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The Treasure in the Trash: Symbol and Art

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a wasteland of garbageMy father was an inveterate and unapologetic garbage dump aficionado. On Sunday afternoons when I was a kid, it was off to the garbage dumps, known and unknown. 

Along with us would come one of my uncles, who had been a Japanese prisoner of war and came home . . . not quite right. One of the joys in his life was shooting rats with his .45 caliber pistol. There were a lot of rats. 

We were a merry band. 

I have to quickly say that I grew up in the golden age of garbage dumps, not only in the sheer number of dumps, but also their quality. You see, I grew up in the days before the widespread use of plastic garbage bags. 

Also, most everything was still glass or wood in those days, very little plastic. Believe me, glass was a lot more fun to shoot with my little .22 caliber rifle. And, yes, I left the rats and snakes to my “tetched” uncle. I didn’t like killing living things even in those days. Give me a gallon pickle jar to shoot any time.

There are phrases that disappear in usage over time. Back then, “take it to the ditch” meant throwing something out. Again, there wasn’t much plastic in those days, so off to the ditch was a way of sending things back to the elements—furniture, washing machines, bedsprings, broken dishes . . . cars. Everything “went to the ditch,” and you could drive down the rural backroads and find the discarded treasures of others. 

This dumping wasn’t entirely an exercise in irresponsibility. We had serious soil erosion problems in the Ozarks in those days. People were over-clearing  and over-farming  every available inch of land, which led to what we called “washes,” areas where the soil washed away in heavy rains. Throwing a set of bedsprings into a wash could help with erosion. 

The old adage is right: we most certainly are what we eat. We are also what we discard. And we are also what we scurry to our nests and hold onto. 

Here in the United States, our garbage–then and now–says we are an overfed, over-clothed, over-housed society. And, yes, that’s why my dad and his brother—the children of sharecroppers—loved to search through the garbage dumps, and why I learned to love it too: In the garbage dumps, we were in the presence of too much. We are in the midst of the society of over-consumption, even if we are only intruders into its results. 

We are in the midst of a rich society that can throw away jars of perfectly edible food, and usable scrap iron, and perfectly good clothes, unbroken dishes, and useable furniture. 

And there it was: free for the taking.

With a little imagination, everything there had a new birth and a new purpose . . .

And there it was: free for the taking. 

With a little imagination, everything there had a new birth and a new purpose . . . 

I didn’t learn the term until I was long past my garbage dump days: ob·jet trou·vé. (Because nearly everything sounds better in French!) The found object. So that’s what my dad and uncle and I were doing in those garbage dumps: we were exploring objets trouve. 

We were artists finding objects. 

So that’s what we were doing! It was folk art!

My poetry mentor, Allen Ginsberg, said that poets—like all artists—are magpies bringing shiny objects back to our nests. 

Who knew that my poor, tetched uncle was an artist? Who knew that my father, who lived long enough to become a fairly proficient Dumpster diver . . . who knew they were artists?

But they were. They simply never had a chance. I’m thankful every day that I have had a chance to be an artist. That I have the gift of time . . . time to think. Time to create.

Think of the brutal logic of necessity that drives so, so many people. Preventing them from taking the time to think for themselves and express themselves through that very basic human instinct: Art. 

One of the haunting memories I have of childhood is the utter fatigue that I often saw on the faces of my parents, whose lives consisted almost entirely of their work and their religion. Fatigue.

For too many of our fellow human beings, a combination of the necessity of survival and the naysayer within smothers the creative impulse. This, I think, is one of humanity’s greatest tragedies. 

Magpies bringing shiny objects back to our nests . . . 

Actually, that is old European folklore that magpies steal and collect shiny objects. In point of fact, magpies fear and avoid shiny objects. 

It is we human beings who treasure shiny objects, grab them and scurry them back to our nests. 

What life lesson did I learn from my family tradition of searching the trash?

Stop. Notice. There is wonder there, under the stench and rot.


What life lesson did I learn from my family tradition of searching the trash?

Stop. Notice. There is wonder there, under the stench and rot.

I talk a lot about how religious thinking and spiritual thinking and philosophical thinking and artistic thinking all work in the same way. They are explorations in interiority—forays into our psyches. They all can be called “aesthetic thinking.” By which I mean art: artistic thinking. 

After all, what is art? I’d say it is first and foremost symbolic thinking. Religious symbols come so quickly to mind: the cross; the crescent and star of Islam; the Star of David; yin and yang . . . and think of social symbols: the hammer and sickle; the Statue of Liberty; the Kremlin, and on and on. 

The most stolen symbol in the world . . . is the Mercedes Benz logo. 

The list of symbols goes on and on because we human beings create meaning through the use of symbols. As I’ve said before: #We use symbols, or symbols use us. 

For pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, the aesthetic experience was the deepest experience possible.  

Art both examines and creates the most intense of human experiences. Walk into one of the great cathedrals. You don’t need to know a thing about medieval Christianity to get what the symbols are saying. They are expressing grandeur and awe and human smallness. 

Walk into a garbage dump and . . .  well, garbage. Well, junk is a lot more likely to create feelings of whimsey and playfulness than of awe and wonder. There’s something in junk that communicates playfulness. 

Why? What’s the difference between the cathedral and the junk? 

That cathedral: the symbols are over-determined. They mean something, and you know what they mean or you don’t.

But junk? Ah! Junk! Trash! It asks us to use our imaginations.

In that way, it’s a lot like Humanism: Here: join in the creation of something. It’s all about creating. It’s all about the imagination of a person like you.  

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