A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
Garbage. It’s an unlikely calling. Somehow, though, it has become mine. On weekdays with women friends and on Sundays with my husband and dog, I’ve been taking walks at the Berkeley Marina, built on landfill. Once marshlands, mudflats and bay, the marina is “filled” with construction debris, old bricks, old glass, municipal waste. What better arena to reflect on garbage and to encounter the heat and churn, the scrape and stench of refuse in the heart.
It was a shock when, at the age of fifty-eight, I found myself drawn into intense inward churning of the sort I’d assumed I’d left behind. I thought I’d successfully dumped a lot of old garbage, and found a graceful rhythm in these middle years—a settled home life, steady husband, sweetly growing teenage daughter, daily grounding in exercise and sitting practice. But this summer, for no apparent reason (or was it postpartum upheaval on completing a seven-year book project?), I found myself at the mercy of an inner chaos of self-recrimination, almost despair—feelings and thoughts, long ago crammed away. And this in a world rapidly destroying itself—a world to which, in this state of self-preoccupation, I could barely attend.
To all appearances, it may have seemed that I was proceeding on per usual—giving book talks, ferrying my daughter to school and soccer, calling New York City each morning to keep in touch with my eighty-three-year-old mom. But in the center of my office, the seven-year mound of papers and books, maps, bills and cancelled checks continued to heap up in an unruly mess, threatening to topple. I couldn’t force myself to touch it, barely to look at it. And to add to that, I could hardly get myself to do the dishes or the laundry, or to make a dinner for my family. I couldn’t even get myself to take walks (a favorite pastime had been long, usually solitary, walks) without the support of a friend. In fact, without support in every domain, I was floundering. This included meditation. For twenty-eight years I’d struggled, and often failed, to sit every day. It was only in the last several years that I had settled into daily practice. But now I couldn’t get myself to set my buttocks on a cushion.
It was in the early morning of a day of a particularly toxic onslaught that I headed towards the Berkeley Marina with Jeannie, a new Wednesday walking partner. We circled Cesar E. Chavez Waterfront Park, where for about twenty years, the City of Berkeley dumped 300 tons of municipal refuse a day. To my eyes that morning, the park seemed indistinct, and to my ears, muted. Jeannie began to talk about a Tibetan Ngöndro practice, which she had done for many years at different times during the day. Surprising myself—ordinarily ritual-adverse—I found myself urging her to teach me the words recited as part of the practice.
She began by calling on the guru, reassuring me, the no-frills agnostic, “What you’re really doing is calling on the active part of your Buddha nature, your Buddha within.” I’d heard that phrase many times. Surya Das had written whole books about it. But that morning, unaccountably, it moved me to lengthen my spine, to feel inside a kind of broadening, to open my eyes and listen. I watched Jeannie’s gold earring glint in the sunlight, the flash of her ring as she strode along. I tried to focus on the verses, heard fragments. “Samsara is an ocean of suffering . . . unendurable and unbearably intense. . . . Recognizing this, my mind turns toward the dharma.”
Little did Jeannie know what agitation competed with her words. Neither could she know that these phrases felt like a life preserver. When she stopped speaking, I watched her feet, heard the crunch, crunch on the gravel, sensed the pebbles under my own sneakers. . . .
Propelled by this unexpected encounter with possibility, I felt I had to find a way to resume sitting and walking practice. But without a lot more help, I couldn’t imagine harnessing my discipline. It was then that I remembered a friend who sat in the early mornings at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. On impulse, I called her up and made a plan to meet her the next morning at 6:15 for the meditation. I’d already called another friend and arranged to meet her at the footbridge to the marina at 8:30 so I could force myself to walk. It was fortuitous for me that neither friend number one nor friend number two showed up. There I was at the monastery at 6:15, challenged either to leave or to muster whatever it took to go inside. Somehow I entered, found myself a cushion, and sat down—with all my agitation. Likewise, two hours later, when I was lucky enough to be stood up at the footbridge to the marina, it demanded all the discipline I could muster to walk across on my own and circle the park.
As I walked, my mind kept revolving at a crazy pace. Self-reminders to remember that Buddha within had scant results. As I hurried along, I barged through thoughts; I felt like I did as a kid, shouldering off crowds in the New York City subway. Notice my fingers, cold; notice the gravel under foot, the chill wind smacking my face. Notice the ground squirrels, slick and fat, racing towards the rocks along the shore, the cormorants flying low over the water. Notice the walkers with wool hats, with earphones, with strollers, with dogs. Through a mess of thoughts, I heard the chime of navigation bells, the long bass note of a foghorn.
I hiked on, past the flare station, linked to wells throughout the park that collect highly flammable methane gas. Just then, I remembered that I was walking on landfill made of decomposing garbage. The fire of decay seemed to match my own inner turbulence, the landfill garbage to match what I felt inside.
This resonance lit my imagination, jiggled my preoccupation with my self, began, in some unaccountable way, to open my view to the world. Now avid to learn about the refuse, I sought out Patty Donald, who had worked for twenty-five years as a naturalist at the marina for the City of Berkeley. Eighteen years ago, she founded the Shorebird Nature Center, which is where I found her. I followed Patty and her dog, Tigger, around the marina area, talking garbage.
Not only was the landfill made of household waste, slag, sand, construction debris and dredged spoil, but each day new refuse continued to wash up and spill out onto its shores. We began at a tiny beach—appropriately called Glass Beach—where people used to dump their glass, and where the culvert of School House Creek emptied out into the bay. “Some refuse,” Patty told me, “is washed up onto the beach from the bay—needles and other medical waste, garbage dumped off the sides of navy and cruise ships, pesticides and herbicides carried to the bay from Central Valley agriculture by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.”
The shore was mucky with washed-up trash and excretions from the culvert: leaf litter, an empty oil can (“One of these can pollute 250,000 gallons of water”), fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, soap, Styrofoam, plastics. “The garbage comes from us,” said Patty baldly.
Digging her fingers into the wall of layered fill surrounding the beach, Patty broke off a melded hunk of pottery, glass and rock and “some conglomeration of dumped ooze,” and handed it to me. Each year, Patty coordinates the East Bay segment of the International Coastal Cleanup, where 1,000 people collect garbage, and the data is sent to the Coastal Conservancy in Washington, D.C.
Tigger bounced ahead of us through the Berkeley Meadow, where the bay had been filled by the Santa Fe Railroad with the help of the City of Berkeley. “Thanks to many environmental groups, this land hasn’t been paved over and made into a mall,” said Patty. “Look how it’s taken on a life of its own!” She gestured towards native coyote bush, California sage and nonnative fennel and dock. “Bulldozers carried the landfill, and some seeds came in the landfill itself. Some traveled here by air, such as gumplant, those daisylike flowers you see all along the shoreline. Others, such as the invasive pepperweed, traveled in the salt water to the shores and then adapted.” Witnessing life recovering itself here in a meadow that was once garbage, I felt in some way excited.
We got down on our knees, and Patty showed me the tiny shrimp in vernal pools. “See here how the meadow has become a vernal wetlands? In the winter, water collects in shallow pools (not even an inch deep), and the water hatches the seed shrimp. The shrimp attract dabbling ducks, and there are other predators which, as part of the food chain, in turn are eaten by birds like egrets and great blue herons.”
Starting at the end of October and continuing through March, on the route of the Pacific Flyway from Alaska to Baja, birds such as ruddy ducks, scaups and buffleheads stop in this area, particularly the North Basin, to rest and eat. “Maybe it’s through the creek culverts that rabbits, ground squirrels, voles and raccoons have found their way across the freeway into the meadow. Sparrows and goldfinches eat the copious seeds. Ground squirrels, snakes and burrowing owls make their homes in construction debris.” Again a tremor, a sense of possibility, that when allowed to flourish, the natural world has a tendency to heal itself.
Pointing to a raptor in a willow, she continued: “Marsh hawks (they’re ground nesters, so they make their nests in the meadow), kingfishers, kestrels, red-tailed hawks and white-tailed kites thrive on the rabbits and voles, blue-bellied lizards and gopher snakes. And a homeless man used to sleep in the meadow.” Later she showed me where he still likes to sit during the day, on the east lawn reading and doing crossword puzzles.
In counterpoint with the walks at the marina, I continued to get myself to the monastery each morning. I didn’t miss a day, afraid to lose my momentum.
One morning when I was sitting in silence at the monastery, a thought came up: Nothing should be thrown away. A moment later, another thought followed: Of course, nothing can be thrown away. Noxious chemicals in landfill sites leach back into our groundwater. And isn’t the mind the same way? Thrown-out feelings return unbidden, driving our actions.
A few days later, listening to the radio, I heard scientists talking about tiny microbes found in the environment that can transform hazardous wastes. The microbial life which surrounds us and of which we are composed is adept at eating and breathing some of our most dangerous toxins. The Geobacter microbes, metal-breathing bacteria first found by scientists in the mud of the Potomac River outside of Washington, can “breathe” various radioactive metals, including uranium, technetium, cobalt and plutonium. Most amazing to me, the Geobacters are natural constituents of almost all soils. Normally, they would be relatively low in numbers, but by simply sprinkling soil with vinegar, a food that they like, scientists can get them to become extremely numerous. They breathe the toxins in and out, and, in the process, change them from a very soluble to an insoluble form.
While meditating, I had been moved by the thought that nothing can be thrown away. Now I took another step: Nothing can be thrown away, but it can be transformed. We can be nourished by the garbage. We can “eat” it or we can breathe it in and breathe it out changed.
This picture of bacteria transforming garbage, like that of the landfill-meadow healing itself, became a catalytic image for me, somehow animating the sense of a Buddha within, enlivening my meditation on the cushion and on foot. I imagined teams of toxin-gobbling bacteria, eating and digesting the trash, and turning it back into Buddhafields. What I loved most was the thought that microbes are natural constituents of most soils, and that, allowed conducive conditions, the landfill moved naturally towards life and healing. Not so different from the healing of the heart through meditation.
Underlying these transformative processes is a sense of intrinsic possibility—that our basic nature, if approached with finesse, can recover itself. A book talk I attended with Gary Snyder about “the wild” furthered my thinking. Whether we’re grappling with the garbage of place or of heart, we can tap into a natural propensity to express a fundamentally wild nature—as Gary describes it—spontaneous, self-propagating, freely manifesting, intrinsically orderly, naturally coherent.
Several months into my regime of sitting with the garbage, walking with the garbage, studying the garbage, I noticed that, without my realizing it, some of what had felt so stymied in my life had indeed changed. I had finally sorted, reshelved and filed the remains of my book project; I was meditating every day, first at the monastery, and most recently, after I had cleared space in my office, at home; and I was once again taking exploratory walks on my own.
Each day, I continued to walk around Waterfront Park. One morning I watched the ground squirrels standing tall on their hind legs, front paws together, at attention; from their lookout rocks they called out warnings each to each. All along the shore, in brown robes with paws in prayer, they looked to me like monks from the Order of Interbeing, standing alert and still, taking care of each other. I was reminded again of that potential of the world, so easily squandered, to take care of itself.
As I walked back towards the footbridge, a breeze blew in from the bay, across the tidal mudflats, past the long-legged shorebirds, riffling through the reeds and cattails, and, as I felt it, ventilating my inner landscape. After all of those months of training the senses in early-morning sitting; of honing smell, sight, hearing in walks around the landfill; of allowing myself to breathe with that rotten sludge of feelings in the chest, something was clearing inside me, an open breezy space where the bay wind could blow free. I felt a wide clarity. The heart can love. That’s how it came to me.