Archive for the 'bibliography' Category


landscape inspirations

Fresh Kills is undoubtedly the best (because improbably and absurdly) named landfill in the country. I vividly remember a friend’s speechless incredulity on hearing me refer to it casually. Fresh Kills? You’ve got to be kidding! The fact that it’s simply named after the body of water immediately adjacent to it doesn’t make the name any less fantastic.

View of the Arthur Kills

View of the Arthur Kill from the Garbage Summit

In this respect, Fresh Kills stands in marked contrast to the vast majority of landfills, which tend to have such innocuous names you half expect to see a gated community sprouting on top at any moment. For instance, the list of landfills that lie in the path of destruction of Hurricane Ike reads as follows: Atascocita, Addicks Fairbanks, Baytown, Cougar, Coastal Plains, Conroe 7, Greenshadows, Hawthorne Park, Newton County, and Security. Greenshadows, indeed.

A friend of mine once asked me to find information about the landfill nearest her house, something with “pines” in the name. I quickly discovered that there are various landfills throughout the nation called White Pines. And then there is Whispering Pines, Two Pines, Tall Pines, Gulf Pines, and just plain The Pines.

Just for fun, I thought I’d try to find a beech landfill and yes indeed. There’s Beech Hollow and Beech Hill. Oak nets me a few more choices: Black Oak, Red Oak, White Oak, Live Oak, East Oak, and Fair Oak landfills.  Birch is much less appealing, yielding only a paltry River Birch landfill. I won’t bore you with chestnut, redwood, and other tree landfills.

I’m not sure I understand this arboreal affinity, but one thing I would bet money on: we’re not likely to soon see a noir thriller named Whispering Pines or Beech Hollow. We do, however, have a choice of two different exemplars of the genre for Fresh Kills. Not that the plot of either has anything to do with landfill or the putrescibles typically tucked away in them. New York City’s venerable dump is little more than atmospheric wallpaper in both fables, setting a delectably morose tone, and wafting a bad, bad breeze over their unlikely proceedings.

Reggie Nadelson’s Fresh Kills (2006) is the tale of a Russian cop who makes a mess of his babysitting responsibilities, leaving a psychopathic pre-teen nephew unsupervised on multiple occasions in one short weekend, by sheer neglect and stubborn denial. The consequences are not pleasant. To make up for his poor performance as a responsible adult, he participates in the kid’s execution in the novel’s denouement. There’s absolutely no connection with Fresh Kills except that a portion of the overwrought activities takes place on Staten Island, and it is apparently not possible to talk about Staten Island without mentioning its most famous monument.

Flare on Fresh Kills Landfill

Flare on Fresh Kills Landfill

Bill Loehfelm’s Fresh Kills, just out, starts in a similar vein. A young man’s dad–an abusive drunk with a nasty streak–is blown away in a mafia hit, in front of a Staten Island deli. The young man, having inherited the nasty streak, goes about terrorizing the dimwitted end of the local high-school population in a half-hearted attempt to find the goons responsible. The effort comes to nought, as the hero is waylaid by alcoholic temptations and ex-girlfriends. Somewhere in its bloated midsection, the novel miraculously transforms itself into chick lit, and our young man slouches off into the sunset firmly ensconced in the loving arms of the dimwits’ teacher.

Unlike Nadelson, Loehfelm does appear to have more than passing acquaintance with the famous earthworks:

They try to hide it, wall it off with dirt mounds covered in scraggly greenery. They try to ignore it, running the West Shore Expressway right through the middle of it. They brag about herons and egrets nesting in the waterways behind it. They hunt the rats every night. But you can’t hide it. How can you hide millions upon millions of tons of fucking garbage? Because that’s what it is. Millions and millions of tons, acres upon acres, of fucking garbage.

Every day of the year, you can see thousands of gulls circling over it, hovering like a noxious cloud. A vermin halo staring down beady-eyed and ravenous for some guy’s month-old Chinese food from over in Bensonhurst. You can hear them fighting, screeching and squawking, clawing and snapping at dead dogs from the Upper East Side. In August, when the hot sun returns after a good, hard rain, and cooks up the Dump real good, there nowhere on the island you can’t smell it. It reeks to high heaven of waste, of all things thrown away and buried, things that have reached the end of the chain and no longer have a single use left to them. Things stuffed into black plastic bags and metal cans and hauled away by huge, rumbling, stinking trucks at the crack of dawn.

But on Staten Island? Those thrown-away things? They live here forever, baby. And they stink. It’s the stench of Eternal Life. Old diapers never die, they just move to Staten Island. All these thrown-away things, they come back, life a fat, farting, rancid ghost that sits its fat, dead self right on top of the island, and lingers long enough for all of us to breathe it in.

Obviously, Loehfelm feels pretty strongly about the situation. Nevertheless, all of this intensity can’t hide the fact that the novel really doesn’t have anything to do with Fresh Kills. This is very disappointing, given the history of crime and corruption that envelops New York City’s garbage.

Surely a magnificent thriller lurks in the city’s fetid spoils, and I can hardly wait to read it.


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.



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?”



“The most concrete emblem of every economic cycle is the dump. Accumulating everything that ever was, dumps are the true aftermath of consumption, something more than the mark every product leaves on the surface of the earth. The south of Italy is the end of the line for the dregs of production, useless leftovers, and toxic waste. If all the trash that, according to the Italian environmental group Legambiente, escapes official inspection were collected in one place, it would form a mountain weighing 14 million tons and rising 47,900 feet from a base of three hectares. Mont Blanc rises 15,780 feet, Everest 29015. “

This is Roberto Saviano, in Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. Organized crime, it quickly becomes apparent from Saviano’s account of the havoc the Camorra wreaks on Campania, is a misnomer. “Organized” is really not the word for anarchy piled on top of blood thirst, outsize machismo married to insane greed, blinding pride, temper tantrums, and an endless supply of artillery.

But what is perhaps most instructive (and chilling) about Saviano’s story is how difficult it is to distinguish the various criminal endeavors of the Camorra from their business enterprises. Clearly, the crime bosses don’t make a distinction between business and crime–they just have a slightly more inventive way to get business done, a few more options when it comes to making themselves competitive. And that’s one reason why the trash business has been so attractive to them.

According to Saviano, the Camorra, which dominates the construction industry, routinely mixes toxic waste into cement and then builds apartments, offices, houses, schools with it.

The Camorra takes loads of toxic waste from the north (in return for payment), dumping it into the pits meant for the subsidized destruction of agricultural surpluses (and collecting the subsidies), and then selling the agricultural surpluses that didn’t actually end up in the pits.

Graves are turned every 40 years in Italy, apparently, and the Camorra accepts payment to dispose of the bodies and then dumps them into the fields around Caserta. Teenagers dig through the charnels in search of skulls to sell on flea markets.

And all of this in their own back yards. Any land not already used for some other purpose in the countryside around Naples is liable to be used to dump waste, without licenses or any kind of environmental provisions against leaching or outgassing. To reduce volume and allow for additional dumping, kids are paid to burn the accumulating mounds. When all the combustible matter is gone, houses are built on top and sold to low-income families below market.

In the meantime, all of the household waste from Naples and Campania now gets on the train to Germany.

It’s a frightening tale and hope in very short supply.



In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams describes a visit to the local dump, to count birds, at face value not the most thrilling ornithological assignment. A dump is a dump, after all, and an active one has unmistakable olfactory drawbacks. Besides, there are few birds to be counted besides the wheeling, swirling flocks of gulls and starlings. They do offer entertainment: “[t]he starlings gorge themselves, bumping into each other like drunks. They are not discretionary. They’ll eat anything just like us. Three starlings picked a turkey carcass clean. Afterward, they crawled inside and wore it as a helmet.”

The entertainment value of this sesquipedalian carcass beast notwithstanding, the starlings make an uncomfortable little morality play, an demonstration of ecological ill manners from which there is a lot to learn. Starlings are textbook invasives, interlopers from Europe, pushing out other species wherever they go because of their aggression and adaptability. That is, they are the winged equivalent to squirrels, rats, and roaches. Pests. Not quite a part of nature because somehow out of balance with it and clearly out of place. Wild, but not. Too willing to adapt to us and colonize the urban environments we set aside for ourselves.

Williams shines a wry light on the contradictions in our thoughts about these bold and brash adventurers, who are riding our own coattails, succeeding so spectacularly only where we handicap the more discriminating and pickier natives: “Perhaps we project onto starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed, and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world.”

It’s an uncomfortable realization to think of Europeans as the first truly invasive species in North America, now succeeded by vast numbers from other continents..

Recognizing ourselves in the physiognomy of a pest is probably a salutary exercise, a potential (and much-needed) check on our own aggression and adaptability. All the same, I’m afraid that Williams is incorrect in her supposition that we hate starlings because we despise our own starling inner self. By default, we look at the world through the eyes of our clan. That is to say, what we loathe in others, we might well admire in ourselves. By default, our thinking is partial, partisan, self-centered, and self-justifying.

In a recent column, John Tierney reports on research that shows exactly how our perspective changes according to whether we look at an action as performed by ourselves (or our associates) or by someone not associated with ourselves.

I don’t want to come off as despairing about human nature. I’m not. Our adaptability, resourcefulness, resilience, and inventiveness, just like the starlings’, is an admirable default setting. Moreover, I am convinced that on top of those traits, we have the ability to step back and rise above, to reconsider and decide differently. To put a check on our starling impulses and act rationally, overcoming the perspective of short-term gain and immediate gratification.


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.

July 2018
« Dec