In my forthcoming book, Already Home: A Topography of Spirit and Place, I embark on a quest to find home, a journey both inside and out. As I set out to know my home terrain and its history, I learn about the native Ohlone Indian shellmound, whose remains were partially excavated in the 1950s only six blocks to the west of my Victorian house. Rising above the north bank of Strawberry Creek, this mound was one of 425 which rimmed San Francisco Bay for over four millennia. Many generations of native peoples interred their dead in the midden of shell and bone. Evidence suggests that shellmounds were intentionally elevated villages sitting on top of ancestral remains; this was where people not only held their sacred mortuary feasting but where—to my amazement—they made their home.
The shellmound encompassed a dynamic exchange among dimensions of life usually separated in our modern world: garbage dump, cemetery, church, residence. My exploration of the nature of the shellmound overturns all of my previous understandings of home. Assuming what I call “shellmound mind,” I take on an experiment in imagination. Can I risk that ancient experience of home where categories so separate today converge?
I take a pilgrimage to the meticulously manicured grounds of a local cemetery and meditate on the graves of the first inhabitants of our Victorian house. I try to imagine what it might be like to actually live on top of the graves of one’s ancestors. After the cemetery I meditate at the transfer station for local garbage. In the following excerpt, I explore what it would be like to live on top of one’s refuse.
In a vast open warehouse, a great mound of garbage heaves, collapses and spreads. The air sickens with the fetid odor. Shoved around by little tractors, the mound oozes out wheels and broken machinery. All manner of mattresses, old chairs and ironing boards mix in with decaying foods and kitty litter, paint thinner and insecticide. Seagulls scuttle in and out, scavenging. Over this rank and gelatinous mountain, something which looks like steam rises.
In shellmound days, of course, what we now see as refuse and mess may well have been seen as mystery, as miracle. The shells, bones, teeth, beaks—the non-edible parts of what people ate—may not have been perceived as garbage but as symbols of the species who provided the community with food, who offered them life. Not trash at all but sacred emblems. I try to remember that as I spend a few hours here at the garbage transfer station exploring whether I might acclimate myself to this “garbage,” to risk this too as home.
Ever since we’ve lived in our house, all of the garbage from our household, from the Ocean View neighborhood, and, as far as I know, from the entire city of Berkeley, has passed through this transfer station on Gilman Street. Parked here now, watching today’s mound of refuse churn, I remember descriptions of garbage in the early days of the European settlement. Kitchen scraps were fed to the chickens and pigs, thrown into the nearest empty lot or creek bed. Most garbage was simply buried with the do-it-yourself approach, but when the population got too dense, this method was forbidden. So householders hired a man with a wagon to dispose of their waste; they didn’t concern themselves with where he hauled it.
Early in the twentieth century, plans were made by the cities of Berkeley and Oakland (next door) to collect garbage and to send it out on barges to be dumped in the Pacific Ocean. With this goal, private companies with horse-drawn “honey wagons” were hired to collect the trash. To reduce the bulk, Berkeley decided to burn down the trash before sending it out to sea. That’s when the incinerator was built at the shoreline. But public protest flared up because the cost of the new incinerator was exorbitant and the honey wagons were rutting the pavement and dribbling their contents into the streets. The incinerator was subsequently closed down, and in the following year the Signal Steam Ship Company hauled the wettest and smelliest garbage out to sea.
When the garbage boat was wrecked, the incinerator was fired up again only to be abandoned once more after a new wave of public protest over the cost and the smell. Then a fill-and-cover method was instituted. This began with five blocks of marshy land to the west of the shore and finally filled 175 acres of bay. Following that, Berkeley set up this transfer station. Whatever is not recycled here is carted off to Livermore, a nearby town, to be buried.
Now, at the transfer station, I drive from spot to spot trying to escape incoming garbage trucks. Whenever I can, I park, lean my journal on the steering wheel, and scribble down impressions. The little tractors zoom back and forth attacking the heaps of refuse, clapping their crablike pincers. Those crab-tractors are pulling out large metal objects from the mound and depositing them in other bins. First comes a bicycle, next a metal bath tub, a toaster oven, an old record player, then what looks like some kind of motor.
Just as I’m about to get out of the car to take a closer look, a tractor speeds by followed by a city garbage truck, which swings in and backs up to regurgitate its load into the heap. In front of the mound of garbage, a sign reads: Children and pets must remain in vehicle. The guys directing the traffic all wear protective gear—bright orange vests, hard hats, goggles, nose-and-mouth masks. Better stay put.
So I settle in behind the wheel and try a few minutes of dump-meditation. The whirring and beeping of the trucks takes over my consciousness, that and the aroma of the garbage. A sharp rap on the car startles me. A guy in a hard hat motions for me to roll down the window. “’Scuse me ma’am, but would you mind, just for your own safety that is, moving your car.” It comes out that this guy’s supervisor has just radioed him and told him to get rid of me. “‘Go find out what that woman’s doing,’” he mimics his boss’s tough tone. “‘She’s taking notes!’”
“You guys ought to get well paid,” I comment. “This is nasty work.” And he, “Not likely. . . .” Then, pointing at my journal, “Hey, why don’t you write that down!” He shakes his head, “Like I said before, my job’s to take care of things around here. . . .” Gesturing towards the whole panorama of this dump, tractors, bins of aluminum, the garbage heap, he says, “We here take care of the stuff that you all don’t want.”
I’m taken by a feeling I can’t name, disgust maybe, or simply sadness, for all of this waste. I’m looking out at unwanted appliances, furniture, clothes, foodstuffs that people in this neighborhood—perhaps even our family—wanted, bought, gave each other as gifts, to which we once claimed ownership, and now are throwing out. Unwanted because it’s too old, or not quite the right color, or beginning to decay. Somehow it failed to offer the satisfaction that it first seemed to promise.
This sets me questioning. Did we actually own those things? If we did, could we just throw them away? Supposing we trick ourselves into believing that we “owned” them in the first place, when we thought we “owned” them, didn’t we think we had responsibility to them? For them? Given the fact that, on some level, maybe they never truly belonged to us, do we still have responsibility for them after we’ve thrown them away and decided they’re no longer “ours”?
After my visits to the garbage heap, as with those to the cemetery, the imagery stays with me, landscaping my dreams, becoming indistinguishable from my own inner process. The oozing mountain of refuse churns with cast-out memories, tantrums, terrors—all that my neighborhood quest has exhumed. In daily meditation, I try to take a look at this as well—this garbage of griefs and rages—to tend to it as it comes into view, allowing that maybe I never exactly “owned” it either, but I can do my best to take care of it, to see it as sacred, to include it as home.
In the gathering dusk one evening, I take a walk with my dog, Cleo. As summer bougainvillea and woodbine bloom, families harvest their tomatoes and zucchini, hang out in the street watering their front gardens. Here, in someone’s yard, the compost heaps are covered with canvas, but unmistakable. The air is saturated with odor—manure and straw, rotting foods all heating up, beginning to cook. A possum slinks by, eyes Cleo, and disappears from view. A swarm of shiny black ravens descends on the heaps. Scavengers. Textured by breath of compost, of ravens, of possums, of the honeyed woodbine, the evening air wakes my senses. In my belly, I feel the eros of exchange.
A breeze picks up, carries a sour after-scent. What felt sensuous now turns rank, disturbing. Did the shellmound dwellers make their piles of refuse and bury their dead downwind from their huts? Or did they simply become inured to these smells? What was the effect of all this rot on Strawberry Creek? Wouldn’t the decomposing food and corpses cause disease? Some archeologists say that the lime in the shell may have acted as a disinfectant. How effective could that be? I watch the ravens attack the compost, voracious now in their pillaging. Animals and birds in shellmound days must have scavenged the shells and bones and picked them clean.
Heady from the mix of scents and the shifting hues of dusk, I wend my way towards my house. It’s hard to imagine living so intimately with the cycles of decay. Images from my recent forays spin through my thought, coincide. Both burial ground and dump are separated from where we in our community eat and sleep, where children play. In both settings, workmen protect themselves with goggles and masks, with boots, gloves and hats. Little trucks with chains and hooks carry coffins while similar trucks with clawlike pincers disentangle and carry trash.
Of course the dump appears foul, the cemetery, at least on the surface, antiseptically clean. But the two work on the same principle. Both are stations in an immense recycling plant. In one, it’s animal, vegetable and inorganic refuse that is decomposing; in the other, it’s human bodies, the refuse left after we humans die. I see the two juxtaposed in the vast shellmound home of our world—where life breaks down, feeds the gulls, the worms, the bacteria and feeds into new life.
For safety and comfort, it does seem to make sense to separate our twenty-first-century houses from the garbage dump and the cemetery. To insure a sweet, pleasant ambiance, to protect ourselves from the dangers of disease, we humans have evolved towards separating out these venues. But there’s another danger. Dividing our home up in this way—like dividing thought into safe and unsafe, sacred and ordinary—can buffer and blind us, preventing us from seeing a fundamental relationship, the all-encompassing give-and-receive.
Adapted from Barbara Gates’ forthcoming book, Already Home: A Topography of Spirit and Place (Boston: Shambhala Publications, June 2003, www.shambhala.com).