Dolls feet stick up through the raw earth beside a clump of sorrel. Further along the flank of the landfill cell, there’s the sole of a trainer, tread upwards, as if opacity had been reversed and someone were walking upside down on the surface of the air. The skylarks are singing above me. Plastic tatters, ceramics, glass, nozzles from caulk cartridges, twine, a dish cloth, blister packs – they’re all mixed up with the stones of the earth. It reminds me of what Mel, an archaeologist friend, told me about the bronze age practice of smashing up old pots and including them in the clay for making new ones: the past and the future fused together in the rim of the cup they drank from. Only, the connection breaks down, as so many do in this place. This smashing up and mingling of stuff is going to be sealed in so that nothing will get out or be seen of it again: all the crap will form a dark cyst, a kyst, wrapped in plastic sheeting, and topped off with soil and a sprinkling of wild-flower seed mix. Gas will be drawn off, water will be pumped out and collected in a large containment pond before being taken away for treatment. The landfill cell will be monitored, drained and measured like a living thing, which, I suppose, it is. All those bugs in it fermenting away until they’ve exhausted the organic matter and the heart of it cools down into something geological, inert.
Walking up the flank, carefully graded to an incline of 1:4 to blend in with the Wolds, I feel like I’m climbing onto a barrow. There’s a presence and excitement about this place; it feels hallowed in its way. But while there are so many silences around the barrows and tumuli on the Wolds, this one’s gripped by the grinding of diesel engines as they cart more soil to the top where they’re capping the final cell, and reverberates with the hollow percussion of skips bouncing back down hill for more dark earth. On the brow of the hill, there are enormous white rolls of fabric, as though someone were about to roll out a white flossy carpet over the whole heap of shit, which is, as Ian the landfill consultant tells me, precisely what they’re going to do. Edging the white rolls is the startling hi-viz yellow of rape seed fields in bloom on the flanks of the Wolds.
The landfill cell grows in one metre lifts of waste ejected from the bin lorries. The trash compactor, or ‘spikey bike’ as it’s sometimes known, mashes it down to increase the density of the lift. Recently they had to fix an edge of an old cell that was leaking, and the stuff they took out ‘fluffed up’ to four times its compacted volume just through the act of digging it out of the ground. Once the cell’s final height is achieved, it’s capped off with inert fill and then a plastic membrane is rolled out in strips with a one metre overlap that’s accurate to 5mm as a result of the GPS surveying they conduct along the line of each sheet of membrane. Veneer calculations have to be made in case the lining slips. I thought I’d misheard, ‘you mean as in rosewood veneer’, ‘exactly’ said Ian. If you get the veneer calculation wrong it can lead to a membrane rupture and costly remedial work. On top of this plastic, water tight shield, the posi-drain membrane (the rolls of white fabric) is placed, which draws away the water that soaked into the top soil and down to drains around the edge of the cell. In theory, no water can get in. But around the edge of the site there are inspection chambers. While I was sitting in field of wild flowers on an older part of the dump I heard this sighing sound: it sounded human, or like a seal breathing across water. I walked in its direction and found a concrete chamber with a pump set into its centre: I could see through a gap the dark scaly leachate that had triggering the pump into action.
After chatting to Ian, I left him and his gang in the dusty gusts on the ‘crown’ of the cell and stumbled back down through long, too-lush grasses, and found a drain at the edge of an amoebal spur of landfill. It was filled with plastic bags forming sweaty domes from whatever gas had got in; travelling islands of bright green scum moved between them, snagged, and then moved on in the breeze. I suddenly felt oppressed by the density of stuff beneath me; so much stuff that I could spend forever naming it and describing it. I felt description’s redundancy in the face of it all and yet knew it was the only instrument I had for taking initial measurements of the place; the task was overwhelming and wearying; all these dislocated bits of rubbish were surrounded by a magnetic silence of lost connections that drew out my desire to connect, and then belittled it. My stuff was in there too; all the pens I’d used since arriving in Scarborough were somewhere under my feet, and a lot else. Later I was to see the cat litter tray I’d thrown out a couple of weeks previous meshed in a great heap of hard plastics. Herring gulls rose and fell in the updraft from one of the massive sheds like the material spirit of the place, stacked and stratified in flight, and then eddying and knotting down to some new load of refuse tipping off the back of a lorry. I felt a deep silence seething under the superficial industrial noise; earthmovers, bulldozers, the JCB in the shed relentlessly strong-arming straggling filth into a container bound for the new landfill site outside York – all these were incidental to the deep and living silence of the place.
As I sat in the grass, wondering what to do next, I found myself seeing figures in the corner of my eye that would turn out to be either a gas hub protruding to waist-hight from the ground, or a plastic bag, or some old can. A fly landed on my hi-viz trousers. On the other side of the ditch, in a ‘bund’ of rubble, an old ceramic fire-place surround protruded and some crumbled up old road, still fresh and black in its heart. So here’s ‘where all the ladders start,/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.’ Everything mixed, identity shifting its shape, deserting, leaving a shell of uncertainty behind it: for a moment the compressed plastic bottles stacked on one of the concrete pads seemed to be a heap of oyster shells. The dump is a haunting place.
To be a bottle falling off the back of a lorry, the great battle to contain lost; the slide begun down onto the concrete pad. Last night I revisited a recurrent dreamscape, a house related to the one we live in, only larger and with a basement that’s either rotten or extraordinary in its unfolding of new rooms of books and musical instruments and panelling. Last night it was full of rubbish; a maze path wound between walls made of old boxes and shelves of things; and there was a man down there, like a faded Surrey-based rock-star, amazed that I hadn’t known of his existence. The dump is getting into me; the ground water of trash is rising into my soul; the wave of rubbish heaving itself up in the back of the huge shed is about to come down on me. In another dream I found myself at the edge of a North Sea cliff distraught that I was unable to clamber back away from the edge, so distraught that I had the feeling that it would be better to give in and fall over the edge than continue in the state of fear I felt. At which point a door opened in the clay and there were stairs leading away from the edge, stairs built by an elderly man who’d had them made for precisely the condition I was suffering from. But before I climbed away, I had a very clear sensation of falling from the edge.
The spirit of the dump is pervasive as leachate. I watched the fly on my trousers puzzle over the fact that such a yellow yellow could be so arid. And I felt the sensation, watching it, that all moments are final moments, no matter how many years there may be left; that one day, I’ll wake up and they’ll be gone – no more moments of flies bedazzled by trousers, no reversal, no ladder back away from the edge. Was death an infinitely expanding moment; not so much a falling as a flying into the nick of time? It only lasted a moment, but I felt the dump to be an unfolding infinite space of lives and possibility under me before sealing itself again.
What the men at the household recycling centre annexed to the landfill site find upsetting is when someone comes along having cleared a relatives house and opens up a suitcase and empties photographs and certificates and invitations, the records of a life, into the landfill skip. Sometimes they’ll fish them out and put them in their bric-a-brac container in case someone changes their mind and comes back to collect them; but they never do. Make-up, razors, photographs, niknacks, so personal and party to a life, and then dropped in a skip, ‘blipped out all of sudden, gone, as if that person’s never been’, said Darren. The sycamores above the leafy bales of plastics seemed bright and empty. That silence of disconnection between image and story in the moment of the images fluttering out from the suitcase is a silence for all time: the space of mystery suddenly compelled upon a name in register. But we’ve got to make way for life, haven’t we. Make room for it; not let our cellars become gunged up with broken stuff no one can fix. We’ve got to lighten our load. Lighten up. Let go. A man throwing bricks into a skip told me it was great fun; like doing all the things they told you not to do as a child. What do we save, what do we let go: ‘what thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross.’ From the evidence of the skips, there’s a lot we have that we don’t love.