April 7, 2009, Polder Het Buitenland, Heerjansdam, the Netherlands.
The garbage I created from 1960 through 1964 lies to the right of this little road, just past the greenhouse at the foot of the dike.
There’s a small possibility that the trash was collected with a horse and cart and then taken here, where it was used to fill up some holes in the land. The holes, in turn, were dug for material to elevate the main dike that guarded the village and other communities along the Oude Maas river against winter storms and spring flooding.
It makes for a sort of communal metabolism, a ceaseless rearrangement of materials for basic life support. I’m guessing this was the way things worked since the 1300s, when the dikes were originally built. They needed to be repaired every year, and they were intermittently elevated. How else would the villagers have managed to maintain their foothold in a fairly marginal corner of the planet?
Today you can’t see that there’s anything untoward under the grass. In fact, I would never have found it without the help of the former alderman who was in charge of public works in the 1960s.
Even if garbage dumping was a time-honored practice and even if nobody worried, yet, about groundwater contamination, it was a pain to maintain a dump like this one. Lighter items blew away in the wind. A plague of rats found their own subsistence in the edible portions. Fires were a regular occurrence, requiring the attentions of the volunteer fire department. In 1965, the dump became enough of a headache that the town council closed it, sending the trash to a neighboring community that maintained a larger and more professionally run landfill.
It’s now unthinkable, with all the poisons in our trash, but at a time when hearth ash was the main ingredient in household waste, it wasn’t even such a horrible environmental disaster. This dump is on the register of waste sites that are monitored by the provincial authorities, and so far it has passed muster.
Indeed, when I visit again, under the kindly light of a setting sun, the place seems impossibly bucolic. Ancient chestnuts on the banks of the Devel are just unfolding their leaves. Herons are fishing in the ditches. Swans have built a nest in a field that belongs to a small herd of curious sheep and their lambs. The female sits peacefully on a straw bed, while the father-to-be keeps the sheep at bay, padding around awkwardly in the grass on leathery grey feet, occasionally flapping his gigantic wings in a fearsome show of strength. The grass is greener here, literally, than on the other side of the mountain.
Certainly, it’s a far cry from the towering landfills that we have built in the landscape since that time.