which they're free to work, live, or play. As Sociologist William R. Catton, Jr., writes:

Every species 'uses' the environments upon which it depends in three basic ways: (1) as a place in which to carry on its activities, (2) as a source of supplies required for those activities, and (3) as a repository for the material products of those activities (e.g., effluents)." (283)

Legally, our species may use the national parks mainly in the first way—as a place for activities. In theory, we must pack in our supplies and pack out our refuse—or deposit it in the proper receptacle. That many of the 300 million citizens with whom we share ownership of these lands fail to do this can, perhaps, be seen as a regression to more natural land-use habits. But it may also be their way of marking a temporary territory. Environmental psychologists Irwin Altman and Martin M. Chemers point out that animals use "excretions, secretions, noise and other means, as signals to potential intruders and perhaps as reminders to themselves where their places begin and end" (138). People, they add, usually mark territories with "artifacts and symbols; they rarely use secretions or excretions" (138). I assert that people use secretions to mark territory more often than Altman and Chemers suspect, but let's begin with their use of artifacts. In national parks, the most common temporary territories are fishing holes and campsites. Leroy and I believed we could tell the best fishing holes along a given lake or stream by the number of discarded beer cans we found. Changing brand names even told us where one hole ended and another began, as if the space an angler needed matched the distance he or she could cast an empty can. As for campsites, the presence of a tent, cooler, or other artifact usually establishes a claim. An off-duty ranger tells of having left a water jug to hold a campsite in Glacier National Park. He went fishing and returned hours later to find his site occupied. The claim jumpers denied they'd ever seen his jug. "We've been here for hours," one said, and as proof pointed to the litter strewn about the site. Later, the ranger found his missing jug in a nearby trash barrel.

On a backcountry ski trip, the same ranger and I set the effective limits of a campsite through our choice of where to urinate in the snow. Perhaps this was not a conscious act of territoriality, but when other skiers threatened to camp too close, our suggestion as to where they should pitch their tents lay outside the area we'd marked—and meant to defend.

Like gangs marking their turf with spray paint, a more technologically advanced secretion, tourists use graffiti as a lasting statement of ownership. Notice the names, dates, four-letter words, and declarations of love carved into aspens or painted on boulders near heavy-use areas. Like littering, these brands leave few doubts that tourists have had an impact on a place—changed it and, in a small way, made it theirs.

In so altering the immediate environment, they may seek not simply to keep others out, but to make the wilderness—perhaps nature itself—seem smaller, more manageable, and less frightening. Stokols writes that when "an individual's supply of space greatly exceeds his demand," he will tend to "experience a need for enclosure and affiliation with others" (248). This may explain why some park visitors never leave their cars. Those who do may combat fear of what they see as a threatening wasteland with a depreciative act, such as throwing a beer can. This has several immediate effects: First, it makes nature seem more familiar, and therefore safer. Second, it degrades the wilderness, literally making it smaller. Third, it allows a person to express contempt for an otherwise awe-inspiring natural feature—like a teenager who says of the Grand Canyon, "Big deal, the world's biggest pit."

At Rocky Mountain National Park, tourists often timidly asked, "Do people ever miss a curve and drive over a cliff?" or "How often are hikers mauled by bears?" To which we were tempted to reply, "Not often enough." But as absurd as the questions seemed, they revealed genuine fears that are deeply rooted in our culture. Altman and Chemers note that "uncontrolled nature and the wilderness were historically viewed in Western society as dangerous…" (19). Although purged of the grizzly and the marauding Indian, and reduced to a point where it needs to be protected against us, the tame remnant of our wilderness continues to color our imaginations, inspiring some but terrifying others.

These feelings are often based entirely on fantasy. In fact, as Leroy and I saw it, our main purpose in collecting trash was to maintain the illusion that Rocky Mountain National Park was a pristine wilderness. This task was made more difficult by two of our supervisors, who used to knock buckets of golf balls into Forest Canyon (bragging to all who would listen that they could hit a two wood farther than Arnold Palmer). Yet we never doubted the importance of our work, and it turns out we were right since people's feelings, based on fantasy or reality, influence not only how they perceive the wilderness but how they treat it. According to Knopf, "People transform reality by imposing their own order on incoming stimuli…" (223). As a result, "The environments people see are, in part, created by the mind" (223) and "images held by recreationists affect their behavior" (225), including littering and vandalism.

Veteran hikers may see a national park as benign, even in need of protection, while novices see it as a place full of hidden danger, a place they must control (or alter) to feel safe. This need, often expressed as an attempt to reduce or conquer, is "incompatible with much of what wilderness offers and demands," say Kaplan and Talbot (194). They tell of urban teens in an Outdoor Challenge program, who by gaining wilderness experience learned that insisting on control is a "costly and disturbing preoccupation" (194).

Like these enlightened teens, people with a close connection to nature may feel less need for control and, consequently, be less apt to commit acts of depreciation. Joseph Wood Krutch supports this idea in describing his urge to destroy a beautiful ice crystal:

I resisted, I am proud to say, the almost universal impulse to scratch my initials into one of the surfaces…. The impulse to mar and to destroy is as ancient and almost as nearly universal…as the impulse to create. The one is an easier way than the other of demonstrating power. (443)

Unfortunately, even those who overcome their destructive impulses litter the wilderness with human waste, solid and psychic. As I've said, in deriving benefits from the wilderness, we leave behind the worst parts of ourselves—our trash, sewage, sweat, stress, and anxiety. We practice this catharsis either directly, meaning to purge ourselves of such poisons, or indirectly, as a by-product of recreation.

Consider the tossing of a Pampers. The parents of an infant, finding the atmosphere of their car suddenly toxic, take direct action to purify it, refusing even to wait until they reach a trash barrel. One day, at a scenic overlook, Leroy and I came across a more extreme example of direct catharsis. A widening stream of sewage flowed onto the tundra from the bowels of a motor home. The creators of this open cesspool sat inside the RV, enjoying the view and a picnic lunch. This seemed especially baffling since each of the park's campgrounds had a waste water dumping station. Stranger still was the owners' lack of remorse, as if dumping sewage were an acceptable practice in the national parks.

If we view their act dispassionately, we can almost understand this attitude. Burroughs writes of one day finding several birds and insects drowned in a bucket of maple sap. He emptied this "bucketful of corruption" onto the ground, knowing it would "soon be made sweet and wholesome again by the chemistry of the soil" (275). For early Christians the wilderness "served a purification… function," with leaders going to the desert to cleanse their souls (Altman and Chemers 19). Even today, we value the "psychological products" of outdoor activities more than the activities themselves, Knopf says, citing studies that show sixty percent of Americans visit "natural environments largely to alleviate stress" (207). Like nature writer J.A. Baker, perhaps the polluters of our scenic viewpoint only "longed to be a part of the outward life, to… let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water…" (653).

While our wilderness was vast, we could happily go about washing away the taint. Now, such high-use areas as river beaches where rafters camp accumulate "charcoal, human waste, and other debris…faster than the river can purge them" (Catton 289). And as the wilderness shrinks, so does its capacity to purify even our psychic trash. The "truest devotees can overuse an environment," Catton says, and "even the nonconsumptive forms of recreation conforming to the motto 'Take only pictures, leave only footprints' can be engaged in excessively" (284). On top of other damage, a simple hike to relieve tensions can "turn trails into ruts and greatly accelerate soil erosion" (Chase 210).

So where does this leave us? In answer to Leroy's question, people will litter the world's most beautiful places to assert personal freedom, mark territory, control their fears, and purge themselves of toxins. The logical next question is this: If even our most benign, low-impact users irreparably harm the wilderness, can we do anything—beyond toilet training tourists—to slow the degradation of our wildlands?

With so many forces arrayed on the side of littering, a person can't help feeling pessimistic. The only sure solution may be to close the backcountry or to so restrict access that nature can repair any damages. This would conflict, however, with government policies aimed at making wildlands more accessible. Worse, in further distancing us from nature, it might also revive our age-old desire to make the wasteland safe. So in exchange for the "incomparable sanity [wilderness] can bring briefly… into our insane lives" (Stegner 565), perhaps we must accept the inadvertent damage that nature lovers do and put our energy into preventing intentional acts of depreciation.

Tougher littering laws may only inspire rebellion. Likewise, government efforts to force responsibility on tourists by refusing to pick up their trash often fail. Certainly, as Zwinger observes, "The mother who always picks up after her children soon finds that is all she does" (381), but too many tourists lack responsibility. And as Knopf points out, people "read the recreation site itself" to determine "what forms of behavior are appropriate" (221). Thus, if tourists see litter on the ground, they're more likely to add to the clutter.

Futile though it seems, perhaps our best hope lies in continuing to pick up their litter and in helping them to understand, as John Steinbeck did, that by going to the wilderness "we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eelgrass…make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology"; that "We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too" (503).



Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

---. The Monkey Wrench Gang. 1975. New York: Avon, 1976.

Altman, Irwin and Martin Chemers. Culture and Environment. Monterey: Brooks/Cole, 1980.

Baker, J.A. "From The Peregrine." 1967. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 652-57.

Burroughs, John. "The Gospel of Nature." 1912. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Eds. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 273-79.

Catton, William R., Jr. "Social and Behavioral Aspects of Carrying Capacity of Natural Environments." 1983. Behavior and the Natural Environment. Eds. Irwin Altman and Joachim F. Wohlwill. New York: Premium, 1987. 269-306.

Chase, Alston. Playing God in Yellowstone. New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1987.

Fowles, John. "From The Tree." 1979. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Eds. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 657-70.

Kaplan, Stephen and Janet Frey Talbot. "Psychological Benefits of a Wilderness Experience." 1983. Behavior and the Natural Environment. Eds. Irwin Altman and Joachim F. Wohlwill. New York: Premium, 1987. 163-204.

Knopf, Richard C. "Recreational Needs and Behavior in Natural Settings." 1983. Behavior and the Natural Environment. Eds. Irwin Altman and Joachim F. Wohlwill. New York: Premium, 1987. 205-40.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. "The Colloid and the Crystal." 1953. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Eds. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 442-49.

Sherwood, Steve. "In the Footsteps of Captain Filth." Northern Lights. Jan.-Feb. 1986: 4-5.

Stegner, Wallace. "Coda: Wilderness Letter." 1960. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Eds. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 564-69.

Steinbeck, John. "From The Log from the Sea of Cortez. 1951.The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Eds. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 501-4.

Stokols, Daniel. "A Social-Psychological Model of Human Crowding Phenomena." 1972. Human Behavior and the Environment: Interactions Between Man and His Physical World. Ed. John H. Sims and Duane D. Baumann. Chicago: Maaroufa, 1974. 240-62.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Walking." 1863. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Eds. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 181-88.

Zwinger, Ann H. and Beatrice E. Willard. Land Above the Trees: A Guide to American Alpine Tundra. New York: Perennial Library, 1972.


Back to Top