Archive for August, 2008

27
Aug
08

saucepans, bonnets, and umbrellas

In Dickens’ David Copperfield, trash is a marker of class. When David goes in search of his irrepressible old school friend Tommy Traddles, for instance, he finds a street strewn with scraps of food and broken belongings, an index of Tommy’s straightened circumstances:

I found that the street was not as desirable a one as I could have wished it to be, for the sake of Traddles. The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage-leaves. The refuse was not wholly vegetable either, for I myself saw a shoe, a doubled-up saucepan, a black bonnet, and an umbrella, in various stages of decomposition, as I was looking out for the number I wanted.

Dickens ascribes a certain carelessness to the inhabitants, but the real difference between this street and a more upscale one would have been a lack of servants or other resources to have the trash cleaned up and carted away.

William Rathje, who analyzed and quantified residential garbage in Tucson and elsewhere in the US, showed that, in our own time, the wealthy create more garbage than the poor. Before we can throw something out, we have to buy it, after all. And the more money we have, the more we buy, the more we throw out. The effect may be magnified by consumerism, but there’s no reason to assume the state of affairs was essentially different in Victorian England.

The association of trash and poverty is by no means unique to Dickens, although its exact inflection varies from place to place and time to time. Phrases like “trailer trash” and “a trashy neighborhood” ring just a few of the many changes on this theme.

Calcutta Apartment Building

Calcutta Apartment Building

By and large, people distance themselves from garbage if they can afford to, but they do it in different ways, developing elaborate rituals for making it invisible or, on the contrary, refusing to handle it at all. In his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins tells the story of how, in the 1970s, there was a lot of evident garbage in Saudi Arabia, only diminished by roving goats. A local source explained that Arabs considered themselves above handling garbage, so it was just thrown out of doors. I think perhaps in India a similar way of thinking produces such large amounts of putrescibles in the streets, in conjuction with and in immediate proximity to an intense devotion to personal cleanliness. I’d venture to guess that more per capita washing goes on in India than in any other place in the world.

In many places, the poorest of the poor live on and off garbage dumps. I assembled a brief list in a post about scavenging. Scavenging is for many practitioners an economic imperative, and the activity tends to brand them, functioning as a social shorthand for marginal status. One of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs shows that it is nevertheless possible to make a life on the dump in terms clearly reminiscent of prevailing norms. The photo shows an endless stretch of open dump in Mexico City with a little dark clump near the horizon, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a village. An arrangement of makeshift houses is made complete by a parked VW Beetle, apparently in working order.

Advertising Poster for The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s gentle documentary The Gleaners and I, about scavengers in France, points to other motivations besides economic necessity. Some gleaners don’t like the general wastefulness inherent in commercial farming, by which a good part of the harvest is dumped or simply never reaped. These gleaners follow a moral impulse diametrically opposed to the dominant econonmic mores of capitalist society, but perhaps there is also a certain waywardness in their behavior. Although there’s a general preference for orchards and fields over dumpsters among Varda’s heroes, there’s a general recognition that when the harvest is truly over in the fields, there’s another treasure waiting in the trash.

Varda also finds some who are simply fascinated by garbage, including the artists who scavenge their materials and build new things out of old in a way that exploits all the meanings adhering to the new and the old identities at the same time, the pathos and the courage both at once. Varda herself is one of these, and she shows up in the movie as a subject as well as the maker. What drives Varda, specifically, is a connection between trash and the tragic irreversibility of time, the entropic imperative by which all things progress to disorder. Her hands and her hair. Her ceiling with its leak, blossoming in frightful cabbage roses. Her carefully selected heart-shaped potatoes, from the poster, which show up several months later in an extremely disordered state.

Death and the end of time are foretold in garbage, and some prefer to make war on it, not by denial, but by careful inspection and, wherever possible, delight.

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15
Aug
08

Rolling Hills

Byxbee Park, on the bay shore in Palo Alto, is both perfectly obvious and perfectly bizarre. Obvious, because it’s in the middle of the Baylands and offers spectacular views of the bay in all directions. Perfectly bizarre, because it is full of machinery and mysterious artifacts that have an allure similar to Stonehenge. Clearly these things were built by humans, and at some effort, but to what earthly purpose?

Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto
Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto

The artifacts include a carefully planted forest of wooden poles, as well as a piece of equipment that looks like a cross between a rugby goal and wind chimes. K-rail is laid out in chevrons on one hillside. In a dip on the other side, stands a chugging, churning device that looks to have sagged out of plumb a generation ago. A trail of shimmery heat waves comes out the top.

Most startlingly, the place breathes, though not always in the same rhythm. A few years ago, you had to listen carefully for the long-drawn-out, despondent sigh it cast upon the air every two minutes or so. When I visited more recently, the park breathed almost in synch with myself, a little stertorously perhaps, as if suffering from some minor pulmonary obstruction.

There’s a simple explanation for the mystery: Byxbee Park is repurposed landfill, a small section of the Palo Alto city dump that was decommissioned some time in the 1980s. Its artificial hills are studded with pipes and pumps for the capture of leachate and methane. The leachate goes to the purification plant down the road, while the methane is burned off by a flare, that rusty device described above. Construction rubble peeks out of the grassy knolls behind the “habitat reconstruction” signs. The pole forest is in fact “land art,” and so are the K-rail and the rugby chimes.

If you don’t already know, then it’s not so easy to find out what Byxbee Park is. A plaque near the entrance to the park says: “The design of Byxbee Park is the result of a collaboration between the City of Palo Alto, landscape architects Hargreaves Associates, and artists Michael Oppenheimer and Peter Richards. The project was funded in part by the City of Palo Alto refuse collection fees and the Public Art Commission’s Art in Public Places program.” A map identifies the installations by name but declines all effort at explanation. And not a word about garbage apart from those collection fees.

Byxbee’s tight-lipped stance, the likely legacy of the 20th-century’s long romance with “sanitation,” is perhaps understandable. Sanitation was about garbage removal as a public health measure, about whisking garbage away from the curb and making it disappear, as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was about burying garbage where nobody had to worry about it except the sanitation department. It was about creating a world where you could pretend that garbage didn’t really amount to any of your business. That time has passed.

Michael Oppenheimer's Wind Wave installation

Wind Wave installation

The sanitation romance is fading and reality asserts itself. What may once have counted as innocence now only looks like wanton blindness. Most of us are uncomfortably aware of the fact that natural resources are finite and landfill space harder and harder to come by. Sanitary engineering has given way to environmental engineering, and ordinary people are handling (and worrying about) their trash, at least a little. When we drag our garbage cans to the curb and the lid won’t quite go down, we probably don’t feel too good about it.

All the same, it’s still awkward to talk about garbage publicly. The instinct still is to pull away from the subject as if it were sex and we Victorians. Garbage isn’t quite taboo, but it isn’t approved cocktail party conversation either—or something easily owned up to in park signage. It’s not just Byxbee Park where the “habitat restoration” signs don’t specify what type of habitat it is exactly that’s being restored. Bayfront Park, in Menlo Park, doesn’t have a single sign telling you it’s the old town dump. The Sunnyvale dump has signs all over it that say “Sensitive Wildlife Area.” Indeed.

Garbage dumps are just more comfortable telling you how to comport yourself than pointing out what it is you’ve already accomplished.

But perhaps it’s time to learn to think about garbage and to discuss it, not just in the “trashies” subculture but in polite society—if only because we actually feel a little guilty about the amounts of trash we get rid of every week. Or perhaps because we suspect that, whatever happens to it precisely, it’s not a pretty story. Perhaps because looking at our garbage makes it possible to decide whether we want to continue to make more fake hills and fill up more canyons with dangerous stuff that needs to be tended and monitored for decades or longer. If we dig our garbage back up out of the twilit reaches of a guilty conscience, then perhaps the signage at our landfills can be a little more straightforward too?

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

At Byxbee right now, the best hint of what’s underfoot is the active fill next door. Its mounds rise at a startling rate, even though only a portion of Palo Alto’s garbage ends up here now. Every time I visit Byxbee, the new dump is a little more present. One day, a new hill rises in the back. Another time, fill activity is going on in front, where there used to be a miscellany of trucks, rubble, equipment, and temporary storage. A third time, a little setup of pumps and other machinery has been moved out of the hollow in which it sat, and the hollow itself is now a big hill. It’s all carefully shaped to a grading plan that is meant to make the garbage look like the Coyote Hills across the bay–a natural feature of the environment.

With only a few years of space left in it, the active dump is expected to reach capacity in 2010, and the entire area will become parkland. As garbage hills go, Byxbee won’t be very large. Nevertheless, if it’s your garbage in there, how is it not special?

Even when you know what it is made of, Byxbee is quite lovely. Or maybe it is actually more lovely. In summer, when the grass is a bright strawberry blond and the sky intensely blue, the garbage is more a distant memory than a looming presence. Christmastime is different. The park has a leaden quality, even on the brighter days. The dull green of the grass and the relatively low light lend the hills an ominous air far more suggestive of the putrid mess underfoot.

In winter, the geese come through on their way south. Large groups, sometimes hundreds of them, camp out for a day or so to rest. The younger members of the flock occupy their time with incessant honking, squawking, and squabbling to rearrange the social order, while the more sedate and peaceable members of the congregation contentedly snack on the new grass.

The pelicans like to doze near Adobe Creek, neatly folded into small, blazing white packages from which occasionally a gawky long neck and beak protrudes. They could be a demonstration of the amazing ingenuity of a high-tech camping gadget. An occasional loner on the wing, flying low over the water, demonstrates the size and power of the animal when fully folded out.

At sunrise the wading birds and other water fowl are out at first light, always already there by the time I arrive. Most of the smaller ones I don’t recognize, although I am familiar with the names: terns, grebes, willets, western sandpipers, curlews, greater and lesser yellowlegs. They roll on the tongue like burbling water, out of time and history, comforting like the birds themselves.

They offer us a little hope: no matter how artificial the environment, no matter how degraded, life goes on. For now at least.

06
Aug
08

On Fire

In late July, a huge compost pile caught fire at the Palo Alto dump. Gigantic billows of smoke drifted off to the neighboring communities, creating considerable alarm among the residents, most of whom (understandably) don’t like to be intimate with landfill and its various effluents. Fire engines and helicopters were dispatched to extinguish the smoldering ruin, after which a crew sifted through the entire pile in search of hot spots.

Compost Pile in 2006

Compost Pile in 2006

Barbara Cimino, a spokeswoman for the fire department, sought to calm the fears of residents in the path of the smoke, explaining it was all very harmless and quickly brought under control. The Huffington post fueled the flames by adding “toxic” to its headline, although that’s unlikely, considering it was the compost pile that was laid waste, so to speak. It won’t have been more unhealthy than smoke is, generally, I should think and to be avoided, but “toxic smoke” suggests something else to me.

Cimino noted that the fire department was investigating whether a truck had brought in combustible material. That’s what caught my ear, as definitely newspeak. Compost is by definition combustible. Moreover, the process of biodegradation generates heat and smoldering fires in landfills are common, as they used to be in haystacks, where moist hay can spur biodegradation and result in spontaneous combustion). Compost can’t be any different. So however it happened, in all likelihood, it was just in the nature of things.

A couple of years ago, I got a tour of the Palo Alto landfill from the manager, who showed me the active face, the recycling operations on top of the fill, the vast closed area which holds nothing but pipes and grass on top of the fill, and the area converted to park. He drove me around and explained what was what and how things worked, grudgingly at first and much more enthusiastically when he discovered I was nothing but ears.

He’d worked at the landfill since the early 1980s and told me stories about people stealthily trying to dump motor oil when the workers weren’t looking. About a lady bringing huge loads of new cabbage patch dolls just before Christmas, which the workers rescued and gave to a not-for-profit. About another lady dragging a worker under her car as he was helping her get unstuck from a muddy spot. About yachtsmen abandoning their craft as the marina silted up. leaving the landfill crew to deal with the remains.

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

And he explained that the landfill was smoldering under the surface pretty much all the time. Usually, the workers coould tell where the hot spots were when their PVC methane collection pipes melted. There wasn’t much they could do about it except lay more pipe for methane collection.

He told me he didn’t know what he would do when the landfill closed, not too far in the future now. He didn’t have much education, being an outdoors kind of guy, but operating the heavy machinery on the landfill all those years had caused a lot of damage to his body. It left him quite a few years away from retirement but not very many options.

It was an education, as I gradually realized that landfill workers get squeezed between government organizations that demand less trash, residents who want to dump whatever they want to get rid off, regardless of regulations, and the trash itself, which is wayward, nasty, and toxic.

Many people like the park that has been created out of the part of the landfill that was closed years ago, but the landfill manager, my tourguide, would just as soon hang himself as walk around there. “It’s filthy,” he said. “and there are nasty creatures all over it–black widows, rats, and all sorts of other vermin.” We’ll have to give it to him. he knew what he was talking about.

02
Aug
08

Erased

Ginger Strand, in her wonderful book Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, tells a story about bringing a friend to Niagara Falls because “Niagara’s landfills are amazing.” They do sound pretty good, from her descriptions, so I looked up the ones she mentions with Google Maps. Of course, landfills aren’t actually marked on the map, so I usually look up an address, if I have one, then zoom out a bit and then load the satellite view.

I quickly found the small landfill created by the Hooker company at the south end of Love Canal, because Strand supplies an address. I found the much larger CECOS landfill by the fact that Strand says you can see it from the freeway off of Grand Island. And I found the Niagara Falls Storage Site/LOOW, where a lot of the radioactive waste ended up from wartime nuclear development in and around Niagara Falls, by looking for Model City. In the image at left, I drew in the landfills myself, with approximate boundaries in red.

Niagara Falls, plus a few landfills
Niagara Falls, plus a few landfills

And then this morning it suddenly occurred to me that it’s pretty interesting that landfills are not marked in the mapping tools. I checked out the different tools, to see if any of them provide clues about landfill. They all seem to use Navteq data, and not one shows landfills, at any scale.

Mapquest’s map shows the Niagara Factory Outlet and the Hyde Park Golf Course. Google’s map also shows the St. Joseph’s Cemetery, in addition to shopping meccas and parks. The Yahoo map spurns the shopping opportunities but does name the Cayuga Creek, which remains nameless on the other maps. In addition, it points out Pletchers Corners, at the intersection of Lockport and Military, northeast of Niagara Falls. There’s no explanation of what kind of feature this might be. Clearly each service has a different notion of what a person could reasonably be expected to look for, picking out different bits of information from the data Navteq offers. Landfills are not on any list.

It’s not like people don’t need to find landfills, however. Most active landfills allow individuals and small contractors to drive in with trash and dispose of it, for a small fee. And I know people search for landfills regularly because I can see some of the query strings on the basis of which they arrive at my own blog. Some of these clearly are very practical: “where do i dump household garbage in palo alto” and “discard old tires antioch.” I’m always sorry they found me, because I doubt it gets them any closer to their goal.

It’s tough to know who exactly made the decision to leave the landfills off the map. Navteq seems to have something to do with it, because each of the maps simply shows a blank. Where there is landfill, the maps simply show nothing, leaving a hole in the map, so to speak.

I know our society is based on an out-of-sight , out-of-mind approach to garbage, not to worry us with the consequences of our behaviors. But why exactly does Navteq participate in it? I asked a question via the Navteq website, but I don’t have a great deal of confidence that I’ll get an answer back. I had to disclose all sorts of interesting personal information in a pretty complex form, while the field where I could type a comment of some sort, dangling at the very end of the process like an afterthought, was the only field that was not required. It didn’t exactly feel like Navteq is eager to hear from me.

And I don’t want to create the impression that Navteq is the only culprit. I checked my Thomas Guides for Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco counties, only to confirm my suspicion. Not a landfill is marked, although all the parks on top of closed landfills are duly labeled, without reference to the substructure. Active landfill is simply blank. Frankly, I’d have been amazed if it had been otherwise. Denial is the normal inflection of our society when it comes to garbage.

Ginger Strand, meanwhile, says, “if we don’t admit that the things we do to make our lifestyle possible even have a cost, how can we ever know when that price has become too high?”




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