Poet of the Dump

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.

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Poet of the Dump

I spent my first day as poet in residence at my local dump last week; the place has a longer official name, along the lines of ‘resource and waste recycling management centre’, but a dump’s a dump and contains and surrounds all such terms: you know where you are with a dump. Only I didn’t, and I still don’t, and that is why I’m going to be visiting it regularly over the next twelve months: it’s news to me and it may be news to you.

This first visit was a strangely thrilling experience.  Harry drove me out of town, through the business park and onto the new road to the dump, past a couple of small lakes, some newly planted trees and an unofficial scrambler track. As we drove into the controlled area, the true dump or landfill cell in the distance, I had my first glimpse of the inner workings of this extraordinary place. Through the doors of one of the vast, blue, hanger-like sheds, a long conveyor-belt dropped its load of many-coloured paper into a hopper. The sliding doors of another gave on to vast banks of magazines and newsprint heaped up against steel walls like grain in a barn, at which a tractor clawed, moving back and forth, as it fed the conveyor connecting the buildings. Harry was to end up shouting himself hoarse as he explained what was going on above the maelstrom of beeps, squawks, buzzing, metallic wrenching, the dull bass falls of reclaimed timber dropping into skips, and the revving of mechanical movers of all kinds as they reversed or plowed into heaps of newly arrived stuff.  As a midwife once said to me: ‘the babies, they just keep coming’; well, same goes for trash.

Shifting green waste for shredding and sieving

Shifting green waste for shredding and sieving

I had on my hi-viz jacket and hard hat, but it felt a threatened space for the human body to be in. And maybe that’s why it felt so thrilling. I was a soft piece of flesh moving around in an astonishingly organised, open-air mechanism designed to perform the miraculous illusion of making our waste disappear. Is man no more than this? Faced with all that waste, all that mingling of the once valuable with the instantly throwaway; all those stories of desire and effort and work and excitement implied and lost together in vast bales of all-coloured things, it did make me wonder at the vacuous deployment of our potent control of resources.  Maybe our needs needed reasoning through: a simple thought in abstract, but when faced with the mad facts of it, it’s the kind of realisation that strips you bare. All the old sayings come back. You can’t take it with’ee when you go. There are no pockets in a shroud. I was surrounded by the irrevocable traces of our existence concealed within a system that seeks to save us from our past desires by generating the illusion that when we put those ill-judged purchases, those wastes-of-time, out for collection, they’re gone for good; our material souls shriven; our mental loads lightened; our houses free to be filled with more stuff.  Crematoria and dumps; they midden and the grave yard; how they’ve changed, how clean and remote they’ve become.

Of all the traces of our consumption and its enduring afterlives, perhaps the most surprising for me, that day, came in the form of the old VHS tapes that everywhere festooned tractors, hopper-lips and bales with their Lilliputian, brown, magnetic ribbons. The great gullet of waste disposal was being tied down by brown tape.  All that information; all the light and the stories; all that attentiveness and money and joy had come to this: a web of flittering tape that’s a real irritant to those who work at the site. It clots up and blocks the flow of paper through the baler. Hands have to get involved at that point to sort it out and ease the system back into motion.

For there are hands in this place of  great machines.  Not everything can be sorted by a magnet, or by bombarded by a positive then negative charge to make it leap across a gap into a hopper (aluminum cans); not everything can be sorted by the fun-house moving floor that treads paper apart from plastics; not everything can be done by tumbling stuff in a vast rotating drum (a sort of judgement day ascension into heaven, or fall to hell).  No, there are people sorting out contaminated waste with their hands.  People I have yet to meet and to find out more about. I was told that they don’t like to be photographed as some of them feel ashamed about the work that they do. Whether or not this is true I’ve yet to test, but it did reinforce my sense that there’s a hidden world out at the dump, both of people and of industrial processes. Over the course of this year I want to find out what passes before those people, and through their lives away from this place. How did they come to this place of endings and beginnings? Many seemed to be Eastern European and most were young men. What struck me was the dexterity, thoroughness and speed with which their hands moved over the stream of rubbish.  Harry said that they had an instinct for rubbish, by which I think he meant that they had no time to think but had to work by feel for what was paper, metal or plastic.  It was too noisy for them to speak.

What thou lovest. . .

I asked one man about some things that appeared to have been saved during their filtering out of contaminants: there was a Thomas the Tank engine; a super-hero figure I couldn’t identify, and a calculator; I wondered if they were gifts for a child, but he didn’t know anything about them.  There they stood, overlooking the steady flow of our waste: all those words and all those images off to be pulped.  So much effort to prepare the stuff! And so soon, all that effort going through the reserve process.

It was bright and breezy that day: April in May.  But because of the bank holiday gift of sunshine the green-waste heap where all the compostable stuff goes was steaming and fuming like a Victorian ash-heap. A tractor scooped up great claw-fulls of leylandii branches, hedge clippings, grass cuttings and all manner of blackening mulch  and dropped them into a hopper for sieving and shredding even finer. As they fell from the conveyor they seemed like a steamy, dark froth: the dump’s all very chthonic in its way; a place of undoing; the chaos of Hades; the generative heap.  But this undertaking is highly controlled: the general green-waste heap is tended and measured and needs to reach 60 degrees C in order to kill off all the seeds so that gardeners can spread it safely without contamination: it’s purified by its own heat of fermentation.  I found myself wanting to go and bury my hands in the  sweet dark matter.  It reminded me of cooking an egg in a heap of grass clippings with my dad when I was a child.  Once the compost’s shredded it’s scooped up and arranged in enormous furrows with the ridge a couple of metres high.  Again, I felt small and amazed at the process: these soft, dark prisms of compost, known as ‘wind rows’, are designed to allow the ‘good’ aerobic decomposition that stops it all turning slimy and stinky to take place.

And that was something that I wasn’t prepared for. I’d expected the place to stink, but, with the exception of the irredeemably mixed and un-recyclable stuff slopping around as it was loaded up for transportation elsewhere, there was little or no smell. So much for developing the poetry of stench; but perhaps I’ll get better at nosing that out for you.  There was a lovely, sweet vinegary aroma from the mount of bottles; I’d say it had a fruity, Beaujolais top-note to it with a good length of cidery beeriness undercut with mold.

Glass Mountain

Glass Mountain

If the stink was understated, the acoustics of the place were astonishing: as the bottle-bank lorry backed away, its tailgate open and its container tilted, the great glass deluge began: first a couple of smashed bottles and then the onset of the great annihilating bass roar, an accelerating, pelting torrent of detonations and shuckings-out of contained space that crashed through all limits until the cascade petered out into light tinklings and a renewed sense of acoustic space: a clear, fresh space between the grinding if machinery and the terns skewering the air with their cries.  And counterpointing this din were acoustically ‘dead’ spaces where the bales of fabrics were stacked.  Observing this slow heave of rubbish and oblivious to the occasional breakers of sound, along the edges of the sheds were ENORMOUS black-backed gulls and immaculate herring gulls with nothing to do but patiently get over their Pavlovian reaction to the non-arrival of waste onto the landfill itself, for the last cell has only recently been closed and now all waste is to go to York. The birds were what I’d most associated with the site from driving past it on the bypass: the huge bulldozers like landlocked fishing boats riding up the swell of rubbish followed by a bright circulation of gulls – well not here any more, although there are no doubt rich pickings to be had.

It’s all and and and and and at the landfill. All the springs of green, brown and blue bins spill out down our streets and feed into this vast reservoir of rubbish. And I think that may be the way I’ll go about this residency in order to get truly stuck in to the material. This will be a heap of voices; a mass of tangles; with some sorting-house principles I’ll try to work out for you.  Sorting will be the thing; sorting in the face of all that mingled chaos. How can language fill itself with a feeling of the dumps entirety? – its noise of voices; its clamourings at point a transformation or burial.  Even if I am to embrace the heap, to bury myself in its deliquescing rich, it will of course be sorted moment by moment as I run my eyes and ears through the lines that flow in and radiate out of it.  For, of course, I’ll be talking rubbish, singing filth, unpacking the full vocabulary of the pure and contaminated as I move within the vast sorting houses of our collective material soul.

The all-colours of consumption

The Soul of Waste