Trash Talk

“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people… This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” –John Adams,  Letter to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818

I was up at the dump a while back—the same place that I’ve been hauling our household trash to for twenty-two years now—and I got to thinking about the changes our little Southern Oregon timber town has gone through over the years. There used to be a hole in the ground there where we tossed everything we discarded—tires, paint, used motor oil, furniture, animal carcasses, garbage, plutonium. Every once in awhile someone would set it on fire and the heap would get smaller for a while. Maybe twice a year the county sent a man with a bulldozer down to compact the mess and spread some dirt around.

Nowadays we have what’s called a “transfer site” which sounds different but smells pretty much the same. We throw our stuff into a metal dumpster which gets picked up by a semi-truck and hauled downriver to the county’s “sanitary landfill” where it gets dumped into a big hole in the ground and a man on a bulldozer works five days a week compacting the mess and spreading dirt around.

I guess that doesn’t sound like much of an improvement but things really have changed. We can sort our trash now, recycling paper, tin, glass, plastic, appliances, motor oil, leaves and grass clippings. This saves us room at the big dump and makes a little money for the local charity that sells what we sort out.

While I was musing, instead of tossing, one of my neighbors pulled in. He was a logger, a timber faller in fact, judging by the chainsaws, oil and gas jugs, axes and road warning signs in the bed of his crew-cab pick-up.

Our county calls itself “The Timber Capital of the Nation” (which isn’t too far from the truth) so loggers are a common sight in these parts. The bumper-sticker on his truck read, “Help Ruin America—Join an Environmental Group” which is a pretty common one now, like the ones that say “Keep Oregon Green—Stop Clear-cutting.” Twenty-two years ago you never saw anything like that around here.

Well, the first thing he did is what just about everyone does nowadays. He pulled up by the recycling shed and dropped off his newspaper, glass, tin cans and plastic milk jugs in their appointed bins. It was all so commonplace that, if it hadn’t been for that bumper-sticker I never would have noticed.

My first reaction was delight. I’m not a big fan of bumper-stickers and the sight of someone seemingly contradicting his own slogan left me with a smug satisfaction. It occurred to me that my neighbor, despite his evident politics, had been seduced by a cultural change. Two decades back, recycling was for hairy-legged granola women and subversive simple-lifers—now it’s mainstream, something we all do because it’s what we feel we ought to be doing.

The smugness lasted until it occurred to me that the “new” transfer site with its recycling bins was ten years old. Where the hell had I been all that time? How could I have not noticed that my neighbors had accepted this once-radical change, endorsed it whole-heartedly as an act of common decency? Mores, the sociologists call this, the agreed-upon ways of doing things which set the tone for the entire community.

My job, as an artist, is to keep my eyes open and notice what’s going on around me. Here was something both subtle and significant that had been going on all around me every week for ten years—520 or more trips to the dump and I’d never caught on to a trend that took place right in front of my own nose.

I took comfort in the knowledge that I’m not alone in missing out on much of the true complexity of small town rural life. In a way, the logger who recycles could serve as a rural/urban and blue collar/professional class litmus test for prejudice. “Does a timber worker have Green nature?” Whether you answer “yes” or “no” or “maybe” or “I don’t know” says a great deal more about you and your role in our culture than it does about the situation itself.

My buddy, James Ross Kelly, poet, ex-logger and ex-environmental activist, likes to tell an anecdote about the time he was blowing down Interstate 5 along with the director of an environmental activist group. His passenger came suddenly unglued as they passed a log truck loaded with big old-growth #1 Peelers.

“You motherfucker!” the director shouted while flipping the driver the bird, “We’re going to shut you down, you tree-killing sonovabitch!”

Maybe the truck had a bumper-sticker that he found offensive or maybe it was just the sight of those fat logs that set the director off and turned some poor schmuck of a truck driver into a scapegoat for all that was wrong and frustrating in the director’s pitifully small world. Yet many log-truck drivers also “reduce, re-use and recycle” and the target of that up-thrust finger may have been stacking his newsprint in a recycling bin for years. Maybe the director’s contorted face and his one-finger salute confirmed the trucker’s worst suspicions about environmentalists and their alleged “socialist agenda.” In all likelihood, the driver never even noticed.

My neighbors find it unremarkable that mill workers, loggers and log-truck drivers recycle. To them, anyone who thinks that timber workers don’t love the land is just another ignorant (and arrogant) outsider trying to tell them how to live without bothering to first learn about their lives.

Another friend, a tie-dyed-in-the-wool middle-aged flower child, runs a health food store in a local small (population: 1,100) town. A half-dozen years ago, when spotted-owl fever was running about 109.7 degrees Fahrenheit, he was “encouraged” to place a dayglo-green placard in his store window reading: “This Business Supported by Timber $$$$.”

“Screw the mill owners,” he told the committee, “They’ve been shafting everyone around here for years—running the gyppos out, cutting wages, killing the fish. Now they got their tits in a wringer and they want me to help get them loose?”

As the only business on Main Street that didn’t display the placard, he found himself isolated and boycotted. During those days, two Earth First!ers from Santa Cruz showed up in his store. No doubt feeling more comfortable in the store than they’d been out on the sidewalks, they started loudly voicing their views on the old-growth question, blaming it on “asshole redneck loggers” who’d been “duped by the timber-nazis.”

“You guys don’t know shit,” my friend told them, “You’re the only assholes around here. Quit bad-mouthing my neighbors and get the fuck out my store.”

I gave up political activism years ago—at least on being a member of any group with political aims—though I still participate as a sort of freelancer, attending meetings and rallies when a cause is important enough to me and voting booth at every opportunity. In part, my decision to drop-out from that scene was simply due to a realization that I’m no good at it. My distrust of any group too large to sit together around a picnic table and of any ideology more specific than “for the general welfare” makes me a disruptive element in any organization.

Besides, I’m always haunted by the notion that I’m too ignorant to tell others how to live their lives, and always horrified at the chutzpah of those who claim to know what’s right for everyone. I’ve spent too many years questioning myself to accept the pronouncements of others without first turning Michel de Montaigne’s humble motto, “What do I know?” inside out by asking, “What do you know?”

Polemics, manifestos, ideology and the degeneracy of political language seem hopelessly simple-minded, arrogant and deceptive to me. Worse yet, reading it bores me to tears—the only unforgivable sin on the part of any writer expecting to earn a paycheck and an audience. The best writing, the kind that achieves very high levels of artistic merit, doesn’t seek to provide answers and to persuade—it raises questions, makes us doubt, hints that there’s always more to any situation than we can possibly understand, challenges us to draw our own conclusions.

Politics, with its short-term, confrontational focus on winning and losing particular immediate battles, can’t help but generate more trash-talk than sensible words. Though both Mother Nature and human nature (which is just an aspect of the former) are delightfully complex and therefore endlessly interesting, it is hard to build a mass political movement founded on complexity and moral ambiguity.

The truly important stuff just won’t fit on a bumper-sticker—at their best, even a book-length collection of essays or a novel can only sketch the barest outlines. Still, there is a role for art in resolving social, economic, environmental and political disputes.

We often talk of art in terms of “Culture” (with a capital “C”) as if it were important for its own sake—Ars gratia artis. But the ultimate purpose of art is to enhance our chances of survival, to, in some way, change “life as we know it” for the better. It is culture, “little `c'” culture, the things we do every day, which gives meaning and purpose to the arts—not the other way around.

Politics, too is an aspect of culture. The political discourses of today are a result of the cultural changes of the past. It is only after people change their daily habits of thinking and ways of doing that the political debate on the consequences of those changes begins. Lately, I’ve begun to use the term “cultural activism” to describe what I and others do in our work as literary, visual and performing artists.

Back in 1989, just before I gave up on politics, I spent a weekend at the county fair grounds sitting in a booth at the Spring Fair, an annual crafts show. It was an informational booth though, so we weren’t selling things—just giving away facts and ideas. You wouldn’t think it, but at the time it was a dangerous job—several people whom I knew had been getting death threats for less than that.

The spotted-owl controversy was going on and many of my neighbors were understandably upset about maybe losing their jobs and homes and their way of life in order to protect a bird nobody had ever even seen. It didn’t make sense to them.

“Yellow Ribbon Fever” we called it, because of the plastic yellow ribbons the mill owners passed out all over the county so that folks could tie them to the antennas on their cars and pick-ups showing the world that, if it came down to it, they’d rather see the bird go than lose their livelihoods.

Of course, the reality of what was going on was much more complicated than that—in fact it was, and still is, one of the most complicated problems I’ve ever seen. But “jobs versus owls” is what nearly everyone, left, right and center, seemed to think it was about at the time. (Actually, as slogans go, “jobs versus owls” was much more effective than, say, “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm”—less abstract, fewer syllables, something you could sink your teeth into.) Having been repeated enough, it was taken not just for truth, but as the whole and single truth.

So, there we were, the board of directors for Umpqua Watersheds, our little local environmental activist organization, right out there in front of God and everybody, trying to explain things to our neighbors and wondering who’d be the next to get a midnight phone call, or lose a job or have a car vandalized for expressing our opinions. But mostly, we listened more than we talked.

The funny thing is, it didn’t matter much which side people were on. Just about everybody who stopped by started out by talking about “them,” the other side. To hear the litany of complaints and accusations you’d think that there was a war on and that unconditional surrender was the only way to end it.

Well, there’s no use arguing with people when they’re upset. We just let them blow off steam until they settled down. Then we asked them all the same question, “Forget about “them” for a minute, what do you want?”

It kind of stunned them for a moment, as if they’d never been asked that before. Their faces changed from indignation to shock and confusion, followed by puzzlement and distrust, and finally, resignation and humility. In the end, they’d let loose with a what-the-hell sigh, take a look around and lower their voices, “Well, it’s pretty simple really…”

It turned out that nobody wanted to fight; nobody wanted to harm the land or the critters; nobody wanted people to lose their jobs. Everyone was certain that there must be a better way of doing things.

“But what can we do?” they all asked, “What can we do?”

History: Living On Earth, Cambridge MA (excerpt; radio commentary) 1997; Jefferson Monthly, Ashland OR 1998.

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3 thoughts on “Trash Talk

  1. Your essays remind me of my wife’s father. He was a logger for a time years ago, and now he mainly runs heavy equipment. She said your work also reminds her of her grandfather, also a logger. Its a coincidence i saw this essay because the old Oakland City dump use to be on his property, long before they put in any kind of transfer station. Your writing brings me back to when i was a child and shows me how much the town has changed. Every body misses the good old days, and you have put it in words that bring pictures to our heads and happy thoughts of reminiscing. Thank you for your memoirs.

  2. I googled “Robert Leo Heilman” then spent the afternoon reading as much of your writings as I could. I was, in this order, entertained, impressed, enlightened and profoundly moved. Thank God you decided to become a writer. I always thought of you as a talented writer but now I see it goes far beyond that. Simply put, you are one of the few in this world who can see both the forest and the trees. I feel as if Ive been on a sight seeing tour of human nature.

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