From My WindowIssue Date: May 13, 2020
Tales of the Past
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
When I was growing up six decades ago, there was no such thing as trash service out in the country. I take for granted the trash service I now have, despite my rural location. Wheeled bins make it easy for me to faithfully sort my recyclables, and once a week all our discards are whisked away to a properly regulated and managed landfill. Things were very different for us when I was a child.
Back then, anything combustible got burned in a "burn barrel." These weren't regulated at all, and more than once a grass fire got ignited. Edible food scraps went to the family dog, or, when we had a flock of chickens, were tossed to the birds who quarreled in entertaining fashion over the goodies. Lots of our food came from canning jars, which were washed and reused year after year. Egg cartons were saved for "the egg lady," milk was delivered in glass bottles that were returned to the rack on the front porch, and beer and soda came in returnable bottles. In short, we managed our trash mostly according to the environmental gold standard of reduce, reuse and recycle.
What that left was things like metal food cans, broken things such as toys, non-returnable glass and toothpaste tubes. And that was all taken in a wheelbarrow to "the dump," located behind the unused pig pen on our land. Many, if not all, of our neighbors had a similar system. We kids enjoyed the trips to our little dump, because if there were glass jars, my dad would let us shoot at them with his BB gun, under his direct supervision. (My dad let us do that mostly because HE liked doing it.)
I recently did a little exploration of a similar family dump, a bit older than the one I grew up with. I was inspired, in part, by a childhood memory. My friend Patti, who lived just outside of Peshtigo, had found an old dump in the woods across the road from her home. About ten, she had invented a game inspired by her interest in archeology. We took some shovels, a rake and a bucket and spent many hours digging around in this dump. We found some intact old bottles, mystery items and other fascinating trash. We lugged home this treasure trove and I still have one of the cork-stoppered bottles I found there in my home. Patti, those were fun times.
In the old dump I recently explored, I poked around a bit and had a few insights as I did so. Older metal cans slowly rust away to almost nothing. This surprised me, but often the only solid part of an old can is the rims around the top and bottom, and even those are thin and weak. It is encouraging that as long as quantities are small and great lengths of time pass, mother earth seems to be reclaiming this metal without serious harm. I found several chunks of horse harness. Surprisingly, the thick leather was in pretty good shape, flexible and with its metal fasteners still in place. Because it was obviously not riding tack, this must have been a remnant of the time before steel horsepower replaced the real thing in the farmer's fields.
Besides cans the most common item was glass, most of it broken. I found a "Golden Girl" soda bottle, and most of a dish with a pattern a relative of the family recognized. A fair amount was thick crockery, and my guess would be it was never discarded until it was dropped or otherwise damaged. There was some of the miscellaneous "broken things," too " mostly utilitarian items, like bits of cracked fasteners, deformed screw-on canning jar tops, and a mop head, with the strings rotted away. One of the more interesting finds was a very heavy, round padlock. Its unusual shape and heft fooled me, and Mike had to tell me what it was.
What I did not find, with only a couple of exceptions, was plastic.
Think about that for a minute. My fight against plastic is constant. I recently bought a box of taco shells and found, inside the recyclable paperboard box, a nasty plastic tray. I buy eggs in pressed cardboard, not foam, but yogurt no longer comes in pressed paper cartons like it used to. If I buy an item at a hardware store, it's often encased in a plastic bubble, wrapped in plastic, and made of plastic, meaning if it breaks it is unrepairable.
Some plastic can be recycled, but lots of it can't. And plastic is what drives much of our need for trash service today. Plastic which, unlike the rusting cans in family dumps, will not deteriorate for hundreds of years. A curious kid digging in one of today's landfills 100 years from now will mostly find tons and tons of completely recognizable plastic. Mountains of it, collected, hauled and disposed of at great cost and manufactured out of chemicals. It took digging around in an old dump to make this fact blindingly obvious for me.
The old ways of dumping things on private property are mostly over, a good thing. But given the adherence to reduce, reuse and recycle our parents and grandparents lived by, and the fact that plastic was not ubiquitous like it is today, probably made this practice a lot less damaging than I would have imagined. And I suspect my great-grandchildren will be dismayed at what plastic, nearly everlasting, is doing and has done to our land and waters.
I plan on more poking around at the old dump. It still has more to teach me, and I do feel a little bit like the archeologist I used to pretend I was with my friend so long ago.
Happy belated birthday to my Mom. Still dispensing great gardening advice and mothering her kids, grandkids, and great-granddaughter.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.
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