Archive for June, 2008


Rock on Garbage

Bayfront Park, at Marsh Road in Menlo Park, is a high and unusually shaped set of hills, overgrown clay mounds that look like they have been moulded by the dirt roads laid out in graceful curves from the narrow entrance to the highest promontory overlooking San Francisco Bay. There is no overt sign that gives the game away, but the shape is unmistakable to the practiced eye: this is primitive garbage dump morphology, predating the wisdom of modern sanitary engineering. Only landfill has this much machinery. Only landfill sticks this far out into the bay.

Stone Poetry, Bayfront Park, Menlo ParkClosed some time in the 1980s, the mounds reach up to 200 vertical feet of garbage at the highest elevations, much of it in a liquid state because the dump is improperly sealed. Leachate runoff into the bay must be frightful.

The park is overgrown with grass and weeds, a few stunted palms, modest groves of fir and live oak, and strewn with boulders that seems strangely out of place. A helpful leaflet explains the mystery: the boulders are not really boulders but stone poetry, American Indian pictographs that aren’t American Indian, just as the park isn’t really a park. One of my professors in grad school liked to say that language is nothing but “a lie superimposed upon an error,” and it seems the stone poetry in Bayfront Park offers a perfect illustration.

Undoubtedly, the effort is well meant, even if it has the ring of refrigerator poetry, constrained by the availability of a limited vocabulary:

Evening pool

weather clear with stars

I walk with the wind behind me

inspired, with a glad heart


discover many animals,

grass, sun, canyons, and earth.

No hunger, war, no fear,

making peace and strong brothers.

The bit about canyons is an overstatement, by the way, but there is a decommissioned sewage treatment plant and a methane recovery facility way in the back, surrounded by some jewel-toned ponds of sludge, each set in a bezel of brightly glinting scum.

Bayfront Park, Menlo ParkFor all the degradation, Bayfront Park is a lovely place, especially at sunrise. Even at the softest footfall, the jackrabbits run for cover, legs too long and ears too tall. Shorebirds shriek into the softly-breathing stillness. The salt ponds gleam an improbable white, making a canvas for the runnels and phantom creeks drawing abstract figures through the crystal fields. If you’re lucky, day breaks with a radiance multiplied by the waters of the bay, a reminder and a promise


literary profundities

The many dictionaries of quotations keep mum on the subject of garbage altogether. They contain no high-flown thoughts on leftovers, no ecstasies on rubbish dumps, no meditations on our trash. The poets are considerably less squeamish than the quotation-mongers, however. A.R. Ammons wrote a long and intricate poem on mortality (I think) called Garbage, in which he proposes that “garbage has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual, believable enough / to get our attention, getting in the way, piling / up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and creamy white.”

Ivan Klima wrote a novel called (in English) Love and Garbage, which tells the story of a streetsweeper- poet haunted by the conviction that everything endures forever, including the things we wish away (such as garbage, political inconveniences, a wife). “Rubbish is transformed into new rubbish,” he writes apocalyptically, “only slightly increased in quantity. … the spirit of dead things rises over the earth and over the waters, and its breath forebodes evil.”

And here is Robert Hass, on the ethics of raccoon-composting (section 2 of “In Weather” from his first collection, Field Guide):

I can’t decide

about my garbage and the creatures

who come at night to root

and scatter it. I could lock it

in the shed, but I imagine

wet noses, bodies grown alert

to the smells of warm decay

in the cold air. It seems a small thing

to share what I don’t want,

but winter mornings the white yard

blossoms grapefruit peels,

tin cans, plastic bags,

the russet cores of apples.

The refuse of my life

surrounds me and the sense of waste

in the dreary gathering of it

compels me all the more

to labor for the creatures

who quiver and are quick-eyed

and bang the cans at night

and are not grateful. The other morning,

waking early in the new sun,

I was rewarded. A thaw turned up

the lobster shells from Christmas eve.

They rotted in the yard

and standing in the muddy field I caught,

as if across great distances,

a faint rank fragrance of the sea.


How the Other Half Used to Live

Jacob Riis (1849-1914), a muck-raking journalist who documented conditions in the slums of late-19th-century New York in his book How the Other Half Lives, is also a connoisseur of garbage and other forms of filth. Here he is on the city’s scavenger culture:

Riis, In the home of an Italian rag-picker

The discovery was made by earlier explorers that there is money in New York’s ash-barrel, but it was left to the genius of the padrone to develop the full resources of the mine that has become the exclusive preserve of the Italian immigrant. Only a few years ago, when rag-picking was carried on in a desultory and irresponsible sort of way, the city hired gangs of men to trim the ash-scows before they were sent out to sea. The trimming consisted in levelling out the dirt as it was dumped from the carts, so that the scow might be evenly loaded. The men were paid a dollar and a half a day, kept what they found that was worth having, and allowed the swarms of Italians who hung about the dumps to do the heavy work for them, letting them have their pick of the loads for their trouble. To-day Italians contract for the work, paying large sums to be permitted to do it. The city received not less than $80,000 last year for the sale of this privilege to the contractors, who in addition have to pay gangs of their countrymen for sorting out the bones, rags tin cans and other waste that are found in the ashes and form the staples of their trade and their sources of revenue. The effect has been vastly to increase the power of the padrone, or his ally, the contractor, by giving him exclusive control of the one industry in which the Italian was formerly independent “dealer,” and reducing him literally to the plane of the dump. Whenever the back of the sanitary police is turned, he will make his home in the filthy burrows where he works by day, sleeping and eating his meals under the dump, on the edge of slimy depths and amid surroundings full of unutterable horror. The city did not bargain to house, though it is content to board, him so long as he can make the ash-barrels yield the food to keep him alive, and a vigorous campaign is carried on at intervals against these unlicensed dump settlements; but the temptation of having to pay no rent is too strong, and they are driven from one dump only to find lodgement under another a few blocks farther up or down the river. The fiercest warfare is waged over the patronage of the dumps by rival factions represented by opposing contractors, and it has happened that the defeated party has endeavored to capture by strategy what he failed to carry by assault. It augurs unsuspected adaptability in the Italian to our system of self-government that these rivalries have more than once been suspected of being behind the sharpening of city ordinances, that were apparently made in good faith to prevent meddling with the refuse in the ash-barrels or in transit.

Jacob Riis, Bandit\'s RoostDespite the power of a passage such as this, How the Other Half Lives may be famous more for its photographs than for its fulminations against tenement conditions. Indeed, the pictures are amazing. Their documentary value is extremely high–the layers of filth over everything, streets and walls and skin and clothing , speak in a way no words can rival–but at least some of them do much more than document. They evoke the experience of the moment, not only through the eyes of the photographer, but through the eyes of their subjects. Some are just caught on camera–“shot,” as photographers are wont to say–but others are there with an idea of themselves, part of a world in which they exercise a degree of control.

And so they escape the limits of Riis’s own ways of making sense of the story. For all his empathy, Riis’s account is rife with the subtle superiority of one who’s never found himself among the teeming hordes on the wrong side of the documentary lens. Even more obvious than his class prejudice is a kind of universal ethnic disdain, which changes pitch but never disappears.

What saves Riis, in my eyes, what makes him still worth reading, is his mesmerized fascination with the splendid diversity of cultures, shifting like a checkerboard from block to block, that shines through his judgments. He is really a passionate ethnographer, animated not just by outrage over the exploitation of New York’s poor but by sheer joy in deepening his understanding how things work in the intricate cultural and operational machinery of a burgeoning metropolis. The poor, the slums, the garbage–all the less naturally attractive components–made a crucial part of that machinery, much as our own garbage is today.


Filing Cabinet

I have tried to explain (to myself and to others) what I find so compelling about garbage and garbage dumps. But I’m not the only one who’s asked the question. My daughter, Lauren, has had plenty of opportunity to wonder what is the matter with me as well. Below, I post her account of what it’s like to have a mother with an unusual passion:

It started with the pictures, thousands of them. Sunrises blazing bright across the sky. A little enchanted world shown day after day in vibrant orange and red. My mother put them in a book with fine black paper. They were beautiful. And they were all pictures of a garbage dump.

Sunrise over SF Bay

I guess if we’re being honest it really started with a commute to San Francisco. My mother had taken a job as an interface designer for Blue Shield. She’d had to get up every morning before the sun rose to make the forty-five minute commute (turned rush-hour nightmare) up 101 to the city center. One day, when her camera happened to be in the car, she stopped at the exit for Candlestick Park and took a photo. I wonder if she has that first picture marked in her book with the black paper, the sunset that started it all. Maybe she simply knows with a look which one it is.

That first photo turned into countless landfill visits, and seemingly thousands of rolls of film. By the time I entered high school, my mother knew where every landfill was in the Bay Area. She’d been to most. Shoreline. Brisbane. Oyster and Sierra Points. Bayfront Park. Byxbee Park. Fort Bragg. Coolee Landing. Hayward.

Her interest in landfills mutated, grew. She wondered about what went into dumps, what they said about our lives as Americans. She hoarded trash so that she’d have a reason to visit. We didn’t really need a new table, but my mother carted the old one off because she’d run out of things to throw away. She wrote stories about the paths that garbage took through our lives and made garbage her free time.

Glass Beach, Fort BraggSometimes I found myself in the car, weighted with a little dread, watching as she snapped photos of the stark and sterile coast line nudging shoulders with the batteries, old furniture parts, and the crappy romance novels you felt dirty for reading. I didn’t like how I felt on those trips, desperate for humanity, and horribly, horribly ugly. How could we let this happen? My mother recently went back home to the Netherlands and decided while she was there that she’d search out their landfills, and surprise surprise, there were none. They burned their garbage in Europe. They got rid of it.

The reason we have dumps, landfills, places that might eventually be covered up with a layer of clay and turned into an idyllic lakeside getaway like Shoreline, is because we don’t want to think about our waste, what we lose and leave behind. The only time the landfill was convenient was when the Stones came in 1999 and Mick Jagger collapsed on the stage. Clearly it was the methane emissions they were venting out from the earth and not all of drugs he’d probably ingested.

Mostly we cringe at the photos we see in environmental documentaries, vow to recycle better next time, and then forget about it altogether. That’s what landfills are designed to do, allow us to brush packaging and toxic paint and plastic twisty-ties off, like so much dirt on our shoulders. They’re the filing cabinet of problems too big to consider at this moment. Sometimes they’re easy enough to hide. Once they become too saturated with debris they simply get sealed away—recycled into a park. But Shoreline and Byxbee, no matter how pretty you paint them, how much grass and trees you lay over the clay covering, are never going away. They’re trapped, lying in stasis, never decomposing or breaking down, a constant memento mori for those of us who think to look.

I spent years being exasperated and annoyed at my mother and her penchant for weekend daytrips to the local waste way stations. I don’t know what I wanted from her. An obsession with classic films or antiques—something I could connect with on some level. Instead I had a mom who thought subscribing to the trash collector’s union magazine was interesting, who asked for Soylent Green on DVD for Christmas, and who got excited by road signs pointing to local dumps.

Somewhere along her expeditions, as she refers to them, these dumps and way stations became a story that needed to be told.

She decided to write a book about it, The Landfill Diaries, and she joined a writing group that met Mondays. I stuck to my bedroom on those occasions, furiously doing math assignments and procrastinating on the internet. I didn’t want to hear about the layers of garbage, the dead girl who showed up on the waste conveyor belt, and certainly not the number of tons of crap Americans let anonymous men cart off and dump into barren stretches of land kept well hidden from the average citizen. A job, as it turns out, that is more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq, or a police man in Camden, New Jersey, or a fire fighter in desert country. The homework and the computer and the snacks I munched on all represented more trash, more waste, more detritus.

One Monday, I walked out of my room to get a glass of water, and I overheard my mother reading the tail-end of her latest chapter. She was probably talking about those long ago sunrises. I don’t know. I was tired of hearing it. I did notice when a woman, severe glasses and clothing and expression, and the writer of the worst sort of romance schlock, spoke up.

“It’s so beautiful, the way you phrase it. I wish it…weren’t about garbage.”

I stopped still in the kitchen and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had an epiphany. That woman had so incredibly missed the point. That’s why my mother did it. That’s why she took a trip to New York City in the middle of my senior year, to visit Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Garbage is not beautiful in each individual piece, or even when we bag it up and stuff it into blue bins. With a shock of sky as a background to mountains of Styrofoam and discarded clothing and food strewn over dead gray earth it is transformed. It is not pleasant, and perhaps only my mother would put such an image up on her wall. The devastation I see in those pictures is frightening. The things we are capable of doing in our carelessness should give anybody pause. And yet it’s still magnificent.

Sunrise over SF Bay, AgainThe sky blazes in polluted pink or deep, deep blue, plants still fight there way up to the sun, and even so it smells horrible. It should. It takes a diaper nearly 10,000 years to degrade. There’s history in that landfill. When we’re all gone, have covered every last landfill with fake parks and strip malls like in Fresh Kills, archeologists will be digging that garbage up and positing about how we live. Everything will be perfectly preserved. Do we want our forgotten bicycles, chip bags, and worn-down shoes to be how history remembers us? Do we want them to see our filing cabinet of problems we couldn’t deal with or simply forgot about? Just like the pictures, they are frozen snapshots.

Postscript: Lauren is still in school. She’s a writer and an artist. I am very proud of her.


Field Trip

Garbage Field TripEvery day, 500 tons of trash from the Campania region in southern Italy get to go on a European vacation, destination Hamburg, in northern Germany. That’s 55 train cars worth of trash crossing the Alps every day, making the almost 1200-mile trip in just about 44 hours. The arrangement is meant to continue for 11 weeks. A lot of the traveling trash is compostible waste–kitchen scraps, restaurant leftovers, and so forth. A lot of the rest is recyclable, including plastics. The incinerator in Hamburg separates out the stuff that doesn’t burn, but the rest of it goes up in smoke.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but it’s commonplace at home. The situation in the U.S. is equally bizzarre, except that it goes on by design rather than misadventure, day after day, indefinitely. And the trash doesn’t hop the train but rides first class in 18-wheelers, guzzling gas. Of all the states in the union, 47 export garbage and 45 import it. Some of it comes from Canada even. which has decided that landfilling the stuff is too unhealthy while incinerating it at home is a lot more expensive than paying American landfill operators to bury it in Michigan. In the northeast especially, garbage is “exported” almost without exception as local landfills have closed, and nobody is ready to give permission for a new one in their own backyard.

Garbage TruckNot only does the stuff get carried all over the country, but pretty much every community is on its own looking for a place to stash their castoffs. As a result, the network of routes described by all this trash looks like a vast spider web woven by a drunken spider with no sense of geometry and no talent or inclination for housekeeping. The garbage trucks routinely pass by many active landfills on their way to distant destinations. (The scholar Benjamin Miller, who wrote Fat of the Land, a fabulous study of the sorry history of New York landfill, is working on the transportation angle. He was kind enough to show me a picture of that crazy web, which is to come out in a new book soon. )

The whole thing made economic sense under two conditions:

1. low transportation costs, by which it can be cheaper to truck trash vast distances to a cut-rate dump.

2. artificially depressed “tipping fees,” as the dump charges are called. Lifetime costs of operating and monitoring landfills and eventually converting them to usable space are generally not calculated into the price.

A study done before the price of gas took off estimated that banning interstate trade in garbage would lead to a total loss of $3.8 billion, as some waste haulers and landfill operators would see their revenues decline while others would make hay and some proportion of citizens would see their garbage collection fees go up, while the rest might catch a break. (See the abstract or a writeup of the study)

However the math was done, it would be different now of course, with gas prices out of all proportion to where they used to be. But more importantly, there’s a logical impossibility in the notion that we’d be worse off if we didn’t carry garbage all over the country. By this kind of analysis, if we made less garbage, there’d be losses in the system. However, I have to think we’d come out way ahead on the whole. And coming up with local garbage disposal methods would also have to be an overall gain, especially if we factor environmental damage from trucking into the equation and sift out the special interest rhetoric.

But of course that might just require an end to just burying it all whosale.


Why Worry About Garbage

… when we have much bigger and more urgent things to worry about, like climate change?

None of the obvious reasons for studying and chronicling (or reading about) garbage hold water, as I soon discovered when I tried to think it through and capture it on paper. Despite periodic alarms that we are running out of space for garbage, there is in fact plenty of room left. As a retired hazardous waste engineer told me recently—and with a straight face—most of the state of Utah would be entirely suitable for the purpose. We can in fact keep going as we have for many centuries and hardly notice the difference. (Unless of course you live in Utah.)

Marsh Road Fill, Menlo Park, CATrue, landfills contribute methane to the atmosphere, and methane is thought to have an even stronger effect on our climate than carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, garbage is a much, much smaller problem than our reliance on fossil fuels. Compared to the burgeoning world population, still multiplying at break-neck speed, increasing global inequality, frightening reductions in biodiversity, and progressive regional destabilization, garbage doesn’t rank as a major issue.

What’s worse, my early attempts at explaining myself ran foul of the essential nature of my experience visiting garbage dumps and collecting garbage facts. Somehow, all my explanations gravitated to the ponderous and the edifying. Before I knew it, I’d be up to my ears in stern morality and finger-wagging, a flock of shoulds lurking at the end of every sentence. Here’s a snippet from my archives: “Garbage is a part, even if only a small one, in our environmental muddles. If we manage to head off catastrophic climate change, if we husband our natural resources carefully, we’ll eventually have to confront all the garbage we so meticulously store up for the future.”

Byxbee Park, Palo Alto, CAWell, yes, that’s true—we are preserving our garbage in pristine condition in our landfills—but that’s not why I like it. Here’s another attempt: “Our economy is driven not only by marketing but by swift and efficient trash collection. One creates the endless desire for ever more stuff, while the other reduces our guilt over the consequences. Stuff will continue its gay march through our households only as long as there’s a smooth way out the back door.”

It’s not that I don’t agree—I wrote it, after all—but what fun is that?

Besides, take a quick look online for books on consumerism and it’ll be instantly clear that you hardly need me to tell you that we buy too much stuff in too much packaging for reasons that, in the final analysis, have little to do with our own well-being.

So why then bother with garbage? Why do I write about it? And what on earth makes me think that you should read about it?

Fresh Kills, Staten Island, NYThe answer is simple and straightforward: garbage is delightful. I humbly offer it up, perhaps not as absolute truth, but certainly as my deeply considered opinion. It’s counterintuitive, but garbage improves upon acquaintance. I can personally vouch for the fact that the more you know about it, the more entertaining it becomes, provided you approach it in the proper spirit. Garbage is disgusting, sure, but it’s also funny, pathetic, fascinating, and infuriating—every bit as funny, pathetic, fascinating, and infuriating as we who produce it.

I love garbage because it is concrete, showing us very specifically what some of our contributions to the planet amount to. Because almost all of the garbage created in our lifetime has been buried and preserved, it is still as concrete as the day it went to earth. Though hidden, it is still visible if you seek it out. And it is permanent, carefully preserved in its many unassuming storage places to minimize its impact on those who hope to deny its presence. That is to say, if we’re not ready to think about it now, we’ll have a lot of opportunity to do so later.

I love garbage because it’s traceable. Given a date and a location, you can figure out where your garbage now reposes. I know, because I’ve done it. And, presumably, if we were to find it and dig it up, it would be recognizable as yours and mine. I suppose that could be depressing, but the comic potential is vast.

I love garbage because it gives me perspective, in two senses of the word. Garbage throws a compelling light on us. It doesn’t offer the whole truth, perhaps, but it’s certainly unvarnished. Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have long studied garbage, as it offers a rich source of information about ancient societies. Along those same lines, modern garbage is a rich source of information about ourselves—without the comforting stories and embellishments that surround us everywhere else.

At the same time, garbage puts things “in perspective.” It’s hard to stand on your dignity when your garbage heaves into view. In much the same way, I found it hard to be too despondent about our environmental challenges when contemplating the odd disjointures and weird implications of our garbage habits. The bathos inherent in our garbage—the incongruities of the desperately serious and the patently trivial and ridiculous—is potent medicine.

What’s more, whatever it takes to reduce the size of our garbage will also reduce our impact on the weather.


History Trashed

Imagine the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles being carted off to the trash to make way for a new school. Is that sad or is that life? Or is it even good riddance to a bad architectural wart?

Or imagine, alternatively, that the Ambassador Hotel had missed its appointment with the wrecking ball and the pantry was now the centerpiece of a museum. Would you go?

Or, a third option, imagine going to school in a building where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Would that change your sense of history, your sense of place, for the better?

The question came up a few days ago (if not exactly in the terms I just proposed) , on the anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, in an NPR segment featuring Patt Morrison, a newspaper columnist who had been active in the effort to save the hotel. Morrison argued that there was no substitute for actually being in the place where it had happened. Even if the pantry were recreated somewhere else with the pieces that had been preserved, she said, it wouldn’t pack the power of the original.

Ambassador HotelAll of which led me to the architectural wart theory. To be honest, I startled myself with that conclusion, since in general I’m much in favor of museums, I’m extremely interested in history, and I’m even more keen on preservation and keeping things out of the trash.It took me a while to puzzle through the values and assumptions that took me to that unexpected destination. Let me start with the obvious:

– Bobby Kennedy is not really part of my personal sense of history. I didn’t live in this country when he was assassinated. I don’t even know why he was assassinated. I have no idea what I could possibly learn from visiting the scene of the crime. It’s sort of interesting to imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t been assassinated, but I struggle with the notion that anything would have been radically different in that case. Anyhow, if the pantry had been hallowed and presented as a museum shrine, I’m unlikely to have made the pilgrimage.

– The whole thing reminds me of all the worst pseudo-museum experiences that the western world has been apt to produce and exploit: the Catholic veneration of relics, the ghoulish insalubrity of a Mme Tussaud’s waxworks, the goggle-eyed horror of a circus sideshow with its oddities, deformities and abnormalities.

– History wasn’t lost when the pantry got thrown out. There are aspects of history of which we have only a few mute objects to reconstruct the people and events that produced us, and they become precious beyond words. This particular piece of history isn’t one of them.

Some things are too fragile not to put in a museum. At least a museum is a public place, which makes its treasures available to whoever has the price of entry and a preference for low-adrenaline entertainment. In those respects, I like museums. A lot. All the same, there’s tremendous loss in the lines a museum draws around the objects it preserves and displays. Museum alienates us from living history: they take history away from our lives, put it a glass case, and serve it up with expert interpretation. Perhaps a historical marker works a lot better.

In my ideal world, we wouldn’t build anything that couldn’t last for a long time. We would repurpose and adjust the things that outgrow their original intention. In that case we can live surrounded by things that testify to other people, other ways, other cultures, other values. We would have to forgo the lustre of the new, the promis of a fresh start and a limitless future, but we could have a living connection with the past.

So if I could rewind time and choose a different fate for the Ambassador Hotel, I would rewind it all the way past the Kennedy assassination, back to a point before 1921. Of course the most important thing to undo would be the assassination itself, but next on the list is building something that could withstand the tooth of time.

June 2008
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