From Issue I (2016)
Burn It, Bury It, Send It Downriver
by JENNY RUTH
The side of our property not bordered by farm fields and trees is intertwined with the cat ladies’ place. Two older sisters babysit their grandkids before and after school. Mid-morning, one sister in a floral muumuu stands at the edge of the porch and throws cat food into the yard for the bazillion cats that live around their house, seeking shelter in the garage they leave open all year round. Garbage sits in bags at the bottom of their deck steps. My old beagle would sniff her way over there and take advantage as the scavenging opossums did the night before. Bones and Tastykake wrappers and stale bread were what she usually brought back to our yard and guarded like pirates’ treasure. Once she found half a moldy pound cake to munch in the shade of our maple tree.
Two to three times a week, one of the dads dropping off his kids will place the garbage bags in a burn pit thirty feet from our house. Most yards around here contain a large discarded oil drum known as a burn barrel, or a pit that’s sunk into the ground. My neighbors’ burn pit is more of a clumsy tower. Cement blocks are stacked four feet high. They break and pop and send the tower tumbling down, just enough to make it both satisfying and frightening. But this rarely happens. It takes a fire to create such heat. There’s rarely a fire. Usually the bag catches a flame, the man drives away to his day job, and the trash smolders for the next twelve hours.
The property line we share with the cat ladies is not straight. It makes turns to form odd angles, puzzle piecing our lands together. Both houses are nestled in a little hollow, and the wind funnels through it from them to us. On burning days, smoke envelops our house, blowing across the windows for our bedrooms and the living room where we spend much of our time. We can’t turn off the air conditioner and enjoy open windows. We can’t play outside.
Burning garbage is not illegal around here. I checked. It’s not illegal in most of the county, unless you live in a town where garbage removal is a municipal service. With a population of 39,702, less than half the residents of my county live in a town.
I feel good about myself, a sense of smugness, for recycling even though it’s inconvenient, for composting even though it’s smelly, for paying Hometown Disposal to pick up what’s left, for not being just like my neighbors.
Hometown Disposal is located in the county across the river, home to the largest man-made mountain in America. A mountain made from the detritus of mining anthracite coal. You come around a bend in Route 61 and there it is, blocking your view through the valley. It’s still growing, something the locals say with pride and pity. Yellow earth movers scuttle up the roadways, small like little toys up so high, twisting around the plantless mountain.
Continue on 61 to Centralia, a town evacuated by the federal government in 1964. It sits atop a mined coal vein that caught fire in 1962 and still burns to this day. The biology departments of the local universities conduct research there, each claiming a plot of smoldering ground, tracking fluctuating temperatures and bacteria growth.
Route 61 was redirected after part of it collapsed into the fiery earth. Drive through in the summer, you can see patches of brown grass scorched from below. After a spring rain, the mist of evaporating water rises to rejoin the atmosphere. In winter the snow’s blanket is incomplete, melted away at the hot spots. The feds tore down all but three of the houses, the ones where a few people refused to take the bailout and move to New Centralia. The grid of streets and sidewalks remain, the plants slowly reclaiming ground every summer. The shrine from an old Catholic church looks over the town from the side of the mountain. Hollywood made a horror movie about it.
The unofficial cause, the one everyone around here swears is true, involves trash burning. A guy was out back of his house, innocently firing up the pit and burning the week’s garbage, when the ground opened into the mine tunnel. Once flames caught the vein, there was no return.
I never see the Amish burning their garbage. Not that I’d assume they generate much waste, but our Newfoundland taught me otherwise. She got away from me this past winter, running across the road into an Amish cornfield. I chased after, my heart racing for fear that someone would shoot her. She looked just like a bear, romping through the broken stalks, freshly spread manure clumping in her fur.
She thought we were playing the Momma-chases-me game. Up through the field we went until she stopped at the wooded hilltop. Securing her leash, I realized she was stiff and staring. Two cows lay just yards away. Their stomachs bloated with the gas buildup of a decomposing intestinal tract. The jaw of one missing its skin. No smell. They were fresh.
Like any adult millennial, I asked my dad why it had happened. I’m originally from an area not unlike where I live now, and I assumed he’d know. He said the farmer was just waiting for the ground to thaw so he could bury them. “Why not butcher and eat them?” I asked.
“An old dairy cow’s no good for eating.” But why bury them? Isn’t there some service to take them away? “Not really. It’s probably what they’ve always done. I mean, what else are they supposed to do?”
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I’ve always understood you can mine the earth mound of a farm’s tree lines or fence rows to find glass Coke bottles and tin tobacco cans from the early 1900s. Any packaging that couldn’t be reused or burned ended up buried, and those luxuries didn’t come to rural America until the last century. Waste management, the concept of thinking about and regulating our waste as a government service or a for-profit enterprise, is relatively new to us too. Stories of waste and its connection to public health serve as turning points in the modernization of our country. Modernization is something that belongs to cities. Around here people just take care of what needs to get done.
Rural Americans are so far behind that we’ve become fashionable again. When the environmentally conscious urbanite looks for knowledge they lost two or three generations ago, they come to us. We’re still doing things the old way. Organic farming, canning, composting, all the DIY oils and balms fashionable once again are daily life for us. When you live in a place were no one thought to run electricity until FDR’s New Deal, is it any wonder that we might be making our own landfills?
One day my family walked in the opposite direction of Dead Cow Hill, up through the fields behind our house. At the top is a wooded ridge running the mile-length of our road. Where the trees start, the trash starts. Old refrigerators, broken farm equipment, twisted metal pointing towards the sky promising tetanus and impalement. Disappointing but not unfamiliar.
We climbed to the high line for safety and the views, but found a thick plastic spine tucked alongside the ridgetop, extending out of sight. We assumed it was a row of hay, encased for the coming winter, a common sight in fields through the valley. But those plastic-covered hay snakes are always white and on flat land close to barns. This one was black and would be hard to reach in snow. “I don’t understand,” my husband said, keeping his distance. “What is that?”
“It’s trash bags,” I said.
They were. They still are. One gigantic line of black trash bags, piled tight. Decades worth of garbage. A giant, dirty secret that grows and grows.
SEND IT DOWNRIVER
All of this bothers me. Now I judge. I assume people must be totally ignorant or just environmental assholes. But maybe they’re as desperate as I used to be.
I rented a place on the river for four years, just a few miles from where I now live. I moved there with my first husband. He wasn’t really making a go of being a responsible adult, but I loved him and thought that would be enough.
We moved to be closer to the college where I worked as an administrator. Gas rose to over four dollars a gallon that summer. I made a decent salary, but not enough to support two heavy-drinking adults with dogs and substantial college loans and an hour commute. He worked a part-time seasonal job at a nearby golf course. Our new home was an old trailer. The kitchen counters were black, the walls dark wood paneling, and there was this trippy track lighting in the ceiling. Our old hippie of a landlord used the property to store junk he couldn’t bear to get rid of, and we didn’t demand it since we were desperate and he wasn’t asking for much in the form of rent or credit checks. Plus the place sat atop a garage on the banks of the Susquehanna River, just below the confluence of the north and west branches. The water there is wide and flat. We owned kayaks. The property had its own dock.
The neighborhood was known as Shady Nook. It had one road in and out. I had never heard of it until we went to look at the place, and even then I couldn’t believe it existed, hidden away but still less than a mile from the mall. When I told colleagues, they’d say, “I think I’ve heard of it, but where is it?” as if the Nook was a Neverland you couldn’t get to unless shown. People partied every night. Fireworks rarely caught the attention of police. The constant barrage of mayflies and heavy humidity kept everything rotting and dirty, like you were camping. You just couldn’t keep clean. I loved it.
Hometown Disposal picked up our garbage for a while, but then they stopped. Their bill was the only one that came in the mail, a paper bill requiring a check and envelope and stamp that had to be gathered and assembled and my god it just seemed like such a nuisance to me. I put my husband in charge of it. Made him responsible for one bill.
Spoiler alert: he didn’t pay.
I told him he still had to take care of the garbage, and I didn’t care how. He built quite a fine fire pit, sunk into the ground and lined with fireproof stone, and burned our trash. Just like all our neighbors. It was Jack, the guy next door, who taught my husband to construct a solid fire pit. He knew all the pits in the neighborhood, could tell just by looking around at night who was working with what. He even taught us how to smell what was being burned.
But not everything is meant to be burned. And if you couldn’t burn it, you could send it downriver.
All manner of things went floating by our yard, entertainment while we sat, drunk, by the fire pit after work. We’d call out what we saw, especially exciting a few days after heavy rains when things from upriver had a chance to make their way down. The game spun from our time kayaking with a friend, who taught us to call out the trash we floated over. Golf ball! Bicycle! Refrigerator! Real estate “For Sale” sign! Golf ball! Mattress! Another golf ball. Car?
I know it sounds awful. After a while you feel like there’s no use in caring anymore, in treating the river right. My husband used to drive golf balls into the water, pissing me off because I couldn’t come up with a good enough argument for why he should stop. “Tell me how this golf ball is any worse for the fish than all that fracking water being dumped up north?”
The night my husband left me, he said I had matured into such a strong, independent woman that he was too intimidated to stay. Painful, but quite the reprieve.
We split, amicably, even though no one believes that’s a real thing. But it was for us, and that included striking a bargain about the splitting and storing of material goods. He moved up north to work on a natural gas drill and took almost nothing with him. And we had a lot of shit. Scraping by financially meant we tended to hold onto anything and everything offered to us: freebies at golf course events, hand-me-downs from older siblings upgrading to houses, left-behinds from friends who moved out of the area. Each of our parents had downsized upon retirement, so we carried all the boxes of shit you think you want to save when you’re younger: your first ball glove, third-grade classroom photo, that project you did about sea anemones in seventh grade that comes complete with a cardboard and yarn replica, high school yearbooks, every fucking book you bought for college classes, and clothes you swear you’ll be skinny enough to fit into again one day, especially the skanky ones you wore to fraternity parties because those will totally be handy when you’re in your thirties. They all stayed in the garage.
Working full time and in grad school part time, I had to take over his household chores, including the trash. Hometown Disposal wouldn’t pick up my garbage. I still bore his last name and they had severed ties for good. I had to figure out what the fuck I was supposed to do. I took all organic waste to a compost pile that sprouted zucchini in the summer. I diligently recycled, finding empowerment in the careful sorting and storing of items until the bins in town were open for drop-off. I put what little trash I generated into the kitchen garbage can. When the trash became level with the top of the can, I’d push it down as hard as I could, compacting it for a few more days of delay. Eventually that wouldn’t work anymore. It would rise like a sponge, filling the space, demanding to be emptied.
I tried burning it at first, the relief accompanied by guilt. The second or third time I burned, an aerosol can exploded. The boom was like a gunshot, and the explosion mushroomed trash out of the pit. Bits of black debris flew twenty feet in the air and floated slowly into the yard, still burning. It was enough to bring the doctor’s family, in a vacation home two plots down, out onto their deck to stare and look concerned. If I hadn’t been half drunk, I might have been more scared for my safety. Instead I simply cursed my ex and decided it was his fault for putting me in that position.
The explosion didn’t stop me. I couldn’t stop generating trash, not in modern America. So the next weekend, in an effort to clean up and reclaim my living space from the mess we’d made of it, I pushed an ancient loveseat onto the deck, over the railing, and into the pit. I set that bitch on fire and watched as the flames caught the upholstery, shooting more than forty feet in the air, licking the limbs of the giant oak that gave me shade as I drank by the river. The heat was so intense that I moved to the edge of the property to escape it. For a moment I panicked, wondering what to do if it got worse. It didn’t. Jack, conveniently also a member of the local volunteer fire company, came out with a beer and let me know that upholstery went particularly hot and fast. I was in the clear this time, but probably shouldn’t do that again. “There are some things you just shouldn’t burn,” he said.
So I squirreled my garbage into grocery bags, taking one to work every few days to throw in a can at the edge of the parking lot. If asked, I would say I was simply cleaning out my car and happened to have a spare bag to put stuff in. When I went through my kitchen cabinets and had a box of foodstuff too old to donate, I took it to the local grocery store, thinking it wouldn’t look out of place in the cans outside the main entrance, right? A grocery bag with old litter got thrown away at the pet supply chain store. And on and on. Returning things to where they came from made sense in the game of justifications I played in my head. Yet it felt dangerous. I was petrified I’d be caught. Especially at work. There were cameras in the parking lot, and although I would remind myself that no one was getting paid enough to care about my garbage habits, I knew it would be embarrassing and hard to explain away. Adrenaline thumped every time I made that short walk, bag in hand, from my car to the can.
I filed for divorce and needed to get away, to start somewhere new. I sent résumés into the world, interviewed, and even received an offer from a college several hours away. But they had to increase their initial salary offer just to match what I was currently making, so there wasn’t much financial sense to it. And then, with the opportunity at my feet, I realized I had no plan, money, or ability to move all that shit, mine and my ex’s, that filled my garage. I knew it was useless, had become trash to me, but I was without access to services that could remove it. I’d stay awake at night and endure waves of anxiety when I thought about it. The weight was suffocating.
A month later, Hurricane Isaac came up the coast from Florida and rode the Susquehanna River right into our valley, hanging out, dumping for days. It was the second worst flood in history, just inches below the crest of infamous Agnes from ’72 that I’d heard about my whole life. Shady Nook was evacuated. I fled to my parents’ house, two hours to the south.
We were allowed back in the Nook three days later on a Sunday afternoon. I told myself it would be fine. Some clean-up work and a little elbow grease. I’d volunteered in New Orleans after Katrina, so I was prepared to handle whatever I found. I planned to arrive, get the dogs settled inside the trailer, and see what was what.
I could barely get to my place. I spent the first two hours shoveling mud from the driveway. The smelly sludge was covering the whole property two inches deep. I broke out the snow shovel and tried not to gag as I scooped up rotting fish. Keeping it off the dogs felt like a joke, but I tried anyway. Several tubs of water and old towels sat on the deck for weeks until the saturated yard could fully absorb the mud. I’d place the dogs’ feet in one tub, wipe with a towel, place them in another tub, wipe again, and keep them calm with a song I sang about washing our feet, washing our feet, we’re just washing our feet.
When I looked beyond the mud, I saw what was missing. The trash. The rusty portable hammock frame I brought from my childhood home, broken flower pots, barrels the landlord left behind—they were all gone. The small scrapyard from under the deck was missing, the water having wiped it clean, giving me a new start. Jack called over the fence to ask how I was making out, to see if I was missing anything. I wasn’t. Things were gone, but I missed none of it. “We lost the picnic table,” he said. “But it was never ours. Showed up after the last flood, so the river’s taken it downstream for someone else to use.”
I waited until the next morning to open the garage door. Scrappers were already parked on the street, walking from house to house inquiring about unwanted metal. I stood, staring at the shit I didn’t want, no longer boxed and stacked in an orderly fashion. It spilled out, the garage a beast with its belly split, intestines everywhere. Sterilite containers, emptied of their contents, were filled with a murky liquid that had a rainbow sheen on the surface. Black goo, loosed from one of the miscellaneous cans the landlord left on a shelf, covered things with long strands like the Silly String children play with. “Got anything I can haul away for you?” a scrapper asked me, rocking from foot to foot, surveying my pile of garbage.
“I have no idea.”
It was the end of summer, still hot and humid, so I needed to get everything out from under the trailer before it grew mold. I spent a day carrying everything from the garage to the turnaround of the driveway. The pile grew in small but satisfying increments. A Red Cross truck came through, handing out buckets filled with cleaning supplies and pamphlets about shocking your well and working with FEMA. The mailman came through, delivering mail to your box if you still had one, hand delivering if not. None of the neighbors went to work. Jack and several others occasionally congregated on the road, sharing information about who needed what, where everyone was, and what needed to get done. After past floods the township placed a large container dumpster at the end of the road to collect trash. They decided this would surely be done again.
The youngest son of one neighbor came home from college to help with the cleanup. He asked me to save any scrap metal for him and a buddy to take and make some extra money. I told him my landlord left a lot of broken things behind and they were all his now. I even had a clothes dryer I’d never figured out how to hook up and now that was dead too. After he loaded up and hauled it all away, he told me I’d made him $173. “If you don’t mind me asking, why did you have all that junk in your garage?” I told him I didn’t even know.
The township did bring a dumpster. My landlord even came with his pickup truck and helped haul my trash pile to it. My ex came for a day with a case of beer and helped for several hours, saying “Most of this shit’s mine anyway.” Our divorce went through. I got my maiden name back and arranged for garbage pick-up. Then I met a guy and felt like a fully functioning adult with him. We bought a house, had kids, and got married. I’m being all responsible and shit.
Recently we had excavation work done to control some drainage issues around our house. We asked the crew leader to take his bulldozer and push back an unruly tree line that prevented our yard from having a smooth edge. He unearthed a staggering and unsurprising amount of trash: the metal frame to a screen door, a broken window, three rusted baking pans, a half-burned woven poncho like stoners wear. An assortment of degraded plastics fill in the gaps like mortar in a brick wall. It’s so overwhelming that we have yet to tackle it.
Sometimes I get mad and pull out whatever’s in easy reach to send it away with the trash. I grab one thing, intending just to take a small piece of the whole, but it’s hard to stop. I pull and pull until my hands are full. I pull until the weight reminds me, again, that there is only so much I can do.
Jenny Ruth's fiction has appeared in Streetlight Magazine. She is a freelance writer for local magazines, 5k & SoleMates Director for Girls on the Run of the Greater Susquehanna Valley, and founder of a community-based literary project called The 522 Review. You can find her at jennyruthwrites.com and @jennyruth81.
William C. Crawford
William C. Crawford is a writer and photographer who lives in Winston-Salem, NC. He was a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. He later enjoyed a long career in social work and taught at UNC Chapel Hill. He photographs the trite, the trivial, and the mundane. Crawford develops the forensic foraging technique of photography with his colleague, Sydney lens-man Jim Provencher.