“Picking the Dump” by Mark W. Harris, November 26, 2006
“Picking the Dump” – Mark W. Harris
November 26, 2006 First Parish of Watertown –
Reading: Nehemiah 4:1-6
When I was in college I spent most of my summer vacations cleaning oil burners. On a given day my partner and I would collect an assortment of oil filters, air filters, buckets of soot, and other apparatus associated with oil heating systems, which was the family business. Then at the end of the day we would drive to the town dump. Before this time my impression of the dump was that it was a smelly place where you wanted to dump your refuse as quickly as possible and get out. Occasionally, the dump became a subject of conversation beyond the necessary family trips there. Townspeople sometimes became angry when out of towners dumped their trash in our dump. There were also more intriguing things about it. Young men would go there at night, flash their car lights, and shoot the rats that infested the place for live target practice. In the winter I heard it was the best place to go parking with your girlfriend. While this might seem odd, it was in fact the only out-of-the-way place that was plowed, and hopefully you did not get stuck. I never knew dumps could provide so much diversion or pleasure.
What really fascinated me about my summertime trips to the dump though, was watching my partner on the oil burner truck in action. He was an expert dump picker. I would stand before heaps of rubbish and see nothing, but he would poke and prod, and find all kinds of useful things for his home and his children. There would be discarded furniture, bicycle parts, old appliances, and much more. He found a use for what others no longer valued. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. These were the days when you could forage at will in the town dump. For a wide variety of environmental and regulatory reasons, this is no longer true. The amateur dump picker is a vanishing species.
Now you must pick from the street. It seems like every Tuesday, our Marshall Street trash day, I walk down our street, and spot something that makes me think, do we want or need that? Just last week there were the corn stacks that were an important decorative part of our Thanksgiving succah. I had also scavenged some hay bales, but it turned out they were wet and moldy, and made the church smell like a barn. You’ll be happy to know I saved them to make our Christmas pageant more realistic this year. I just haven’t told Roberta yet. We often see good looking bikes, desks and other assorted furniture on our walks around the neighborhood. But you have to be quick. If you drive or walk by and contemplate it for too long, someone else will grab up the good merchandise. There are amateur street pickers every where. My passion for this endeavor was ignited over a decade ago when one of our neighbors left three perfectly good wooden chairs in front of their house. They now adorn our home in Maine. And the boys new pool table that we played on over and over again this weekend? You guessed it. Our neighbors trash. So I often scour the streets looking for perfectly useable items. Forget watching the road if I am driving by, my eyed are focused on trash.. Now if you cannot bring yourself to prodding through trash, there is the more dainty alternative of tag sales, of which there is a proliferation. We are always looking for workers for our annual sale in May.
Finding a use for what others discard is a noble recyclable kind of philosophy. But you have to be careful. Many members of my own family have the New England disease of keeping everything and saying with their dying breath that there is a use for it somewhere or sometime. There is a Watertown resident on Catherine Road who has stirred up a controversy with her trash strewn house and yard, and she calls it environmental living. I doubt that is the case, but rather than responding to her pleas for help, our modern culture can only pursue litigation rather than looking at some of the root causes of the problem. There is something deeply profound in reusing that which we consume, in thinking about our purchases with the goal of living lives that are much mindful of the earth and its resources. How does that philosophy measure up to the lines at the stores this weekend, the surge of people to buy and consume, spending and grasping for meaning in having more as they push and trample others to get to the goods first.
Every day I collect a pile in my sink of coffee grounds, and banana peels and lettuce leaves. There is a large plastic bucket that holds this refuse. Every so often Andrea shovels it out into the garden, and mixes it with the earth, making the ground more fertile, replenishing its nutrients with the rotted refuse of our breakfast, lunch and dinners. It is reminiscent of the Native Americans teaching the Pilgrims how to use the remains of the fish they consumed for Thanksgiving as fertilizer for the corn that helped them survive the winter. Turn it over and under said the man at the dump. Turn it over and under and the earth replenishes itself. Most of us grew up in a disposable culture. We learned that things needed to be used for a while and then thrown way. It helped the economy to be wasteful. I learned a relatively smelly introduction to reusing things, first at my childhood dump, and then as a young adult who wanted to use cloth diapers, as opposed to disposable ones. With my first son many years ago, and later with my younger boys I used cloth diapers, provided by a diaper service. But it became clear with our third son, that few people were availing themselves of cloth diapers anymore. Diaper services could not survive. It was rare to find anyone who used cloth diapers. And people would chide us, “are you still using those cloth diapers?” We often forget the consequences of how much of landfills those diapers fill up, and the potential hazardous waste from the bacteria in them. Mostly we are hooked on convenience. What we can discard, and then not think about or see or touch is the easy solution.
It is true that most of want to get rid of waste as quickly as possible. It is unclean and we are embarrassed by our own droppings. As Philip Slater wrote many years ago, “our ideas are based on a pattern of thought that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, unwanted anything will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision.” Someone may not connect the trash that is thrown from their window with the trash in the streets. This is the same philosophy behind the city mayors who want to remove the homeless and the hungry from the streets, and truck them off where we don’t have to look at them. If we don’t see them, they don’t exist. It is also harder for us to say no to someone who asks for spare change by looking them in the eyes, and so we tend to look away. But if we see the homeless, if we touch the diaper, then our refuse becomes a little more real. This reminds me of the experience in York , England, where you go underground to tour the ancient Viking settlement that has been excavated by archeologists. They have also recreated all the smells of what it would have been like to live in his village. It is not a pleasant experience for the nose.
As I experienced the Viking village my senses learned that garbage and waste were once an immediate reality for most of humanity, but modern plumbing, disposal, and dumps have removed it from sight. And now we don’t even go to the dump anymore. They are filled and capped, and we truck it away. All of this makes us want to use more renewal resources, and I suspect this feeling among most people in this congregation is going to lead us to pursue becoming part of the Green Sanctuary movement. This has wide ranging implications. It is more than recycling our glass and cans, it means learning to walk more, use different kinds of lighting or fuels in our homes, drive different kinds of cars, replacing our windows, using solar panels, having compost under the sink and in the yard. It is changing our individual lifestyles, but here at church it means educational programs and worship that is more earth centered. It means new windows, and a more efficient heating system, solar panels or water recycling. It means seeing if our investments are green friendly.
It mostly means a different, basic understanding of life. In the reading from The Unexpected Universe, Loren Eiseley has a meaningful encounter when the train he is riding on stalls near a large dump. He reflects on the words of the dump philosopher, “We get it all. Just give it time to travel, we get it all.” The dump philosopher has a kinship with the archeologist. The archeologist is awake to memories of the dead cultures sleeping around us, to our destiny, and to the nature of the universe. Like the dump philosopher the archeologist is the last grubber among things; civilizations are put to bed, judgments are passed. While it could be the marvelous riches of an ancient Egyptian tomb, or a colonial dump site that contains a mangled fish bone, we find shadowy references to the life that was lived, the materials that were precious and perishable, now gone. The refuse tells us how the people lived. We could picture the same from the trash in our own households – the broken doll that gave so much joy, the wilted flowers from a lovely anniversary party, the records we danced the night away to; all carried away, all the stuff that gave meaning to our lives, the memories we have left of the life we lived – the old skis and broken tennis rackets, the crutches from the broken bones, the animal cage now empty. Often the archeologists will say that an ancient dump site will tell you more about a culture than anything else. It gives a complete sense of what they ate, what they used, and how they lived.
Here is the very reality of life itself. We who see beauty in mountains and seas and forests rarely see it in that which is discarded from life. The dump was always depicted as the ugliest, smelliest place in town, and the garbage collector was on the lowest rung of the social ladder. While I don’t pick the dump anymore, and I have my moments of looking for good trash on the sidewalk, I also spend some time, especially in the summer, combing the beach to find refuse. For the past few years we have owned a cottage in the harbor in Rockland, Maine. Being in the harbor means that we seem to get more of the remains of boaters and lobsterman, and this refuse actually makes the beach more interesting for scavengers. We spot useless pieces of Styrofoam from some destroyed cooler, paddles and docks and even whole boars have floated in on the ocean current, and yards and yards of rope. So much rope has washed ashore we have yet to purchase any to tie up boats or provide a railing for our collapsing stairs to the beach. In with the odd assorted items of rusted steel and abandoned Coca-cola bottles, we find endless pieces of seas glass. Often in beautiful or unusual colors it shines up from the rock strewn beach. “Here’s one,” we cry out when we have discovered another piece. It is beach glass from a new beer bottle or an old elixir. It is the left overs and discards. It is the bottle that was thrown overboard, or washed ashore on some wave that licked it from the boats seat. The hard, pointed rocks make it impossible for a bottle to survive this journey in tact. And so we have pieces of culture, of someone’s work or pleasure from one day in time. Worn by the surf, we can only speculate who and why and when. It is life that has come from the ocean, just as life itself rose from the ocean. Here on dry land it has no use anymore. It may be pretty, or it may give pleasure for a moment in our sight, or perhaps it will find a use in art. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. And so we hold and see beauty in the refuse, the discard from the sea.. Now we ask you, if you wish, to take your piece of sea glass, and hold it in your hand. Close your eyes if you wish:
This glass is part of life’s remains and hope. It was useful to someone once. It held a beverage that quenched their thirst. It was a medicine that took away the pain in their head. It was shaped by hand once- blown into being. It was mass produced later on. It floated upon the water -tossed and dashed – it crashed and broke apart sending all its pieces dipping and diving in a thousand different directions. There were the cold green waters of the deep pouring over its surface. The rocks beneath molded and shaped so long ago – some now worn and turned to sand, then sand to glass. There are bits of life all around – sea creatures of many stripes and colors, shells and seaweed coating and colliding with the glass. It was part of life once, up from the sea. It it a memory of another life, another day, and it is a memory now of being found, and then being touched again, with warmth and care. With eyes that hold beauty and shape new life. It can be of use again in yet another form.
I believe we might have a broader definition of beauty than the one that glorifies in unsullied nature, especially when the discards of life have often resurfaced and stained the pristine view. We search the beach for them. They have their own beauty. Their own life’s memory. Why do we often fail to see beauty in the the sweat and blood of the world? Why not in the refuse and remains? We have also often depicted death as an evil and ugly part of life, something we don’t want to look at, and so we hide death away like refuse. What if we saw death as a beautiful culmination of life? The dump philosophers and pickers remind us that all life eventually comes to the point of being discarded. This glass is broken and discarded, but at the same time, what some would not look at or use, has immense meaning and value for others. It has beauty and history and once held some greater meaning. The poet Yeats wrote,
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of the street
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladders gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
Yeats implores us to ask the question, Is anything really worthless? If we want to embrace an interdependent web of life, then we need to be linked to plastic containers. If we believe we must be in relationships with all life forms, then we need to respect the fish bone. If we are going to build our worship around mountains and trees and seas, we also need to remember the factories and pavement and dumps. If we are going to find meaning in cycles and seasons, then we would go to the depth of meaning in decay and death. We cannot selectively find meaning in what is nice and clean, while not seeing what is real and used. We do not make things clean by not talking or looking or using something that is attached to the sweat and blood of the world. The use it up and throw it away philosophy does not do justice to life – what we do not look at or talk about will not disappear, but will resurface to haunt us. Nor does it do justice to ourselves, for our meaning is found in the discarded we use up, as we journey toward the end of our lives.
Picking the dump means we find the beautiful or the useful in the discards of life. In Nehemiah 4, the Jews are ridiculed for trying to restore things out of rubbish. But they keep on laboring, and the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt. We think it is a new thing, using rubbish to rebuild, when we see things like playground surfaces made out of old tires. What if more things were like that? In Jerusalem there was talk of too much rubbish, but they were counseled not to be afraid. They had learned that they could build on what others considered trash. In fact, Nehemiah gives implicit value to the trash. What others find as useless, he finds as valuable. The remains of ancient dinosaurs have literally fueled our culture for the past century or more. It has been our blessing and our curse. What other kinds of old life will now bring new life? Picking the dump reminds us that we have lived and eaten and worked and loved and died – from the fish bone to the appliance to the wilted flower. When we embrace the beauty in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, then we learn that we are all dump pickers, finding life in the remains of yesterday’s feast. We find value in the refuse of life. We build new walls on the dump when we recognize it as part of us, and part of all; in recognizing our brokenness, we begin to become whole.
Closing Words – from Adrienne Rich
My heart is moved by all that I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.