A Heap of Trouble

As we stuff our landfills with trash, I wonder what else we’re throwing away.

I grew up on the south edge of my hometown, through the woods and over the railroad tracks from Joe Johnson’s farm. I knew little about Joe Johnson, whether he was married or had children, except that he drove a gray pickup and had a ravine in his woodlot filled with rusted farm implements, lard cans, worn tires, sagging bed springs, the odd toilet or two, and the everyday detritus humanity leaves scattered in its wake.

Much progress, green-wise, has been made since my childhood. Or so we’re told. Today, large trucks roll through our neighborhoods, collect our trash, and haul it to the landfill south of town—ironically, on the very land Joe Johnson once farmed. In place of Joe’s modest collection of junk, one million tons of trash now pours into the landfill each year.

This is hailed as a step forward in environmental stewardship.

Dubbed Mount Trashmore by the locals, the garbage looms ominously over our town, the highest point for miles around. Before it was a landfill, it was fields and forest. As a boy, I used to camp there, among the sycamores along White Lick Creek, which now comprises the landfill’s western border. I wish I were blameless in this matter, but by my calculations I’ve contributed nearly 50,000 cubic gallons of waste in the past 12 years, most of it still perfectly preserved underground, where it will remain unmolested for 10,000 years. One day, archaeologists will stumble upon it and learn, by studying a cache of old checks, that on November 3, 2004, I paid Dr. Leondis $30 to cure our dog of worms. Worms, of course, will prove to be our salvation, slowly munching their way through our trash, leaving behind a rich, loamy compost.

That, and landfill gases. It occurred to someone smarter than me that buried amidst the tons of decaying diapers, canceled checks, and industrial waste was gas, mostly methane, belching to the surface and free for the taking. A method was devised to capture the gas, burn it off, and generate enough electricity to power every home in town. So it came to pass, and in the curious way we have of naming something its exact opposite, we’ve declared the one million tons of trash a year dumped on our town a victory for the environment.

When my sons were little, the landfill offered some of its acreage as a soccer field. Saturday morning would find hundreds of children and their parents on the playing fields, the warm southwest winds wafting benzene, perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, methane, and hydrogen sulfide gases through our happy, uninformed ranks. Perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene, though toxic, smell sweet. I would sniff them and think of doughnuts, compelling me to stop by Kroger on the way home for a box of Krispy Kremes. I gained five pounds that summer, and I place the blame squarely upon the landfill.

Growing up, I lived on the road to the old dump. On summer days, my friends and I would scavenge among the castoffs for treasure—bicycle parts, lumber suitable for our treehouse, and secret things people threw away to hide. We once found a love letter, written to a married woman by a man not her husband, asking her to steal away to Cincinnati or Peoria, whichever she preferred.

When the new landfill was established, they circled it in high barbed wire, which put an end to our explorations and made us suspect they were up to no good. My suspicions have not abated, though I go there every couple of years when, in a frenzy of disposal, I rid my garage of its accumulations. It costs $37 to empty my pickup truck, a small price to pay for the satisfaction of casting off clutter. Still, I have not cleaned the Earth so much as I have rearranged its litter to my advantage.

This assault upon the land is not a new development, of course. Not long ago, a friend from the city came to visit. It was a pleasant day, so we drove through the countryside. The spring flowers were abloom in the roadside ditches, the farmers swarming over their fields like bees.

“I love nature,” he said. “You’re so lucky to live here.”

Not wanting to be a wet blanket, I didn’t point out that farming pretty well obliterated nature 175 years ago in these parts. Farming is many things, but natural is not among them. It is an industry imposed upon the land by humans with the unfortunate need to eat regularly, well, and affordably. Forests, prairies, and streams are nature, and therefore the enemy of the farmer, which is why most of them have been eliminated or piped underground.

I once read the diary of a man who had traveled through Indiana in the mid-19th century. He described the skies as black, thick with the smoke from burning trees, of vast forests reduced to ash so crops could be planted. As a child, I looked upon the farmer Joe Johnson as a man of nature who, through his knowledge of her most sensitive parts, could tickle the Earth until a plant sprang forth. Joe Johnson certainly left his mark on the land, but I would far rather our children had inherited his mess than ours.

I am not by nature a fatalist, but scientists tell us that every so often a meteor slams into Earth, scrubbing our planet of its inhabitants, wiping the slate clean so evolution can begin its slow rebuilding process. On the whole, this is a downer, until one considers it will rid us of televangelists and cell phones. Our landfills, however, will persist, dotting the land like Native American burial mounds. Archaeologists, or their future equivalents, will no doubt speculate about their purpose—religious gathering sites where offerings to the gods were made. “It appears they sacrificed their household appliances to placate their gods,” they will write about us. “That all of them died in a violent cataclysm suggests it didn’t work.”

By then, perhaps, trees will once again cover Indiana. Entirely new species of hardwoods may define the landscape. A boy will happen upon a pleasant creek and camp beside it, underneath the trees, and wonder, as I did, who went before him and who might follow.

Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.