The World Is Wasted on Us
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant. — Hurt Hawks, Robinson Jeffers
Down with this sort of thing
The mute hideousness of domestic life. The dreary chores. The wordless frustration. The limits life imposes on us, the doors swinging shut one by one, closing off potential futures with every choice we make. Every trip to the grocery store shaves off another flake of your soul. And one day you wake before the sun, the streetlights still throwing orange bars like tiger stripes across the bedroom wall, and wonder where exactly it was where you left yourself behind.
I do, anyway.
That doesn’t mean the chores don’t need doing. Order must be maintained. An avalanche of worthless stuff flows in and out of my house every day, and it seems as though every pound of useful product comes with ten pounds of pointless packaging. They say the average American generates around five pounds of waste every single day. It all has to go somewhere.
At least here, the suburbs don’t stretch on forever. Here, the frowning blue-gray mountains form a limit to the human world. Above the golden arches and the burning neon, the wilderness watches. The wild god of the world staring down at the unlovely concrete warrens we’ve made for ourselves.
Nature isn’t big on boundaries. Weeds grow up through the asphalt. Any empty housing lot soon turns into jungle of poisonous plants. The roads and the strip malls and the garbage dump are all built to keep the world at bay. It doesn’t work. Thank whatever God you believe in that it doesn’t work.
A trip to the dump
The wind was still howling through the valley, the tail end of the winter storm that charged down with a trumpet blast from the snowy slopes. The same wind tore apart half my garden furniture, scattering it gleefully across the frozen lawn.
In the tall trees surrounding the landfill, the hunched shapes of bald eagles watched. The rivers are frozen, and the salmon no longer run. The majestic birds are not above picking through our garbage for the food we throw away.
A concrete ramp leads up above the giant bins. Backing the car into an empty spot, I opened the trunk and started slinging broken furniture down into the dumpster below. The latest layer of the stratification that some future archaeologist might excavate, piecing together the mundane story of another wasteful day in the suburbs.
Battered old appliances. Shredded bills. Broken cups and plates. Torn clothes. Useless detritus that nobody wants, that even the most intrepid can find no use for.
Behind the bins, the landfill itself rose on the knees of a mountain. Huge flocks of seagulls swooped and swirled on blasts of cold wind, startled whenever an eagle flew past. Even from a distance, I could see eagles sitting in their dozens on the torn ground, their white heads bright and visible on top of dark bodies. Each sitting socially distanced from the next and proudly ignoring the bulldozers crawling back and forth through the tons of waste.
We throw so much away. And there’s something hideous about watching diesel machinery shoving our sins and wreckage under the earth, as though that somehow solves the problem. As though it’s really going anywhere. Resources extracted from the other side of the world and shipped across wild oceans at tremendous cost to end up here, picked over by gulls and eagles before being buried under tomorrow’s pungent load.
The dump is supposed to be a dreary sight. But watching giant eagles terrify seagulls as they ride the winter wind makes it somehow better. A way to encounter the world through the bars of the cage we’ve built for ourselves.
As a kid, I loved going to the dump
My dad didn’t go there often. He’s a man who buys little and throws even less away. But home renovations sometimes left him with jagged chunks of plaster and battered timbers and broken bricks to get rid of. I was always happy to help.
The garbage was buried deep. Parking the car on a lip of concrete, you could look straight down into the pit and see fires burning. Great mechanical teeth chomped down on the pile, mashing and masticating like some obscene underground giant. Infected with the iconography of Catholicism from an early age, I couldn’t miss the resemblance of the dump to an image of hell, where the flames never go out, where the worms never stop devouring.
But peering down into that cursed abyss was thrilling. Watching pieces of our house tumble into the fire to be consumed had the dark luster of annihilation. The thrill of the precipice. The pull of the sea. The unignorable appeal of the destructive forces of the world.
In all my years of killing, I never harmed a hawk
But sometimes, I would catch them in traps set out for pigeons. On the rooftop of a factory along the banks of a broad river, I would lure pest birds into cages, then kill them as mercifully as possible.
Sometimes, a hawk beat me to it. Often, they would reach in with their long legs between the mesh of the cage and grab any part of a pigeon they could, pulling it closer and tearing it apart. Other times, small hawks would climb right into the cage with the terrified pigeons and slaughter them all.
Whenever I found them, I’d open the cage and let the hawk fly free, watching it beat wide wings over the rippling river to the safety of the trees beyond. Then I’d spend a while removing butchered pigeon carcasses from the bars of the cage.
Predators don’t know about mercy. Only we have that luxury. Vulnerable things are deserving of pity. But my sympathies are with the hunters, not the hunted. The raptor’s arrogant stare. The sudden strike. The iron grip. The wide loneliness of the sky and the exultation of the kill. This is the truth known to hawks and killers, that the wild god of the world is immune to the pleas of mercy. That in all this wasteful world, the truest compassion is to use a sharp blade.
When the sun sets on the ghetto all the broken stuff gets cold — Silver Jews, Smith and Jones Forever
Ruin is ugly
When things fall apart, they lose their charm. We don’t want to see the garbage. We don’t want to look at the repairs. And so we pile one broken thing on top of another and ship it off to bury underground. And the eagles watch it all, looking for the treasure we might have missed.
Nothing is lost. The hawk flying across the river now carries the oily blood of pigeons in his veins. The salmon that swam up from the sea last year now stare out from the golden eyes of the eagles. Dinosaurs belch and roar as the black diesel smoke pours from the exhaust of the bulldozers. In the town where I grew up, the dump was also an energy plant, harvesting the heat from the rotting refuse of the city and pumping it back to warm the buildings.
In the eyes of the wild god of the world, there is no waste. The world is more or less a closed loop. There’s only transfer. Energy taking on different forms, rising from the ocean and growing wings before falling back to earth in torrents of rain. The hellish fires and jaws of the waste-to-energy plant were not the mouth of hell, but the amoral teeth of the world. The nameless power that transforms one thing into another, and then another, and then another, forever.
As a groaning truck hooked itself up to the overflowing dumpster below me, I threw away the last piece of broken furniture and swung the trunk shut. A cloud of seagulls rose like steam from the roof of a nearby building, frightened into shrieking motion by the declining stoop of another large eagle. Raptors ride the wind like spirits, armed and ready to transform the world into themselves.
And over on the mutilated slopes, the bulldozers growled. Generations of garbage shoved under the soil to degrade over slow centuries while fresh waste piles up on top of them.
The world is wasted on us.
But at least we have the predators to remind us of what the suburbs strive to make us forget. Turning away from what we don’t want to see doesn’t make it go away.
And none of us are going anywhere. Nothing dies. It just transforms.
© Ryan Frawley 2021.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.