Editor's Notebook: When will we mine old garbage dumps?

<p>Matt Winters</p>

When watching an end-of-the-world movie, do you ever think about how it would smell to be embedded in an actual landscape of devastation and dismay?

And what does it say about modern life that we harbor such pervasive fantasies about civilization suffering a head-on collision with chaos?

No apocalyptic vision would be complete without holy men. End-time images that spring into my mind come with two or three – in the form of local Indians who haunted our town dump prospecting for castoff treasures.

It all has a semi-mythical tinge. Smoke from meekly smoldering piles of garbage wiggles this way and that like swamp gas in the anorexic mountain air, imparting a sharp acidic tang to the enormous, rumbling orchestral bass note of sweetish rot. Dirt and bacteria are churned into the consistency of talcum powder and boil upward behind arriving pickup trucks, saturating every nostril with the not-unpleasant aroma of toasted primeval seabed.

Conceivably, Indian men may have been employed by the town to push trash over the edge of what appeared to a child’s eyes to be a magnetically treacherous cliff. It actually was no more than a 20-foot drop-off into a dry gulch. More likely, the Indians found private value/entertainment in scouting out things they could sell or repurpose. They were silent and polite as ushers or gravediggers at a funeral, waiting for us to finish with our transitory occupation of their space, before meandering over as we drove away to attend to what we left behind.

“Dignified” verges on insult when applied to these men who existed far beyond the boundaries of silly little white words.

Town dumps themselves are unmourned artifacts of a fast-receding era – when American communities were more island-like, operating as semi-independent fiefdoms free of the Environmental Protection Agency. It is good that state and federal watchdogs no longer allow unspeakable filth to ooze out of festering dumps into surrounding ground and water.

We now wheel a plastic waste tub to the curb once every week or two, then never think of its contents again. Much of our refuse is trucked off to dry counties east of the Cascades. A big one boasts of “superior engineering, vigorous regulatory compliance and environmental security.” Its website doesn’t mention whether it still smells. I’m betting it does.

Something is lost when we insulate ourselves entirely from garbage, turning it into a remote hypothetical issue and someone else’s problem – our sense of responsibility, for one thing. For another, even assuming you could gain access to some good trash before it disappears into the Waste Matter Industrial Complex, any remaining salvage opportunities are spoiled by modern identity-theft paranoia. Heaven forbid anybody should see your credit-card receipts. Is it fear, or shame?

My friend Chris Amend used to run a service for homeowners overrun by accumulated stuff. We’d descend like avenging angels on rotting garages held up only by their contents. On one memorable occasion, we hauled away a whole stack of obsolete console TVs the size of tipped-over refrigerators. Ever wonder how a huge cathode-ray television reacts when shoved off the back of a truck going 60 mph? Pure entertainment; it was must-see TV. Yes, we picked up the pieces.

We never came home empty, even after taking legitimately awful junk to the dump. It defies belief what people throw away. My brother still uses a perfectly good magazine rack liberated from the dump in Laramie, Wyo. I sympathize with the impulse to rid oneself of decades of clutter, but at least try to find a new home for things before tossing them out.

Feel free to call me before discarding your dad’s vast collection of ... well … pretty much anything but old TVs. I don’t want any iceboxes either, though the last one was most enjoyable throwing down an abandoned mine shaft. It sounded like the ancient suit of armor Peregrin “Pippin” Took accidentally dislodges into a bottomless pit in Fellowship of the Ring. If I were 17 and did it again today, the video might be a hit on YouTube.

Thoughts of my town dump were sparked by high school classmate Alan Heuer in Taos, N.M., who said last week a Stonehenge mural he did for our school back in the 1970s was thrown out when they tore down the old campus. I don’t doubt someday his art will be so expensive they’ll dig up the dump looking for it. (See Alan’s work at www.AlanHeuer.com)

In fact, it won’t take until the end of the world before entrepreneurs begin mining old dumps for all sorts of metals and other commodities. Already, in many foreign countries, nothing valuable makes it into a dump in the first place. If we’re so darned smart in the USA, we should get a clue.

— M.S.W.

Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer.

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