Posts Tagged ‘junk


sight to see

Neighbors to the New Haven dump

Neighbors to the New Haven dump

It’s Sunday morning, and the cloud cover is thick. A breath of winter blows across low-rent New Haven, rustling up the scraps of trash along the side of the road. I am looking for my garbage—discards tossed between 1983 and 1986, when all of New Haven was a low-rent zone—among the schoolbuses, the weeds, the auto junkers. A couple bundled up in sports jackets and hoodies walk along the road, carrying trash bags and a rake, searching for recyclables hiding in the weeds. Makeshift barriers made out of chunks of broken-down concrete mark the edges of the pavement.

Before I started looking for trash, I never really saw these kinds of places. They’re not part of what we are supposed to see. Rebecca Solnit writes about the national parks—how good we are at looking at the view and not at the parking lot. Garbage is similarly part of a deprecated reality. We don’t see it, even though we ride by it on the freeway. It barely registers even if we travel through it on our way to a visible and visitable place.

But I think there is another dynamic at work, which hinges on the fact that I am a woman. I negotiate my way across public space by reading it, carefully and incessantly. It’s a subconscious activity that continually informs my decisions—to proceed or turn back, stand still or keep going, turn left or right, study the environment or pretend I don’t see a thing—all inspired by “how safe” the landscape reads for a woman by herself. Places like the banks of the Quinnipiac, packed solid with garbage and junk of every other stripe, are marginal. They are a question mark to me. And equally, I am a question mark myself. I’m out of place. Neatly dressed, with a haircut and a full complement of teeth, trim but well-fed, and female—it just doesn’t fit.

Garbage bump in the background

Garbage bump in the background

Well, here I am. An unnaturally regular, grass-covered hill rises up in the background. I believe I have found my trash.

I have to admire it from a distance, however, because the recycling business that guards the entrance is closed on Sundays. A sturdy gate hangs over the street, warning tresspassers of dire consequences should they proceed.  What looks like the back of a car’s bench seat defies the warning, lying lazily and emphatically in the middle of the road. A last blush of red lingers on the naugahyde, which is already declining into the brownish-grey of all disowned objects.

Ironically, I can actually see the dump much better at home, looking at satellite imagery, than feet on the ground. The trash mountain sits in the watery periphery of the Quinnipiac River, hemmed in by rail lines and freeways.

New Haven dump from above

New Haven dump from above

The garbage bump, in the shape of a backward comma or an opening apostrophe, is clearly visible as a slightly brighter green, perhaps because of the overabundance of nutrients in the ground. But much of the surrounding area may also be fill. After all, the original thought behind dumping trash into wetlands was to convert commercially worthless acreage into commercially viable real estate. And given how close this is to the mouth of the river, and how flat the surrounding area, it seems likely that much of what shows in the satellite image was not always solid footing.

In many places, garbage dumps eventually are repurposed. Sports complexes, golf courses, housing developments, pods of office buildings—all of these uses sooner or later take advantage of the reasonable price of not-quite-real estate. But in this place, the economic tides would have to turn very drastically for office buildings to become possible.

Freak flying out of the junk yard

Freak flying out of the junk yard

At the very least, the freak guarding the entrance to the junk yard would have to disappear. And on balance, I think that might be a loss.


Garbage All Across the Milky Way

Listening to the radio today I heard another story about the Phoenix, the Mars lander which had just successfully touched down near the north pole of the planet Mars. If all goes well, it will dig through the top layer of dust and scoop out soil from the layer of permafrost, in search of a record of the planet’s climate history and any traces of life. The contraption landed in summer, the NASA scientist on the program noted. That is, it’sn not as nasty as it is going to be. In winter, things get distinctly more unpleasant, as the temperature plummets and dry ice precipitates out of the atmosphere. When that happens, the lander dies.

Phoenix Mars LanderThat’s when it finally hit me: the lander may be a lab right now, but it’s nothing but a heap of junk tomorrow, to join the scrap already there from prior missions. My sense of shock made me realize that I had innocently expected a scientific ethic of pack-it-in and pack-it out much like the frame of mind we’ve learned to adopt for visits to wilderness or even trips to the local state park. Rather than a basic respect for the environment under study, the mission appears to be governed by a sort of colonialist-imperialist disregard for whatever might be there. Nobody owns it, so you can do whatever you want? Or is it just that competitiveness fosters a blind arrogance to anything but “success” as the competition happens to define it? Isn’t there a scientific ethic that applies to situations like this that says you have to clean up after yourself?

The story reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s stories of having been an artist-in-residence at NASA for a brief time made briefer by her sense of having wandered into a culture so foreign it ruled out meaningful conversation. From her account, she might as well have been a Martian.

At the other end, the story also puts me in mind of the abandoned industrial hulks in the rust belt, such as those I ran into at Lake Calumet just two weeks ago. Further evidence of the compartmentalization of our culture, not just between different groups operating side by side to different ends, but between time frames. You can obviously divorce short-term gain, whether it’s profit or scientific knowledge, and long-term consequences with impunity.

I imagine the total impact of a junked Mars lander isn’t that great. Nine hundred pounds of trash with a bunch of toxic metals wrapped up in it somewhere near the north pole isn’t that big a deal on a whole planet, I suppose, especially if no sign of life is found to which the toxins would be toxic. But the spirit to which it testifies makes me wonder where I can go to register my protest and demand an environmental impact statement.

Quick Update: The European space agencies are working on developing a scientific ethics of space. UNESCO has a commision on the topic. The Union of Concerned Scientists is trying to address the issue of sustainability in space exploration and exploitation. All I could find for NASA and space ethics was the Office of the General Counsel, which is, amongst many other things, “responsible for developing the ethics and patent program requirements” of NASA. When ethics come up in the same breath with patents, hope takes a nosedive.

Wired has compiled a list of weird space debris: Lost in Space. And Scientific American devoted an article to space trash in the wake of the satellite collision over Siberia in February 2009.

July 2018
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