O Dump, Where Is Thy Sting?

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 1999, Tom Bentley

My girlfriend and I recently bought a house out near the south county landfill, and being the slippery soul that I am, I’ve been trying to cast its proximity to our home in redemptive terms–the dump as spirit plane, so to speak. It’s a defense mechanism, I suppose; after all, the dump is not what you’d call a cachet address, and being associated with it doesn’t bring to mind a pairing like Astair and Rogers. "Alice and Tom’s house, yeah, it’s right near the dump."–somehow, it just doesn’t have that ring.

You normally might persuade me that the dump is simply about trash, and not being the type that finds the lemonade in lemons, I’d normally agree. But upon reflection, I think you’d be overlooking some critical considerations. There are some pleasant associations you can have with a dump; finding them can be as simple as plumbing your past. For instance, I spent some summers working on a Washington apple orchard years ago. The orchard was large, and at the back of the property was a small canyon that over the years had served as a dump for local trash.

Now you might think that all us orchard hands had particularly stunted imaginations, but there wasn’t all that much to do on rural property several miles out of a small town. You take your fun where you find it, and we found it at the dump. We’d spend thirty minutes collecting glass beer and Coke bottles (our own and those from the various spots they’d landed intact after a dumping) and then we’d gather on the hillside above the canyon. There were lots of big rocks embedded in the canyon walls and many other hard objects on the canyon floor. We’d take aim and let fly.

You know that song that has a refrain, "I love the sound of breaking glass"? There was something irresistible about the whole process: the flight of the projectile, the moment of impact, and the completion of a perfect smash, glittering chips airborne, a compelling sound and fury. The concept of recycling hadn’t yet penetrated my misspent mind.

Maybe it’s a gender thing. It seemed it was only the orchard lads, not the lassies, that exulted in a satisfying shatter. Though it’s been a passle of years since I pitched bottles in a ditch, I know there’s still something fundamentally pleasurable in busting things up, as long as no bike rider or barefooter is going to find their bloody undoing on top of the resultant shards. Adolescent pleasures? Absolutely. But we carry our consciousness from our adolescence, and its aura lingers.

What reminded me of those days was that when I last went to my very local landfill, there was a series of pickups roughly lined up around the general area where the "live" dumping activity was happening. These were men with a job to do: unloading their various discardables and getting out of there. But upon observation, you could see that for some of them, there was just a little glint of something more there than just a dirty job to be done with.

Just as I was tossing out a very ugly light fixture, an ersatz chandelier that only Liberace could love, I was taken back to that canyon in Washington. The object in flight, gravity’s call, the same satisfying crash. The chandelier was followed with the winging of a series of metal panels and boards, as far as I could toss them. Looking around, I noted that the men, businesslike as they were, were taking pleasure in what they were doing: I could see it in they way they flung their debris and the way some watched it fall.

Not yet convinced of the dump aesthetic? What about the birds, mostly gulls, scissoring in crisscrossed flight above the refuse mounds, almost like a hive of maddened bees? They’re not seen in what seems their natural element, serenely floating above a rolling wave, but instead above the waves of refuse, tearing the sky with their squawking. To me, there’s a kind of beauty in their hysteria. (Of course, some beautiful things are best left behind after a prescribed period; it’s a bit like being at the museum a turn too long.)

The landfill is also home to big wrapped rectangles of compressed plastic goods, which from a distance appear to be huge blocks of multicolored gels and film, looking like something out of a Cristo nightmare. They look like they should be in an edgy museum installation, or at least caught by a photographer with a fluid eye. Someone should build a towering pyramid out of them, a tribute to our culture’s excess. And if that excess is our undoing, perhaps those pyramids would become our Easter Island, puzzling civilizations to come.

If none of those dump demographics beguiles you, there’s so much more: there’s an artistic edge to the boys in the bulldozers doing their fancy figure 8s, like iceskaters over the pampered dirt. When I was last at the landfill, the dozers were driving pretty close to the area that the small trucks were dumping in, and they were swooping all about the groomed hills. The drivers sit high in the saddle, and in the slanting sun, I couldn’t make out any of their faces. It reminded me of that great early Spielberg film, Duel, where over a stretch of days, a semitruck with a faceless driver terrorizes an innocent victim on a lonely highway.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of dozing: you get to ride in a loud, powerful machine, whipping up hillsides, pushing all manner of offending trash into heaps, and then smoothing dirt over, around and on top of those piles, so that what was an inharmonious mess is now a channeled thing, tidy and smooth. But it’s less like a cat covering its waste and more like those little Zen sand gardens, where the devotee rakes the sand into pleasing patterns.

The dozers seem to operate on one of those simple urges: To push things around, smoothing and fussing and straightening until the turf is clean, the area defined, a claim laid to the territory. It’s an appeal with a broad audience–a few years back, some father in the construction industry made his child a video of some bulldozers working a site. That amateur film got such word-of-mouth response that he ending up selling thousands of copies commercially. Now there are bunches of those kinds of "Men at Work" films. I hope that women dozer drivers have gotten into the act too.

And landfills have an air of mystery as well as an air of odor. Consider what secrets the layers of decay might conceal. How many discarded pregnancy tests, how many dirty magazines finally hauled out from under the bed, how many manuals on bomb-making? What about actual bodies? When I lived in Vegas years ago, one of our duplex neighbors was a security guard for one of the big casinos. I remember him saying that the population of Vegas would double if all the dead bodies that had been dumped in the desert were to rise up and walk into the city. Under the surface of any landfill lie many tales of trouble and woe.

Of course, any pitches on the dump need to include a curveball, the big picture, the serious level: the impact of all that trash. The things that don’t degrade, but rather degrade the planet. A dump is dubbed a landfill–will we fill the land? We are ravenous consumers, and there is such a maddening variety of items to buy, to use either wholeheartedly or superficially, and then toss away, forgotten, but not by the earth’s longer memory. That’s not even considering the product packaging, which insists on its proud place among the discards.

It’s so easy to be enamored of a new product, a better, bigger product, and then after its purchase have it dull over in front of your eyes. No longer the vision of a deeply desired thing, it becomes rather just another item in the home, subject to the loss of your affection. All those brands of deoderant can’t quite take the smell of the landfill away.

Still, I come to praise the landfill, not to bury it. Terrible as it is, there’s something amazing about the whole idea of truck after rumbling truck taking all our forfeited life objects into those nearby hills and covering them up. Anyone who’s wandered wide-eyed through a huge wrecking yard of smashed cars knows what I mean. There’s so much ripe history there, torn, jagged and decaying as it is.

I know it doesn’t work like this, but I want to imagine that the earth is going to compress all those things, our plastics, our sparkplugs, our old National Geographics, and make something useful of them. Much as we were told as school children that the dinosaurs became oil, or coal became diamonds. Maybe Powerbooks will fruit on trees, or ’56 Corvettes will grow on vines. In the meantime, recycle what you can–the landfill’s just around the corner, but I don’t want it for a next-door neighbor.