Archive for the 'US' Category

27
Dec
15

Facelift?

After a long while, I made another visit to Byxbee Park in Palo Alto yesterday, which is now much larger than before but also quite bleak.

2015-12-26 12.34.14

The parts of the garbage dump that were opened more recently are large, unnatural, and unnaturally bald mounds that loom over the more attractively sculpted hills closest to the bay. The work is not quite done, and some of the slopes are just plain clay with pipes and other machinery sticking up at regular intervals.

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You can get a better workout now that the place is larger, but it used to be more human scale. It was unkempt, but more inviting. I sort of miss the quirky old art installations that have been removed. No more midden-hillocks for the ground squirrels to turn into Swiss cheese. The methane flare-off has disappeared, and the “keyhole” laid out in shellfish around it has been erased. The shellfish paths have been paved over. Weird rivers of rock have been added. The chevrons have been made severely straight.

On the positive side, the trails over the dump connect to the trails through the salt marsh behind it, so you can enter from the frontage road along the 101. Also, birds still love the place. Some of the views are stunningly beautiful.

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You can still surprise a hare hopping quietly along the trail.

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And people come here to do unusual things, like the two guys  exercising their bald eagle.

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It may not be natural, but it’s better that someone cares enough to rescue it and do what can be done.

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05
Oct
14

Official History

A few weeks ago, shortly after take-off from New York’s JKF,  I looked out of my airplane porthole and saw an unmistakable garbage dump, on a spit of land sticking out like a hitch hiker’s thumb into a wide river. I just managed to snap a picture before it was lost from view. The stylized shape and the unnatural parched grass cover are each a dead giveaway, as are the straight trails following the precise angles of this man-made hill.

croton point focus

Croton Point landfill. Click to see a larger image.

A little scouting on Google Maps and Google Earth showed this to be the centerpiece of Croton Point Park, in Westchester. It lies just north of Ossining, within view of the famed Sing Sing prison. A history of the park explains that the point has served its humble purpose for a long time: it was once a Native American oyster shell midden. Started as early as 7000 years ago, it is apparently the oldest shell mound found on the East Coast. The official history does not mention that the current park is laid out on top of a more modern garbage dump. That silence is also part of the perennial landfill pattern. Native American garbage, less noxious to start with, has been purified by time. Our own garbage is a different matter altogether and is still unmentionable.

I do wonder how it happens. Perhaps someone wrote a history that referred to the dump and was made to erase all reference to it by reviewers who were afraid to scare off the public? Or did the writer not even think to include it? Judging by my own experience of group encounters with the less ideal contours of reality, either of these possibilities is thoroughly plausible.

The New York Times manages this negotiation with the unpleasant just a little bit better in a 1990 article about an exhibition of local folk tales: “MONEY HILL is no longer shown on any Westchester map, and if it once was haunted the witches have fled the old knoll on Croton Point. The Indian trinkets and pirate gold reputed to be buried there – which gave the hill its name – will not be found now. The site is buried under the thousands of tons of waste that cover what is now a landfill.”

Just two years earlier, the news was even more explicit: “THE 600 acres of Croton Point once formed one of the largest tidal marshes on the Hudson River. After 50 years as the site of an active county dump, however, the area is judged by environmentalists to be a health hazard. A Federal judge last month called the landfill, which was closed in 1986, an environmental time bomb.” Again we are grateful to the New York Times in reporting on several lawsuits over toxic waste and possible groundwater pollution from the site. Imagine the poisoned plume that spreads from what must be an unlined dump, old as it is.

That’s why I love garbage, repulsive as it is. No matter how much it is hidden, erased, or denied, it sticks around, stubbornly bearing witness to what we most like to forget.

07
Feb
12

In the Foothills

In Chicagoland, the major garbage range is formed by the Calumet Mountains. Very impressive, and I’ve written about them before in Connecting the Dots. But today I had reason to be in Dolton, Illinois, which doesn’t happen every day. Dolton lies in the foothills of the Calumets, south-south-west more or less.

View from Needles Park

Dolton is not exactly a metropolis. It has a 70s-style diner, a discount store, a Western Union, liquor stores and launderettes, miles of chain-link fence, smothered chicken at the Samichez take-out, lots of blowing trash, more than a fair share of resignation, and a highly unnatural stench in the raw air. And of course a very large pile of trash butting up to Cottage Grove Lake and the baseball diamond at Needles Park.

In his essay Disneyland with the Death Penalty, William Gibson says, “Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I look for the parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce.” I get that. It feels as if far more is revealed in the rubble and dust than in the buff and polish of the showcase avenues. There’s the wear and tear of history, the stresses that spring from lived reality, the cracks that open under the weight of grief.

But what to make of a place where there is nothing but fracture? Where the Chamber of Commerce has lit out of town long ago and there is no lay of the land to look beneath? Where the wiring is kaput and the chemicals that make everywhere else so prosperous, shiny bright, and bug free are all on the surface–and in the air and the ground and the water?

What to do when understanding is not sufficient to the challenge on the ground?

15
Jan
11

Murder Mystery

Cherry Island Landfill, Wilmington

Cherry Island Landfill, Wilmington

On New Year’s Eve, the body of John P. Wheeler III was seen falling out of a garbage truck dumping a load at the Cherry Island landfill near Wilmington, DE.

Sabrina Tavernise remarked in her New York Times article that that “Mr. Wheeler seemed an unlikely person to meet such a gruesome end.” Well, yes. He was a super-educated somebody in the Bush administration who had been instrumental in getting the Vietnam war memorial wall built. Surely nobody would have thought he was likely to be picked up during regular trash collections. But is that a likely destiny for any one of us, no matter how organized or disheveled we might be?

The response was highly instructive though. When a few years ago a homeless person ended up on the trashpickers’ line in the Sunnyvale transfer station, the general tut-tutting that followed was for the most part about how callous we are, how little some lives are worth in our society. This time, though, the media sniffed an intrigue behind the tragedy, and the lamentations quickly gave way to speculation. A homeless person in the garbage truck might be a tragic misadventure, but a murder mystery is entertainment.

25
Jul
10

Superman

Rocks drift to the surface of a field, endlessly. Murder will out. Tires break through the skin of a good old-fashioned garbage dump. Bizarre tidbits of history float up from oblivion in the obituaries.

Bill McCabe

Bill McCabe

By this mechanism, we recently learned that in more exacting times, before we removed unfeeling harshness and unreasonable standards from the landscape of everyday life, it was possible to get your 15 minutes of fame by exceptional performance qualifying as a garbage collector. In June 1940, Bill McCabe,

lifted an 80-pound dumbbell in each hand and hoisted a 120-pound trash can to a 4-foot-6-inch ledge. He lay on his back and lifted a 60-pound barbell placed behind his head. He broad-jumped 8 feet 6 inches after a 7-yard run, dashed an added 10 yards and jumped a 3-foot hurdle.

Continuing a 10-yard run over and around obstacles, he ran another 10 yards on a straightaway and climbed an 8-foot fence. Beyond the fence, he vaulted 4 feet 6 inches and then ran 5 yards to the finish line. The time for the entire run was 10.8 seconds. After a 15-minute rest, he ran 120 yards with a 50-pound dumbbell in each hand in 25 seconds.

And thus he achieved a perfect score on the qualifying test to become a New York city garbage collector—locally known as a san man—as well as gaining the enviable status of “perfect specimen,” at least according to his New York times obituary.

Of all the details of the test, I particularly like the 8-foot fence. Did the Sanitation Department envision its troops stealing into fortified backyards to liberate the garbage that wayward householders meant to reserve for their pigs and chickens? Were the sanitation stalwarts meant for feats of great athleticism or was this just an effort to boost the cachet of an unappealing profession? Maybe, but quite possibly the Sanitation Department got overzealous in the face of 68000 applicants for 2000 positions.

Bill McCabe anyhow was on to bigger and better things before his first year was out, first becoming a policeman and eventually stepping up to be a firefighter. He may have been the world’s one garbage man to wring fame out of his profession, but clearly it was not his dream job.

14
Mar
10

Recyclable Me

We might not like to think about it, but we ourselves are highly recyclable. Under the right circumstances, even teeth and bones will eventually resolve into new forms. Left to our own devices, we will at long last be carried away by critters or become absorbed into the mysterious, inexorable life of slowly heaving rock. Except for fillings and crowns, pacemakers, artificial knees, and other late-arriving hardware, nothing much remains.

To me, that sounds like absolution. Composting may not be a pretty process, but it’s the closest thing to the magic of “poof” that nature delivers. I bow to the light within that.

Skylawn Cemetery, San Mateo, CA

Nevertheless, a whole industry in the US takes the opposite view. A quiet army of morticians routinely embalm the broken bodies that arrive on their doorstep, pumping them full of chemicals that divert the dead from the cycle of life, transforming the remains into an environmental hazard. The only benefit achieved by the process is to sanitize the open-casket obsequies that appear to be nearly obligatory in the United States.

Of course there are alternatives. Cremation is better, though it too is associated with environmental burdens.  (The ovens contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and our non-organic hardware may be transformed into toxic fumes.) A green burial is the low-tech best, if you’re lucky enough to have a green cemetery nearby, easily determined with reference to the Natural End map. It turns out I can avail myself of a funeral home in Colma and repair to Mill Valley, California, where I can receive a natural chemical-free burial, involving a biodegradable casket or shroud and GPS coordinates to mark the spot. As Fernwood points out, I get “to be part of a land restoration project” in a whole new way.

But there’s a third high-tech recycling option, for those who lack the patience to do it the old-fashioned way: alkaline hydrolysis, a process by which the body is broken down to constituents in just about three hours. The Wikipedia article on resomation—the name by which the process is being marketed—specifies that what’s left at the end is “a small quantity of green-brown tinted liquid (containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts) and soft, porous white bone remains (calcium phosphate) easily crushed in the hand (although a cremulator is more commonly used) to form a white-coloured dust.” The liquid can be used to water the lawn, the dust is returned to the survivors.

And the New York Times pointed out that the industrial hardware—replacement parts, augmentations, and other devices—is delivered up clean and pristine and ready for another go-round. Perhaps Goodwill can handle the trade.

28
Nov
09

Hangover Saturday

If Thanksgiving is the appointed time for rampant overeating and Black Friday our annual date with discount frenzy, then today could perhaps become enshrined as Hangover Saturday, a good time to reflect on consumption rather than engage in it.

Here a selection of Hangover Saturday thoughts gathered in the course of a restful day:

When people talk about what they are grateful for (on Thursday), they never say, “I’m grateful that I have so much stuff” or “My cup runs over because of those Manolo Blahniks I bought last spring” or “The best thing that ever happened to me is my Lamborghini.” It’s possible they’re just trying not to tip their hand, but I suspect we don’t hear those things because, actually, we all do know better.

Our current economic woes have had one advantage: to clarify the point that consumption is not a selfish indulgence but a patriotic duty, philanthropy flowing ceaselessly towards the wealthy, so that our expenditures can come back to us in the form of jobs, which may be defined as a palliative for massive debt or as a subsidy for patriotic duty, sadly insufficient.

Can't touch that 42% of greenhouse gas tied up in goods and food!

Whoever thought of the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was not really clued in to the realities of our economic system. We do our bit to help with recycling at least in some parts of the country, but when we make an (unwilling and modest) start on the “Reduce” component, the whole country goes off the rails. That must be why the EPA report “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices”—which is to say “How to Save the World by Tackling Consumption and its After-Effect, Garbage”—declines to estimate the impact on greenhouse gas production if we ate less and bought fewer things. Instead, it tries to figure out what difference it makes if, for example, we were to capture ALL the landfill gas that percolates up from our trash and convert it to electricity or if we recycle ALL the construction and demolition debris coughed up by the never-ending pursuit of bigger and better (as opposed to affordable) homes and gardens.

The opposite of consumption that most easily comes to mind on Hangover Saturday would be abstention. But consumption also has an opposite in creation, which is or can be blameless and much more fun than just saying no. The best place I know to get a feel for the truth of that proposition is S.C.R.A.P. (www.scrap-sf.org), an inspired program in San Francisco that diverts virgin merchandise from the landfill, makes it available for dirt cheap to all those with an urge to create rather than consume, and provides a bunch of jobs into the bargain.

What one might do with scrap

The San Francisco warehouse (on Newcomb between Toland and Selby) is huddled rather inauspiciously under Highway 280, but step inside and be greeted by a carnival of color and texture—papers, fabrics, buttons, doodads, figures, threads and yarn, birds, notions, glass, wood, boxes and containers, table legs and carpet squares,  stickers, ribbons, cards, and vinyl discs. On and on. Not everything leapt out at me as obvious fodder for art, including the industrial-sized potato mashers. For many things, it is immediately obvious why they are not in a store somewhere. In their original identity, the scraps that S.C.R.A.P. offers are not saleable, but as art materials they’re irresistible, guiltless, and very inexpensive.

Over it all hangs an exhibit of unpretentious art: scrap boxes emulating the best of Joseph Cornell, mobiles, a digestive tract laid out in flopping beakers and retorts, quilts, and many other works that demonstrate the virtues and joys of clean salvage.




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