Outdoor Adventures: A trip to the landfill
A social event for all kinds of animals, even the human variety
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
There is something to be said of a relationship when a trip to the landfill can serve as a social event. Sally says, “What do you have going on today?” It’s my day off. I say, “Dump run.” And she says, “Wait for me, I want to go”. She doesn’t have to go. It’s a social event; a pseudo date.
A clarification or two. First off, landfill is the correct term. Dumps are, I gather, passe. When I was a kid we had dumps. The big one was just east of town, a sprawling place of sandy hillsides and deep pits filled with all manner of garbage.
There were small dumps then, a few acres in size, every township had one. Bears would come at night to feed on the garbage and it was quite a sight, so much so that people would drive out at dusk to watch the bears. It was hardly a wilderness experience but what the heck, with bears you take what you can get. Bears liked dumps.
Rats too. Rats thrived in the old dumps. Why not? What’s not to like if you’re a rat? Acres of food, easy picking. Two stories here: Ages ago in Pioneer Park a pair of great-horned owls nested and I’d find rat tails littering the ground. The parents would fly over to the big city dump, and pick off the big rats. Dinner!
Second story: When we were in high school, maybe into college, it was great sport to go to the dumps to shoot rats with our .22 rifles. This was at the small township dumps. I don’t think that happens much today.
We used to ride our bikes out to the city dump just to see what was going on. When you’re a kid the sight of big machines plowing down piles of garbage is pretty exciting.
The dump was cut into some rolling hills and the resulting profile was of a steep, sand face and in the upper edge swallows would have nests. The swallows would take wing and wheel and turn above the piles of trash and then sweep down and into their nests.
The other clarification: It’s probably not technically a social event, our trips to the landfill; it’s not like Sally does her hair or anything. But still, it’s something we do together; load the truck, head out on Highway K. Dump run.
If we have a load of scrap wood we turn to the right on a narrow, twisty road. On the left are woods; on the right it’s open and rises up and in the right time of the year there are wild flowers and it’s like being someplace other than Wisconsin.
Sometimes I think that it’s incongruous that a landfill has that edge of wild beauty to it. Then I think of the old city dump and the swallows that nested there and it does not seem so odd.
We back up, open the tailgate and toss the wood scraps into the pile of wood and building material and old doors and windows. Once treasure, now trash. Driving back down the road we can see piles of glass stacked high and glittering in the sun. The city recycles bottles and that’s where they end up.
Funny story about the bottles. A few years ago we went to a dinner for the International Crane Foundation. That was a true social event; dress up a bit, hobnob, sit down for a nice dinner.
The occasion was the official opening of their remodeled visitors’ center, a wonderful place that has open areas with exhibits that house pairs of every crane species in the world. They were dedicating the facility and we spent the afternoon walking the grounds. They had pathways of a green, granular material; I didn’t pay much attention to it, just walked on it.
But at the dinner we sat with a man and did the usual back-and-forth chit-chat that you do when you meet someone at such an occasion, a verbal give and take testing the waters to see if you have anything in common. If you do you strike up a conversation. If not it becomes a long evening of strained small talk.
The man was an engineer for the firm that had built the new facility and he asked, as is typical in small talk, where we were from and we said, “Rhinelander” and he lit up and said, “That’s where we got the glass!”
Turns out that the green kernels we were walking on that afternoon were glass, crushed and tumbled until it was rounded and granular and used in walkways. Not just any glass, glass from the landfill at Rhinelander.
Thought to myself, “Small world.” Thought also about the wine bottles we’d put in the recycling bin; wondered if we’d walked on them
Back to the landfill. If we have regular junk we go to the transfer station. It’s a big building. We back into it and toss out all manner of garbage. It’s more of what we’d seen in the old time dumps; piles of garbage and a bit whiffy at times. We don’t dawdle for the most part.
But at times I linger for just a bit. At times I stand there and take it all in, the battered old building and rusted metal and the piles of people’s junk, odor of garbage thick. And when I do, when I stand there, I hear a sound I don’t expect; I hear the sound of birds.
And if I look up, up where the walls meet ceiling, up in the heavy metal of structure, when I do that I see sparrows. They are as alive and free in that house of garbage as they are on the street and in the yard. And sometimes I think of the swallows at the old dump and stand in wonderment of birds and how they adapt and how, in what might be the dreariest of places, they bring light and life and joy. Then we head back home, date completed, dump run done.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit starjournalnow.com.