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Goddess of the Garbage Dump

When I was a child, trash was personal. Even fun. We fed our table scraps — apple cores and potatoes peels — to my grandmother’s chickens. They, in turn, scratched around the coop, mixing their manure with their bedding to produce rich compost for the garden.

There was no garbage service in small town Iowa. You handled all your refuse yourself. The more trash you generated, the more of a chore it became. So our family of six generated little garbage, and every two weeks we hauled it to the dump in two metal cans.

In between trips, we used the metal trashcan lids for percussion instruments. Sticks or stones banging on lids created a loud, powerful sound for small, powerless children.

My brother and I carried the garbage out of the house in an old aluminum bushel basket, then emptied it into the trashcans that rested snugly against the kennel wire. Happy, our beagle pup, had been far too sad when locked behind that fence, baying her protest long into the night. Soon she was sleeping on my grandmother’s bed, and the kennel held the garbage cans. We jumped into them, tramping down the garbage with our weight. Every few days we compacted it again. Yes, the two cans were packed.

But I am certain that in 1955 our family produced far less than the five pounds of garbage per day per person that most of us now generate. If we had produced that much garbage in 1955, I would have had to help lift 420 pounds of refuse into the back of our old Ford station every two weeks.

No one had ever heard the phrase “recycling center” in the 1950s.

No one had ever heard the phrase “recycling center” in the 1950s. No one gave much thought to refuse or waste production. Landfills had not yet been invented. Most cities and towns burned their trash. An old metal gasoline can tipped forward to create a good dousing, the strike of a match, and the garbage miraculously disappeared. No one had much awareness of the damage we were doing to our planet. We were blissfully going about our post-war business of being baby boomers and obeying our parents when they told us to take out the garbage. Environmental consciousness would only begin to blossom in the early 1960s with such publications as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

My intimacy with the garbage of my childhood makes me think of plastic — the lack of it. We still ate with metal knives and forks at picnics, got polio injections from glass syringes, and filled the wooden toy chest with wooden blocks. I remember the clink of metal as we hand-fed the garbage from the bushel basket into the garbage cans. My blue KEDS stomped paper butcher wrapping down to the bottom of the can. There were no plastic garbage bags or garbage cans, no baggies or bubble wrap, no plastic bottles or disposable diapers. As babes, we suckled from our mother’s breasts and peed in pieces of cloth.

We slaughtered one of the hogs from my grandmother’s farm each year and kept the meat in a freezer at the community locker. We used the lard for shortening. There were no plastic bottles of cooking oil. I ran around the coop every Saturday to hook a fryer with the end of a coat hanger. We slaughtered the chicken and it hit the cast iron pan on the stove on Sunday at noon. We ate the neck, the back, the liver and gizzard. Happy got the bones. There were no plastic wrappers, no Styrofoam plates that held two oh-so-plump chicken breasts in the cooler at the supermarket. When we were finished with our meal, there was no Tupperware to store the leftovers. My mother put the chicken in a container with a matching metal lid.

Clink, clink. The garbage cans rattled together in the back of the station wagon, my mother at the wheel. Window down, Happy on my lap, a dime pressed into my palm, I felt the cool breeze blow my hair away from my face. Down April Street to Main, down Main Street past the creamery, then past the park and the ball diamond toward the town dump and Bob, the man-who-lived-in-the-dump. The place always filled my nostrils with smoke — not the flood of smoke I knew from our Halloween bonfires when we burned the great piles of leaves we’d raked from the yard — but a slow, lapping smoke, an uneasy, teasing odor emanating from somewhere underneath the mound of communal town refuse. What survived the burning assumed prominence in the landscape: old tin cans, glass jars, hinges, rusted-out buckets, water heaters, milk cans and lard tins. Careful, careful. Don’t touch. You can get cut, get tetanus, get an infection. My mother’s words in my ears.

The larger, more valuable, non-combustible garbage became part of Bob’s shack, an eight by ten structure that stood in the middle of the dump. Its outside walls were covered with old pieces of sheet metal cast off of hog huts and chicken coops. The roof was shingled with tin can lids. Inside, Bob heated the small space with an old steel drum that he had adapted into a stove, an equally rusty flue pipe pushing through the roof. Near the stove, Bob slept in a discarded clawfoot bathtub, lined with an old mattress. Outside, Bob sawed away at a pile of downed tree limbs. He carried his firewood to his stove in an old baby buggy.

“Here, let me get that,” Bob said when my mother opened the back end of the station wagon. He lifted the trashcans from the car, one in each hand, his biceps bulging under his stained and grimy shirt, a discarded football jersey with Manning Bulldogs stenciled on the front. He wore an old, patched pair of jeans and boots that were held together with duct tape. His face, tanned and taut, was covered with a sprinkling of stubby whiskers. He carried our trashcans to a fresh pile of rubbish and shook them out, then wiped out the bottoms with an old rag.

Shiny, clean, our trashcans glistened in the sun. Bob toted them back to the car, the rag trailing from his back pocket. I held out the dime and dropped it into Bob’s hand. He smiled, winked, and shoved the coin deep into his jeans pocket where he kept a ring of old keys on a chain dangling from his belt loop. The keys, of course, went to nowhere. Bob couldn’t lock the door to his shack and no one in town locked the doors to their more substantial houses. But I loved the clink of the pieces of metal clicking against each other. I thought the keys were to my kingdom. They opened a door to the imagination, a place where, like Bob’s shack, something could be made from nothing, where one thing could magically become something else.

We could go back to a time when we kept a set of keys in our pocket, keys to doors of possibilities that no one has yet imagined.

Today, Bob’s shack could be on display in a folk art museum as an example of outsider art, of ultimate recycling. Bob’s shack pre-dated the landfills where we learned to bury our garbage, spreading layer after layer of dirt over our refuse. During the 1960s we began to hang up our hoes in our sheds and ship our food from great distances, wrapped in plastic. We may never go back to the days of hauling our own garbage to the dump. We may never again experience gallant Bob lifting our trashcans from our cars and incorporating our discards into his own life. But we could go back to the time when we raised more of our own food, when we gardened more and generated less trash.

We could go back to a time when we picked apples from our own tree, dug a few potatoes from our small backyard plot. We could keep a few laying hens for eggs or fryers for an occasional Sunday dinner, and avoid the CAFO (confined animal feeding operation), the factory farm, the pollution from the manure pits running into the creek. We could do without the wasted transportation fuel, the Styrofoam plate, the plastic bag, the drive to the supermarket, and the long checkout lines. We could go back to a time when we kept a set of keys in our pocket, keys to doors of possibilities that no one has yet imagined. We could go back to a time when the very roof over our head was someone else’s trash, but our treasure.

Graphics Credits

  • old metal, courtesy of Kevin Rosseel.
  • tin man, courtesy of piedrastudio.
Copyright / Terms of Use: Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without the author's or artist's permission. Other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.

MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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