When I moved to a small town in the Mojave Desert last spring, I found myself in a new relationship with garbage.
There’s some serious junk festering in the sands of the Southwest: toxic dumps, airplane graveyards, nuclear test sites, and so on. An abandoned disposal site in Yuma, Ariz., holds a mountain of toxic e-waste from California. The Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County, near the Mexican border, takes in rail-transported loads of garbage from Los Angeles. And the lonely section of the Mojave between Victorville and Las Vegas is known to be a choice stretch of body-dumping territory.
It makes for an odd and sometimes grim American miscellany. But the longer I’m here, the more inevitable the combination of desert and trash seems to be.
We live in a country that promises eternal newness. But we’ve never been great at dealing with yesterday’s new––the old new, the long-dead new, the new stuff that’s no longer shiny. It haunts us, gathering dust in the corners, lingering in the air like an unpleasant smell. It makes us uncomfortable, cluttering our lives. So we cast it away—into an emptiness that seems to dwarf it, a place where nobody will notice it.
This gesture makes sense, if you assume vastness and cleanliness are the same. They aren’t, of course. But it’s hard to remember that from our usual vantage on the desert—which is from a distance.
Even here in Southern California, I can climb away from what we leave behind. The scramble up 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto is itself a kind of cleansing. The last half-hour to the peak is a crawl over white boulders, like chunks of old, hardened clouds, before a last breathless balance up the highest slab. At the top, 360 degrees of pure perception is yours for the turning, the taking, while the desert stretches its vast and apparently golden carpet far below.
The power of erasure can seem unlimited—at least until it comes up against some of the hardest trash to get rid of: the personal kind. As I get acquainted with the desert’s landscape of castoffs, I recall long-lost trash of my own. The Little Debbie wrappers, leftovers and wadded-up pieces of paper scattered around raccoon-raided cans in my childhood backyard in Florida; the stale peanut butter and marshmallows we used to trap said raccoons and then later release them by the creek; the decorative bunches of eucalyptus that I hauled from a dumpster and sold to neighbors out of my Radio Flyer wagon. The many apartment furnishings I gathered curbside on garbage collection days in Los Angeles. The pink sweatbands that found their way from my trash in New York City onto the head and wrists of a homeless man at the next subway station.
Many of us have bagged and tied off all kinds of memories and feelings, and buried them deep, left them to decompose, hoping that they’ll somehow disappear in the vastness of time and experience. But our memories and desires are not so easily disposed of. Periodic radioactivity of the heart is part of the human condition. We’ve all got some personal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant inside.
“Throwing away” just might be the dominant fiction of American consciousness. It’s the flipside of the American dream, a dark corollary to the myth of the West: The ability to become whatever you desire requires the ability to toss things away without looking back. We handle our personal garbage pretty irresponsibly. Perhaps, if we’re serious about valuing our environment, it behooves us to value our inner landscapes, too, expanding the notion of “sustainability” so that it includes more than just physical ways of being. Emotional trash may not disappear easily, but it’s a hardy material. It can be reused. Recycled. Whether for love, art or the common good, there’s tremendous power in learning to own what we wish we could just throw away.
So, in an awkward move toward reintegration, I am making an inventory of what I find as I dig into my own exterior and interior deserts.
Kleenex. Three peach pits. A wad of masking tape. Cat poop. Bad drafts of poems.
An empty box of assumptions. Old grudges. Some limitations. Some hopes, some sadness, some fear.
And this glazed, broken bowl that, if I bend over it at just the right angle, throws back a blurred reflection.
Elizabeth Wyatt is a writer and artist based in Joshua Tree. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.