The road is long, winding, shaded by tall black cherries, sugar maples, the occasional surviving butternut. Busy abelias, the weed like shrub whose berries attract raccoons, grow faster than they can be cut down. Cattle once grazed the lower level fields; the steep upper hills are still hayed. This valley rests between two ridges of the Taconics. Snow melt from the hills above runs down the mountain through culverts under the road, into the stream on the other side. Sounds of rushing water accompany the cruising cyclists who favor this rural stretch, woosh of tires on macadam. Bikeathon weekends bring snippets of the things they say into the house, to my bed, or desk, or front porch, wherever I happen to be working that morning, their voices arriving ahead, then trailing behind.
I have been doing my regular mileage on this road, on foot, these last 20 years. Winter weather is limiting and makes early spring sprints celebratory. After months of stark white, fresh pale green shoots bring joy. Last spring, a mile or so down the road a green too dark for May caught my eye, and seeing it again on my return, I stopped to look and pulled out a 3-part plastic christmas tree with strings of lights still attached, the electric wires and plugs trailing after. Also several white kitchen appliances. I dragged all of this up roadside, and eyed the pile. One or two recycling bags should do it. At 50 cents a bag, a cost of one dollar. I would stop on my weekly trip to the dump.
I picked up running again, but the spring in my legs had gone. Who would do such a thing? What kind of person? How angry would she have to be? A mile later, still trying to understand, I found myself resorting to the fiction writer’s craft: a switch of point of view, the perpetrator’s. I was trying for ten good reasons to dump that plastic tree over the berm. I had the first one: This land is my land. My ancestors farmed it.
Of course counterarguments were readily available: the Mohican tribe that once lived in these parts could say the same thing. I decided not to go there. I was trying for a second, third, fourth reason, but they all came down to the same thing: We were here first, though this required dismissing the first firsts.
It was a busy spring and I didn’t get around to doing the dump run right away. When work on the old barn on my property began, we rented a 30-yard dumpster for the accumulated trash that had come with the place: old iron headboards, twisted aluminum rain drains, rusted machinery, rusted cans of dried paint, rusted lamp stands, tires, rotted wood, rotted hay, and more. The concrete floor that had buckled under some weight more than twenty or thirty years before had to be jackhammered to pieces. More refuse was discovered underneath the crumpled concrete, inciting plenty of disgust. The Christmas tree, I told the workmen, would also have a place in the dumpster.
In the old days, one workman said, farmers buried trash they didn’t know what to do with. Whenever we dig on our family farm, we find something. An old alternator turned up in the garden.
I have heard this anecdote often enough to understand it as a trope rather than fact.
The excavator who arrived for a meeting informed us that it is still legal to bury your trash. Plastics, metals. Any household garbage.
We were appalled. He confirmed it. Personal experience. Though he owns a Kubota and could easily bury things on his property, he paid to have his own trash removed. His neighbor, however, buried a junk pile and an inspector he called informed him it was still legal on one-family farms.
This information revived my stalled list. I added reason #2: It’s what our fathers did.
The next day, running again, I noted that the christmas tree and appliances had been tossed back into the field, probably by the town highway department, mowing roadside. They didn’t mind or at least didn’t protest this inappropriate junk in the field. I considered the deer and fox, possum and hogs and skunks, the locals who live here. They weren’t losing sleep over this pile either.
We all know by now that plastics are killing marine life. A new kind of rock material formed by melted plastic trash mixed with sediment has been discovered on Kamilo Beach in Hawaii. Geologists are calling it plastiglomerate or clastic. Reports of a flotilla of plastic garbage the size of France, estimated to weigh over 80,000 tons, afloat in the North Pacific appeared in a variety of media. A Dutch group is said to be raising and spending millions in an effort to collect this flotilla. The non profit Ocean Voyages Institute raked in 40 tons of fishing nets and consumer plastic garbage from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Townships and counties everywhere outlawed single use plastics only to have to bring them back this Covid-19 spring.
At some point it occurred to me that the Christmas tree and tangled lights and appliances might be safer here, in our nearby fields, a blight that hurts no one. Collecting and dropping it off at the town dump, meant sending it onward, to a fill far away, to pollute elsewhere, a place less advantaged, where the locals are likely too poor to purchase such throwaways. Given the costs and compromises involved in the recycle program, I started questioning whether the town dump itself still makes sense. Without the town dump though we’d be back to the old farmer’s way: burial. But if everything we throw away has to be buried where we live, we might begin living more responsibly, begin buying less. Consumerism shouldn’t be easy. With these ideas, my list of ten was flourishing.
This Spring, when the snow melted, I picked up running again. It’s May again now, we have been staying home to stay safe, and the country is thinking about how to open. In the meantime I have been seeing the Christmas tree and its tangled company in the field. Soon it will be camouflaged again by the splendor of green that spring and summer bring.