Tilting at Tree Bags

The tale of one man's triumph over chaos, one plastic bag at a time

Let us turn, for a moment, to the problem of plastic bags stuck in trees. It and I go back a long way. I began to notice it about 10 years ago, in my early middle age, when the larger vexations of adulthood -- don't get me started -- were becoming real to me forr the first time. Pushing my daughter in her stroller along the street in Brooklyn, where my family and I then lived, and thinking perhaps about the fact that my health insurance payments had just doubled, I heard a plastic-y rustling sound overhead, an insistent lufng in the trees. When I looked up, I saw it: a milky-white plastic bag of the kind Korean groceries give out stuck by its two handles to the bare branch of a tree. (Because of its resemblance to a man's undershirt, in later years this variety of bag would be known as the undershirt bag.) Filled by the wind in its perch 30 feet above and permanently out of reach, the bag "fluttered happily against the blue of the early-spring sky. As I watched, the flapping bag took on a last-straw quality. Suddenly it irritated me no end.

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I'm one of those people who happen to like trees. I don't know why -- I just do. As a kid, I loved to climb them. The distant, upper branches, especially, were celestial and alluring. The loftiness, the breeze, the view, the sense of privileged isolation -- I spent many hours up there, with friends or alone. When I needed to think or was really upset, generally I climbed a tree. I still like to gaze up into the heights of a tree. And while I can accept the fact that I will probably never again climb to the top of one, it pains me to yield possession of that magic arboreal realm to a bunch of thrown-away, useless, cheesy, wasteful, soot-covered, flapping, smart-alecky plastic bags.

And there are a bunch of them. Once I noticed my rst, I noticed thousands. Spotting them became a kind of involuntary torture. In parts of New York City they're ubiquitous, but I saw them elsewhere too -- in mesquite trees near Tucson, Arizona, and in cottonwoods in South Dakota, and in palms in Florida, and in unidentied sorry trees along the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. At the Grand Army Plaza, in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, the bags in trees could be described as a blight. And once you begin seeing the bags, you become aware of all the other stuff that's stuck in trees. Some of it has the gruesome air of the formerly festive -- tattered crepe paper streamers, for example, or used-car-lot plastic flags, or forgotten strands of holiday lights, or (most often) party balloons. Especially tree loving are those big silvery helium-inflated Mylar balloons with the puckers on the side, the ones that often accompany floral bouquets and have legends on them like "Lordy, Lordy -- Look Who's Forty!" I would guess that about half of all the party balloons in the world eventually end up in trees.

One day a cluster of those Mylar balloons got stuck in a London plane tree just across the street from my ofce window in our apartment in Brooklyn. I watched them wretchedly age, season after season, and no matter how bad my mood, I could always worsen it by glancing at them. The cool way they dangled there, idly disintegrating, and taking their own sweet time! I happened to mention them to my friend Tim McClelland and he understood immediately how bugged they made me. Tim and I have known each other for 30 years and have had many adventures driving cars and setting off reworks and shooting guns and hitting golf balls at passing ships from the cement shore-line in lower Manhattan. During our conversation, an idea suddenly emerged: We could make a special tool that would take those balloons out.

And so we did. Tim is a jeweler, and in his shop he made a prototype of the device we had imagined. It had three narrow metal rods about six inches long attached spoke-like to a central axis that also held, roughly perpendicular to them, a cutter in the shape of a small sickle or pruning hook. We called the device the bag snagger. It used no moving parts, but operated by snagging and cutting; afxed to a long pole, the snagger would rst inveigle (we liked that word) the plastic bag in its rods or tongs, which were set pointing slightly downward for easier snagging. A few turns of the pole would wrap the bag securely around the snagger, and a sharp tug would then cut it free with the cutting blade. At a store that sold metal tubing we found hollow aluminum poles six or eight feet long that t together telescope fashion, and Tim drilled holes in them so they could be attached one to the next, with the snagger bolted to the end.

On a March morning Tim brought snagger and poles to my apartment for a trial run. Our rst prey, of course, would be the tenured entanglement of party balloons outside my ofce window. At the start, the poles weren't quite long enough to reach, but I ran inside and got a kitchen stool. Tim stood on it, reached again; the snagger snagged. A few twists, a tug or two, and the surprised balloon entanglement came plummeting headlong to the ground. We were ecstatic, laughing and high-ving. The tree breathed a sigh of relief; it looked so much prettier, an honest and proper tree again, with the entanglement gone. We observed the graceful branch where it had been, again and again from different angles, admiring our snagger, too. Then for a moment we just stood awestruck and silent, early men watching the rst ominous rotation of the rst wheel.

From that point, in a small but real way, my life changed. Having the exact right tool for a particular job is always satisfying, but when the tool (and, indeed, the job) never existed before, the satisfaction is multiplied. Plus, what we were doing, in addition to being fun, actually was benecial to society. In an over-full urban environment, we had found our niche, one we had all to ourselves. Nobody else in New York City, or in the world, was taking plastic bags out of trees. Vistas opened before us. In short order, we -- Tim and I, joined by Tim's brother, Bill -- snagged all the bags we could reach in my Park Slope neighborhood. Tim lived in downtown Manhattan, and we hit that area hard, too, all the way from Canal Street to the south end of the island. Once, on the lawn of City Hall, a Parks Department guy challenged us, saying we could go to jail if we injured the trees. We invited him to watch us disengage a large and noisome plastic drop cloth from a tall London plane tree; afterwards, he issued us Parks Department volunteer cards, and asked to have his picture taken with us.

Sometimes when we snagged an unusually pesky high bag, windows at a nearby apartment house would fly open and people would stick their heads out and applaud. Once an old woman invited us in and gave us lunch. Sometimes people came up to us and thanked us, and once a guy handed me a dollar bill. Mostly, though, people looked at us with mystication, or smiled and shook their heads in a "what a crazy city" way. Once, in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, a jogger stopped and watched us for a minute or two as we tried to remove a complicatedly entangled bag. "That's a lot of trouble to go through for just a bag," he said. I said to him, "Is it any more pointless than running in a big circle back to your apartment?"

Bag snagging was our exercise, our companionship, our hobby, our impromptu community action program. Its aesthetic pleasures were large: A tree from which one or more plastic bags has been removed is, oddly, more beautiful than a tree which never had any bags in it to begin with. In the past, some of our outdoor activities -- hitting golf balls at passing ships -- had bordered on vandalism, but bag snagging gave some of vandalism's thrill while actually being its opposite. Throughout the city we went where we wanted without asking permission, improving the landscape. Now I understood, a bit, how people felt who had worked on the construction of some major public landmark like the Empire State Building. Sometimes when I'd go by a park in a taxicab I would point out the window and say with pride, "You see that tree? We took an extra-large pair of green stretch pants out of it the other day."

Bag snagging is sort of ironical and even quixotic, of course; but it is also, in its essence, good. I was surprised to discover, in our ironical and relativistic world, how solid and real good can be. One easily recognizes it, and knows when one has done it, even when the act is as small as taking a bag out of a tree. Equally real is good's opposite, which in this case doesn't exactly qualify as evil, but as a noxious, stubborn minor chaos -- evil's sidekick, if you will. This chaos actively resisted our attempts to undo it; sometimes the resistance was so strong we ran away. Once we were taking stuff out of a tree by a notoriously dangerous housing project in Brooklyn. The tree's highest branches held lots of personal effects like clothes, underwear, garment bags, and Walkman earphones, which we speculated had gotten thrown out of the windows above during domestic disputes. As we were working, suddenly something fell splattering quite near us on the ground. It was a big bunch of those crinkly Chinese soup noodles, still warm. Then an empty 40-ounce malt liquor bottle landed with a loud thump. A dark, lowering gloom overshadowed us, and in the next moment we were out of there. The tree is still full of junk to this day.

Knights-errant of the city with our snagger and pole, we battled the various tree-dwelling powers of chaos. To spend a sunny late-fall morning snagging bags and other debris from trees in parks on the Lower East Side, and then to reward ourselves with a pastrami and swiss on rye with mustard and a slice of onion and a large Coke at Katz's Delicatessen -- well, at such moments we were fullled and happy guys. After our sessions we always saved some of the snagged detritus as trophies and kept them in a storage unit we hired. Most of what we removed was pretty repetitive (your standard white plastic bag with handles), but there were also pieces of sheet metal, lawn furniture, dolls, suitcases, pigeons that had gotten entangled in plastic and died, telephones, kites, sawhorses, crime scene tape, weird cloth bundles that may have had something to do with voodoo, paint buckets, C-clamps, tires. Less visible than the other debris, and harder to remove, were the shreds of tape from audiocassettes. Along busy highways, this stuff is everywhere. Painstakingly we removed and saved yards of it, and Bill, who's a musician, found a tape-repair specialist who spliced all the little pieces together for us and put them on a new cassette. When we played it there emerged a wild miscellany of noises from rap music to machine-gun re -- the howling of a modern techno-void, a stuff-in-trees symphony.

Bag snagging even brought us a tiny amount of fame. Passersby began to recognize us, and to yell, "Look -- it's the bag-removal guys!" National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" did a piece on us, and a movie called Blue in the Face, a paean to Brooklyn starring Harvey Keitel and Roseanne Barr, featured a brief appearance by me talking about how much I don't like bags in trees. People told us we should patent our snagger, so we hired a patent attorney and submitted the forms. At our rst attempt we were denied, the government patents examiner citing "prior art"Ñthat is, a previously patented invention similar to ours. The invention turned out to be a "fruit gatherer" involving a multipronged grabber and attached gathering basket patented by George J. Parham of Harrodsburg, Indiana, in 1869. Our lawyer, in his reapplication to the Patent Ofce, pointed out that Mr. Parham's invention, designed specically for fruit, would be ineffective on plastic bags, which in any case did not exist in 1869. On reapplication our patent was granted, and we received U.S. Patent number 5,566,538.

I wish I could report that the City of New York, inspired by our example, bought dozens of our snaggers and poles and set about to eradicate forever the problem of plastic debris in trees. Regrettably, no such thing occurred. Once when a New York Times reporter asked Henry Stern, the parks commissioner, what the city was doing about the plastic-in-trees problem, he answered that removing all the debris would take "an army of people" and be "far too costly." He added, however, that a dedicated group of volunteers (presumably, Bill, Tim, and I) had been issued a "maintenance permit" to remove the debris. (That we had received such a permit was news to us.)

Indeed, we three might have remained the only people on the planet pursuing the bags were it not for the public-spirited efforts of the singer and movie star Bette Midler. Bette Midler's husband happened to hear us talking about the snagger in a radio interview, and he called us right away and bought two snaggers, plus two sets of top-of-the-line graphite poles. Bette Midler herself came out with Bill and Tim one afternoon and learned how to work the snagger. She is not a big woman, but she snagged just ne. She and her husband have an organization consisting mostly of young people who clean up the city's public spaces, and they used the snaggers we sold them, and wore them to a frazzle, and bought a lot more. They do a lot of their work on Manhattan's East Side, all the way to the top of the island; if you pass by there when the branches are bare and you notice a refreshing absence of bags in trees, you might say, as we do, "God bless Bette Midler and her gang."

Tim moved to Massachusetts a while ago and I now live in New Jersey, but he and Bill and I still get together in the city for bagging sessions, which I look forward to almost as much as shing and a lot more than golf. We're planning road trips to other cities -- there are tons of bags in trees, I noticed, in downtown Baltimore -- and next spring we'll be traveling to Los Angeles to provide bag-snagging support to the Friends of the Los Angeles River when they have their annual river cleanup day. The company that made our graphite poles no longer makes them, but we found a retired engineer in Santa Ana, California, named Allan Lund who now manufactures a 34-foot berglass version of the pole and a functional mass-produced snagger. So far we have sold two to people other than Bette Midler; as a business enterprise, our bag snagger has lagged rather distantly behind the success of the dot-coms.

To me, a bag in a tree is like a flag of chaos, and when I remove it I'm capturing the flag of the other side. In the end it doesn't matter how ironic or serious or even effective on a larger scale bag snagging may be. Doing it demonstrates that even in the odd little overlooked wilderness the bags inhabit, people still can use their eyes and hands and brains, and still have dominion over the chaos of bags in trees.