Our garbage says quite a bit about who we are. Ask any anthropologist or garbologist. I believe this, and I therefore believe that I must take personal responsibility for my trash. Like many folks who live in Montauk either full time or part time, I do not use a garbage service and instead drive to The Dump. I like to say hi to the guys who work there, and sometimes find myself in a conversation about anything from the color of the rubber boots I often wear (“Robin’s Egg Blue” according to one of the Recycling Center employees and “Periwinkle” according to another), to whether or not I still like my Prius (yes, I do) to the weather (the universal conversation which anyone can join). The parking lot has as many luxury cars as rusted out pick-up trucks, and as many elderly folks as young families emerge from those vehicles. I especially love it when there’s a ‘long-time-no-see’ type of reunion right in front of one of the recycling bins. The Dump, as it turns out, is a gathering place and an equalizing place, for we all have garbage.
These days, garbage from Montauk is trucked to various places: a Material Recycling facility, the DeMatteo Salvage in West Babylon, Gershow Recyling in Medford, the Brookhaven landfill where it is then sent to Hempstead to be burned to generate electricity in a modern incinerator equipped with state-of-the-art pollution control devices. In the recycling area of The Dump, we recyclers show up with bags and boxes and pails full of stuff to toss. Ridding ourselves of our garbage, we become agents of decay. What are people thinking, I wonder, as they move from the “Corrugated Cardboard Only” bin to the “Mixed Paper” bin to the “Non-Recyclable” bin? I hope that some of them will think about the essentialness of decay, of how their garbage is broken down into simpler forms of matter for reuse in recycling or in the case of the non-recyclables how these days some of our garbage in being burned and turned into electricity (warning: personal philosophy~when possible, recycling and reusing is always a better option than the landfill). The science which studies decomposition is called taphonomy, from the Greek word taphos, which means tomb. How wonderful to contemplate The Dump as a tomb, a place of commemoration or reverence or transformation.
Once or twice a week I go to The Dump and walk up the hill to look out over Fort Pond. The old garbage remains buried below the ground, and I wonder about the garbage underneath the soil that is underneath my feet, about the environmental costs and benefits and the spiritual costs and benefits. More and more we garbage makers have come to understand that we have to be less wasteful, be more aware of our garbage and how we dispose of it. Those of us who have packed, sorted and carried our own trash to The Dump do so intentionally. This intentionality matters.
Yes, it’s just a garbage dump. Still, the way we treat our garbage may say more about us than we realize, and here in Montauk, garbage dumping is beautiful.
Bio: Susan A. Cohen is co-editor of Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-Based Writing (University of Utah Press, 2010), editor of Shorewords: A Collection of American Women’s Coastal Writings (University of Virginia Press, 2003), professor of English at Anne Arundel Community College, and the author of numerous essays on American literature and the environment. She has spent every summer of her life in Montauk, New York.
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