Tag Archives: Garbage

Unpacking My Storage Unit: A Literary Encounter with My Things

German realist literature has a well-earned reputation for its fascination with stuff – actual, material things. Anyone looking to say something smart about Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Gottfried Keller, and even (or arguably especially) Theodor Fontane could make a lot of hay looking at furniture, garden ornaments, or the pictures on the wall. Adalbert Stifter is the best example. His descriptions of things buttress his stories‘ claims to represent both material reality itself and reality’s moral structure.

Trailer for Heiner Goebbels “Stifters Dinge”

The thing about things is that they point in two directions: insofar as they have accumulated over time they point backwards to the past. It is no accident that we encounter more than a handful of private museums in the texts from this period. But things also point towards an assumed future, because their preservation assumes a future where they will be necessary and relevant. Both past accumulation and an assumed future are at stake in Stifter’s novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer) where so much of the activity at Freiherr von Risach’s estate is devoted to the restoration and preservation of statuary.

Things as guarantor of a stable reality, signs of a good past, and the promise of a morally fulfilled future: this is a vision to which Wilhelm Raabe repeatedly gives lie. In Zum wilden Mann (At the Sign of the Wild Man) the pharmacist sits bankrupt in an empty house. Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill) gives us the one good poem Raabe ever wrote, the apocalyptic vision of „Einst kommt die Stunde,“ in which „Der liebe, der alte vertraute Plunder / viel tausend Geschlechter Zeichen und Wunder“ (“the dear old familiar junk / Signs and marvels of many thousands of generations” ) is swept away in a massive cloud of dust. Then there is the climax of Akten des Vogelsangs, when Velten Andres sets fire to all of his mother’s things, her „museum of the heart” as a final act of secession from the society around him. It’s tempting to see Velten’s bonfire as one supreme act of badassery, but it’s not entirely clear how to evaluate it. The others in the community fly into a panic, and while the narrator Karl is fascinated, his wife flees the scene and implies that Karl’s fascination with his friend might also cost him their relationship. While Velten claims it’s an “external clearing-away to the interior,” the fire is followed by a regression to his old room reading greasy copies of books he loved in his younger days.

Raabe is an acquired taste, and I don’t mind admitting that I acquired my own taste partly on account of a fascination with characters like Velten – problematic as I understand that fascination to be. I was moved to think again, however, about all the things and the destruction of things in German realism recently when I returned to the town I spent my last few years as a graduate student in to empty out the storage unit containing all of the things I had acquired in my graduate years. Furniture, papers, household items, and books – boxes and boxes and boxes of books – had been sitting in a storage unit for nearly two years now.

Far from an act of badassery, parting with my own things was the result of a cost-benefit analysis: keeping the unit another year was not practical relative to the actual value of what I was storing. But it still meant parting with the signs and wonders of my years as a graduate student. Apart from the exhausting work of sorting everything were the emotions connected to revisiting the remnants of those years. Opening the unit was like opening a time capsule, with the items and documents seeming to narrate back to me my memories of those years. There were my move-out documents from the apartment I had prior to moving to Ithaca to begin my program in 2008, while from 2014 there was a copy of my first job contract after graduating. There was the small end-table, the first piece of furniture my wife-to-be and I bought after we moved to Ithaca, and off of which we ate our first dinner in our first apartment. I also parted with the desk on which I wrote everything from my first seminar papers to my dissertation, a real wood desk I had picked up for free and fantasized about refinishing one day. And I had to part, too, with the coffee table, bookshelf, and standing lamp I had purchased from a colleague who, a few years later, passed away far too young.

It was not all sentimentalism: the things did have to go, and in the end I was more happy than regretful at having to part from them. Nor did everything go: most of the 1,000 or so books I shipped to Germany. They tell their own story about those years. Some were there because I thought at some point that a self-respecting scholar had to have them in arm’s reach, some I honestly believed I’d make time for, some were freebies the hidden cost of which was in the having. Some were leftovers of abandoned dissertation ideas, others were there for no better reason than Ithaca has a great library book sale and I had to learn how to manage my own „Kaufrausch.“

Even as I teach my students to approach artworks from a critical distance for the purposes of their academic writing, we all write our own biographies in one way or another, and I wrote about ecopolitics and ecoaesthetics in German realism because that was one of the ways in which those stories got under my skin. The mixed feelings that come with parting from objects that are themselves dumb but for the meaning I ascribe to them brought to mind again the extent to which our own experiences and concerns belie the stance we assume as scholars and teachers of literature.

Worm Composting in Theory and Practice

One of my worms in what used to be vegetables, used teabags, eggshells...

This used to be vegetables, used teabags, eggshells…

Last year we decided to take up a hobby we had been thinking about trying since way back in my first year of grad school: vermicomposting. Back when we moved to Ithaca for my start at Cornell, we spent our first few days in Ithaca staying at the house of a graduate student in plant biology who had two trashcan sized vermicompost systems in her basement. Ithaca’s garbage pick-up incentivizes waste reduction through a system of trash tags, and so when our host pulled back the lid to show us the rather squirmy mass that consumed her kitchen scraps, we were certainly intrigued. Her advice was to take one of the classes in worm composting offered through Cornell Extension, because while worm composting is fairly simple, it can be done wrong. And besides, I would get everything I needed in the class: a bin, bedding, and a starter herd of worms.

The idea sat on the back burner for a while, and as it did plenty of compostable kitchen scraps went off to the landfill (probably about 1,700 pounds in those years…a side effect of this project is that I know how many pounds of kitchen scraps I produce in a week). This is bad because space in landfills is finite, but also because when organic materials decompose in landfills, they release greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Feeding my garbage to worms instead quickly transforms kitchen scraps into nutrient rich worm castings. It also eliminates the problem of wasted food.

Recently I harvested our first round of compost. We don’t have a garden, and only

Cat grass growing in compost.

Cat grass growing in compost.

a few houseplants, so we use it instead as potting soil for cat grass. A red worm composting system is an ecosystem in its own right, and as I’ve seen it evolve I’ve thought a bit a lot about the unexpected pleasures of having a box of worms cut down on trash.

Ingeborg and Babette enjoying some cat grass last Christmas.

Ingeborg and Babette enjoying some cat grass last Christmas.

The Theory

When I put my own guests in the position that my host put me in back in my first days in Ithaca, the responses are mixed. Apparently peering into a box full of worms eating trash is not everybody’s cup of tea. But the fascination for me has been in maintaining an externalized metabolic system: maybe I won’t eat that mushy apple, but they will. And it is not just them. A worm bin is an ecosystem in which other small organisms develop. Flies were a minor nuisance in the summer, although they were gone by winter. It also interesting to see the afterlife of some of my vegetables. The bell pepper seeds in particular tend to sprout; after a week the seedlings are all that is left of what didn’t go into that night’s stir fry.

Processing part of my waste in my house is the other pleasure of worm composting. In the past I would buy something appealing at the grocery store, and then whatever I didn’t consume would go into the trash, turn into a foul smelling slop, and then be out of sight and out of mind when the trash truck came. Owning at least part of my garbage is far more satisfying than banishing it to some liminal place that I never visit. And there is a fascination to the thought that I can grow something for my cats in what used to be teabags and vegetable peelings. Yes, the final link in the metabolic chain is that the worms eat what I don’t as to produce compost that I then use to produce grass to aid the cats in their own digestion.

The worm box is also a pleasant reminder of just how noisy nature is. If one stops to listen, one can easily hear their rustle.

The Practice

Worm composting can go wrong. The best species for worm composting, red wigglers or eisenia fetida, are very tolerant but will try to escape en masse from a bin where conditions have turned toxic (plenty of horror there for anyone who cares to look it up on Google). In the end we did not take a class, but there are plenty of resources on the internet that are helpful. Bentley Christie maintains this helpful website, while there are plenty of online forums and instructional videos on YouTube. While there are many good resources, there are plenty that might be wrong or cause unnecessary worry. I spent a lot of time trawling websites early on whenever I encountered a perceived problem. The rest of this post will sum up a few of the hurdles encountered along the way.

  • Bin Setup: The first decision is whether to buy a readymade system or to make your own. A readymade system costs around $100. I set up my own system with roughneck bins, which cost under $10 a piece, depending on size. I built a three tier system, with the lowest tier collecting the liquid, but there are variations. Again, plenty of instructional materials on the internet. I built something based on  this and this.
  • Buying worms. I ordered from a supplier online, but there are smaller organizations in many areas that sell. If ordering, it is best to order from someone geographically proximate. The less time the worms spend in the mail, the better.
  • The first weeks.  I ordered from a large farm, and that caused a few problems. The worms were used to a large bin, and so they wanted to explore. Red worms are photophobes, and so I kept them under constant light for the first two days in order to discourage them from exploring up and out of the bin. This trick worked.Ventilation was another problem I had in the beginning. At first I kept a lid on my bin. This trapped a lot of moisture, and that, in turn, encouraged the worms to crawl up and out. Since it was summer, too much heat and moisture might have been getting trapped inside as well. I started finding worms that were dying a most gruesome death. This is often a result of overfeeding and acidification, and I worried that I was overfeeding. But the bin was not smelling bad. It seems that this problem is common in the beginning. Worms at worm farms eat horse manure, and switching to kitchen scraps does not sit well with some of the population. I don’t know if this was the issue. I took other steps to improve the environment in the bin. For one thing, I switched to an open system. Instead of a lid, I put a thicker layer of bedding on top (a mix of shredded newspaper and cardboard) and left the lid off so that the system could breathe. In any event, the dying stopped by the third week.Pests have not been a problem. When my bin was too wet I would see a lot of mites. Mites are not bad, but their presence did tell me I needed to keep the lid off, and I stopped noticing them once I did. Fly larvae was also a problem at first, but they went away too.

    All in all, it takes the system a few weeks to sort itself out, and one has to be patient.

  • Adding garbage. In my house we produce about five pounds of compostables a week (yes, I’ve weighed it). Worms will eat most anything, but not everything that could go into other types of systems should go into the worm bin. Meat and animal waste are self-explanatory, but citrus can make the bins too acidic. Coffee grounds, I am told, also can be acidic, but those can go straight into the garden. Starch is something one should avoid, so stale bread and potato skins are still heading off to the landfill.
  • Going away. I left the bin alone for a month relatively early on. This is a long time, and I had nobody to look after it. When I got home I found that the worms were fine, and that a good layer of compost had developed. My impression was that there were fewer, and indeed their population may have gone down with the lack of feeding, but if so then they quickly bounced back.
  • Storage. In the summer I kept the bin in the basement, but when the temperatures began dropping in fall I moved them to a dark part of my apartment, where they now stay. Excessive heat and cold are obviously bad, and when I was convinced that the bin would neither stink nor attract a lot of pests, I decided it could live inside

The bottom line is that the biggest challenge starting out is to resist the worry. None of the mistakes I made early on were catastrophic, and some minor changes, such as increasing the amount of bedding and leaving the lid off helped the system to stabilize. As I said, it consumes about five pounds of compostables a week, and it could take more!

The Salton Sea: The Pleasures of Ecocatastrophe

I was recently alerted to the existence of the 2006 documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, now available on YouTube. The film is a curious short history of the Salton Sea, essentially a century old environmental accident. The area was supposed to become a major resort in the middle of the twentieth century, but the film tells how flooding and the vicissitudes of speculative capital ended up killing those schemes, so that today the Salton Sea is a landscape of spectacular devastation.

John Waters narrates the film, and given the landscape of the sea and the people whom we meet, it’s not hard to imagine what drew him to the film. The documentary is done in a screwball style, but its humor does not trivialize the environmental dilemma that the sea poses nor the economic bind that the characters living there find themselves in. What it points to instead is a way to love a blighted place. The lake is fascinating, both in the film and in real life, as the site of the detritus of the sort of grandiose visions of American capital that at least appear to be more intact on the coast.

On a personal note, I’ve always had something of a fascination for the Salton Sea. I grew up in San Diego, and I had found out that the lake existed in a unit on the geography of the region when I was in third grade. As it happened, the family of a friend of mine had a cabin in Salton Sea Beach, one of the resort towns built on the shore during the boom years. Having read about the lake in school, I was excited to pay it a visit. I had not expected the sight that actually greeted me. To get to the shore, we walked first through a line of trees, whereupon we crossed a field filled with trash, including a half buried, rusting automobile. The ground was white, and with each step my foot sank in inch or so directly into the earth. We had to climb across some dunes to the beach itself. I heard a crunching beneath my feet, and was startled to see a band of dead fish stretching as far up and down the shoreline as the eye could see. The actual condition of the lake was startling, but I had a fantastic weekend, and I hope to have the chance to go back some day.

Anyway, the film is worth watching. It will be an hour well spent.


Nature Works for Chobani

A cup of Chobani yogurt I recently consumed yielded this little object of contemplation.

"Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid."

“Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid.”

What strikes me about Chobani’s claim that “”Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid” is that it performs a triple denial of the product’s own origins:

1.) “Mother Nature” plasters over the real labor of production and distribution that is as much a part of the production as the “natural” growth of strawberries and bananas or bovine lactation.

2.) Who is the “we” who make the cups and the lid? The cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and waste is populated by more people not on Chobani’s payroll. What’s more “Nature” bookends that very cycle.

3.) The lid tells a story of ingredients and containers. Chobani handles the former, “Mother Nature” the latter. When and from whom do we get the actual yogurt?

Then there is the worn-out gendering of Nature as female, both in the “Mother Nature” commonplace and, more amusingly, in that “she” produces the ingredients for a milk-based product. Then there is the fact that yogurt itself is gendered female (at least up until recently).

This may be a a lot of pontification for an object that is now trash (although like Grandpa Simpson I have always been the kind of person who reads things he finds on the ground). But I offer it as a micro case-study into why Nature has fallen into such disrepute in some circles.

The Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capital of the World

For anyone who might have missed it, last week Terry Gross interviewed Adam Minter, author of a new book called Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. One thing that I like about Gross’ interviews is that they tend to explore not only whatever issue is at hand, but the subject’s own connection to that issue. In this case, Minter comes from a family that ran a junkyard. The interview is very informative about the global circulation of garbage for recycling, an economy that is largely opaque to most of us.

Shijiao, China is the Christmas tree light recycling capital of the world mentioned in the title of this post. It seems that the insulation for Christmas lights is transformed in Shijiao into soles for slippers.  Gross’ surprise at this fact is perhaps relatable for all of us living in a culture of commodities that mask their own origins. Incidentally, a couple of years ago the Huffington Post put up a video of a Shijiao recycling plant narrated by Minter.