Why I love trash

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Until I was five, we lived on an old farm in central Maine, near the town of Waterville. It was a great place, with a couple of derelict barns to explore, an old field, some woods – in short, not too different from where I live now. But one of the things I really missed after we moved down here were our visits to the Waterville town dump. Every month or so Dad would load up our red Volkswagen bus with everything we couldn’t compost, and Steve and I would clamor to go along. Once there, we’d race around looking for cast-off treasures. I think there was even a special area for this, where people would pile all the half-decent stuff that they no longer wanted or had room for, in case someone else might care to pick it up. It was the original Freecycle network. I don’t remember if we ever found anything really good at the dump, but the possibility was always there. This early childhood experience imprinted me with a strong notion that trash was fun.

You can learn a lot about a people by studying how they relate to their trash. My brother Mark, the geography prof, once described a field trip he’d led through East Texas. As soon as you drive into a town you can tell who lives there, he said. Tejanos like lots of flowers in their yards, and the shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe are a dead giveaway. African-American yards tend to be neat but minimalistic: bare dirt swept with a broom, just like in West Africa. And Anglos? “You can tell the white neighborhoods by all the trash.”

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So as hateful as the term “white trash” might be, like most stereotypes it didn’t come out of a vacuum. When we moved back to our ancestral homeland of Pennsylvania (albeit a little farther west than any of my grandparents had lived), we quickly and unthinkingly fell into the pattern of taking all our trash out to the old farm dump. It was just what people did back then. Dumps were usually located in the nearest patch of woods to the house; our neighbor Margaret’s old dump was less than a hundred feet from her porch. Our dump had been established maybe a hundred yards from the house, just beyond the powerline right-of-way. Two things about its placement seem baffling today: they threw their trash on what I think was originally an old charcoal hearth from the early nineteenth century, located right where the stream that drains the whole watershed emerges from the ground. Every hard rain, smaller pieces of trash floated downstream, along with god knows what seeping poisons. And the other weird thing was that the dump was right next to what had been, for three generations, the Plummer family picnic grove.

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So on the one hand, before the environmental movement took hold in the mid 1970s, we rarely gave a thought to the toxic effect of some of the stuff we pitched out, such as batteries or almost-empty cans of Raid. But on the other hand, we didn’t necessarily regard trash as something to be shunned and avoided. Like many farm kids, my brothers and I actively sought out abandoned dump sites and attacked them with shovels, hunting for old bottles. Dad closed our own dump around 1975 and started taking our trash to the local landfill – a joyless place. But we continued prospecting in the dump for years, rewarded by the occasional, unbroken bottle from a hundred years ago, the glass wavy, spotted with bubbles and aged to a mellow purple. And though several large trees have fallen across it, and we’ve covered as much of the dump site as we can with dirt from various construction projects, ancient plastic toys and detergent bottles still do wash out and migrate downhollow during the occasional flood.

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Raised without television, we were deprived of the allegedly educational benefits of Sesame Street. But thanks to an elementary school music teacher, I did learn the tune and some of the words to Oscar’s theme song:

I’ve a clock that won’t work
And an old telephone
A broken umbrella, a rusty trombone
And I am delighted to call them my own!
I love them because they’re trash

I still feel that way to a degree. While I no longer bring trash home, now that I own a camera, I have begun collecting again. Chris Jordan’s photos of landfills and recycling centers, mentioned in my post last Friday, made me think there might be some value in building my own photo exhibition of “intolerable beauty.” But while Jordan focuses on trash in the aggregate, in all its teeming splendor, I am more attracted to single pieces and small groups. And whereas Jordan’s perspective is unapologetically urban, I am much more interested in looking at trash as part of a human-impacted, semi-wild landscape.

To me, litter is a form of found art. When an object is discarded, it becomes free: free for the picking, yes, but also existentially free, no longer bound to one, narrow, utilitarian role. A well-situated dump is like a sculpture garden.

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Old dumps are attractive in the same way that ruins are. Ask any volunteer at an archaeological dig: as things corrode and decay, they gain charisma. A great deal of our visual intake on any given day consists of the too-bright, too-good-to-be-true allurements of kitsch culture and advertising. But let those cheap plastic toys sit out in the sun for a few decades, let the tawdry billboards in “blighted” neighborhoods peel and flake and attract graffiti, and such objects – designed as trash – can attain a wholly unintended picturesque quality – even a hint of redemption.

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Two very different types of people are attracted to the environmental movement: fans of cleanliness and order, who shudder with horror at all forms of pollution, and those of us who feel most at home in the apparent chaos of wild nature. Though able to form alliances around many issues, our priorities do sometimes divide us. For example, like Ed Abbey, I regard roadsides and especially highway median strips as the perfect place to store our trash, and view people who “adopt” sections of highways as part of the problem, not part of the solution.*

Litter is like a weed: obnoxious because it’s in the wrong place, because its virtues are under-appreciated, and/or because it is simply too numerous, and threatens to overwhelm the native inhabitants. A single, stray tire, rusty old bucket or whiskey bottle out in the middle of the woods hardly seems like litter at all.

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Like Chris Jordan, I’m deeply troubled by our consumer culture and its effects on the planet. But I am less troubled than he seems to be by the potential of trash to entrance us. As mortal beings, ultimately we are what we throw away, and I think it’s good to be reminded of that. Time can ravage, but it can also illuminate with a wholly unexpected grace. It’s the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that really enables the thoughtless impulse to throw the old stuff away and buy new – and at the same time leads us to disregard the harmful effects of anything we can’t see at all. We’re an intensely visual species.

Learn to appreciate the patina of age, and you’ll soon find yourself haunting junk shops and yard sales rather than the mall, and when you do have to buy new, saving enough money to buy high-quality stuff that won’t end up in the landfill. Or you may become like me (quel horreur!) – satisfied with the images alone, returning from the dump with a full memory card and a renewed appreciation for the stuff you already have. Hey, you say to yourself, that doesn’t look half-bad! At least it still works. Sure, it’s got some nicks or rust spots, but a little bit of elbow grease and it’ll be as good as new. Better, in fact.

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*Here’s my standard, anti-anti-litter rant, provided free of charge as a public service: We don’t need “cleaner” highways, we need fewer highways. Perhaps if they didn’t look so neat and uncluttered, people wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about building new ones. And what happens to the trash you “clean up”? Doesn’t it simply abet the spread of landfills, which are almost invariably located well out of sight and smell of major roads and population centers, often smack in the middle of wild areas? If you must indulge your neatnik impulse, why not adopt a railroad?

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