On contamination

I’ve decided what I’m writing isn’t so much about plastic. That’s partly why I’ve stopped collecting it. (That and it was an ugly activity to devote so much time to. But someday I’ll sort and survey all that plastic I collected. When I can face it.) What I’m writing is about contamination, which comes from the Latin words com, “together” and tangere, “touch.” How being alive means to be contaminated, even before birth. The fetus awash in its mother’s blood, suffused with her touch, her contaminants — babies now born with more than 200 chemicals circulating through their bodies. How contamination comes before breath.

Contaminated.

How contamination then continues, each breath. Yesterday I spent all day on my knees in the dirt pulling out grass and weeds that had taken hold of the small strip of earth along our fence with the neighbor. That boundary — “near” and bur, meaning “dwelling.”  The family that lived there got foreclosed on last fall (Bank of America) and the house has been empty, lately gutted and rebuilt by a developer. The soil in this strip is healthy — fluffed and filled with worms, pill bugs, lots of creatures. An old stump stood here, and last fall we had it shredded and mulched it into the soil. This spring the strip sprouted two-foot weeds and a dense mat of grass. So I got down and pulled with my hands and dug with a cheap American version of a hori hori knife, pulling, cutting, digging, leaving a stretch of bare, beautiful soil.

Then Jen and I bought purple and yellow day lilies and yellow St. John’s wort, envisioning a row filled quickly with green and flowers. I pulled each plant from its pack, carefully untangled and separated the roots, loosened the dirt, dug into the soil deep enough for the roots to dangle, roughed up the sides of the hole, tucked the dirt back carefully around the roots, and soaked each one gently with water. I went to bed exhausted and pleased with this labor, this new bit of beauty in what was for long a sad, neglected strip. I thought of an essay Pattie McCarthy wrote that suggests devotion to a piece of ground (or a text) makes it sacred (“holy,” but the word once also used to mean “cursed”).

I woke up this morning still thinking about the strip. I committed to spend this holiday writing (and now I have written about nothing else). I had to fight the urge to go get mulch and blanket the whole area and water it again, just to seal in the goodness.

Around noon, sitting at my computer, I heard a lawn care company show up next door — mower, weed whacker, leaf blower.  Now that I’ve lived for a few years in this neighborhood of lawns, this ritual is familiar. I know they work as fast as they can. I wondered about the plants, tucked up so close to the fence. So I went out to take a look, pretending to carry something to the trash. It was three workers, a man, woman and younger boy — maybe son.

I wandered along the fence. They weed whacked here, and one of the lilies had an accordioned leaf like it got hit, but everything else looked okay. That’s nice, I thought. They were careful. But I wondered about chopping off the tops of the weeds without pulling them out. They’ll just come back. But it’s a lawn care company, I thought. Their job is to make it look good right now, not give it loving care, and besides they want to come back with the weeds. Of course I was completely wrong about all of that.

Jen came home with groceries, and I greeted her and helped her unpack. Then I turned and saw over her shoulder out the window the guy with a tank on his back, hose pointed down, spraying poison. I shoved on my shoes and raced out the door. The smell hit me, familiar, just like I used to take into my nose and lungs when walking around Green-Wood. I was too late, of course. He doused the whole stretch of ground on his side of the fence with poison, inches from the plants.

He was a nice man, apologetic, said he would pay for the plants if they die, but we might not know for a month. I don’t care about the plants, the price of them. I care about the labor of love I put into this dirt now soaked in poison. I care about the air I have to breathe — my partner, my dog, this man, his family. About the violation of poison soaking right into my space of living,  about living in a world where this happens, such casual, daily violence to life in all its forms. Why?

Because of convention, another coming together I can’t escape either. It considers as weed any “plant not valued for use or beauty” (of unknown origin). It requires tidiness and a brutal kind of efficiency made possible by technology, which gives us gas engines and chemicals and eats our time and our minds and bodies, leaving us mostly unwilling or unable to get down on our knees and see what it is we are killing.

3 thoughts on “On contamination

  1. What an extraordinarily beautiful meditation on a terrible topic. And what an assault, to have your soil stripped bare of wormy comfort. I urge you to talk to your neighbor, come to some agreement about poisons–they shouldn’t be used, they aren’t necessary. Perhaps you can convince them.

    The image of getting down on our knees, and seeing….anything, is so powerful, Allison. Thank you for writing this gorgeous, haunting piece.

  2. Just checking in on the collecting project, which struck me as ambitious in its fearlessness for how unattractive and relentless the material is…could indeed sense a terrible comic portrait / indictment being formed…at no little personal cost, I thought

    • Thank you for your kind words on that, Chris. I did stop collecting, mostly because of the ugliness you cite. Walking with my head down, attention on the ground, on trash, proved a tiresome way to exist in the world. I have kept all that I collected and want to take stock of it, and I may return to collecting, too, at some point.

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