Category Archives: Trash

From Copake to Camillus, we’re all indigenous now

Last week there was a particularly disturbing news story out of the hamlet of Copake, in Columbia County east of the Hudson. A despondent dairy farmer committed suicide, shooting dead 51 of his cows before killing himself. Although the scope of this private tragedy caught the collective breath of nationwide news consumers (for an hour or two), there is of course nothing new about the desperate struggles of the family farmer, particularly dairy farmers in our own state. Northview Diary has more.

Andy Arthur (your expert blogger on the rural issues of eastern New York) has a thoughtful post up today about the physical, economic and social landscape where this sad event occurred. He points out that Copake is on the very front line between Upstate New York’s economic struggles and a rising tide of affluence coming ultimately from New York City (and Wall Street). It’s a line that used to lay much farther south. This is an on-the-ground situation which is still only abstract to us in other parts of Upstate, although became somewhat less abstract to more people during the regional anti-NYRI protests. Here’s a story about a “farm” (also in Copake, and on the same road as the farm with the 51 cows) that is not really a farm, but apparently a construction-debris dumping ground. With the advance of development-crazy newcomers, Columbia County farms are bearing some strange fruit.

Speaking of dumping — and closer to home — residents of the Town of Camillus’ Golden Meadows subdivision (a homedebtors farm?) are only just realizing how Honeywell has successfully managed to turn the Onondaga Lake sludge-dumping cleanup plan into a fait accompli. This is the same plan that the Onondaga Nation and other local activists have been vocally opposing for several years, but the residents of Golden Meadows seem not to have heard about it. I lost some nice neighbors a couple years ago to the lure of Golden Meadows, and I’m guessing they’re feeling like they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them; they probably didn’t think the waste beds would ever see use again, or were not warned. The sad thing is that if only the Nation, the local activist friends of the Nation, and the residents of the Town of Camillus had connected with each other a few years ago, they could have made a much more effective bloc to demand a better examination of the cleanup issues.

“Divide and conquer” still works, however. It works particularly well here, because some people don’t want to consider that while they may be in different boats, they are still riding down the same river. Simply put, the Camillus situation illustrates perfectly something I’ve been trying to imperfectly express for years: we here in Upstate New York are all “indigenous” now in the eyes of certain other people. We are seen as being as exploitable and disposable as the other natural resources on the land we occupy, whether it is over in Copake or over in Camillus. We’re becoming invisible. The people from the corporations, and maybe the second-home owners too (who are probably more intimately bound up with the interests of corporations than those who can’t afford second homes), tend not to consider “the locals” to be people, any more than the land speculators of the 18th and 19th centuries thought that the Haudenosaunee were people. No, they’re not evil, but they are losing their sight. All natives of this region, regardless of cultural background or skin color (but particularly those with brown skin, and also people of any color with farming or working-class backgrounds), are “removable.” How did this change in identity happen? I don’t know. But I do know that our historical ignorance and pride keeps us from acknowledging this new reality.

I’m not a second-home-owner who works for a Wall Street corporation (although I currently serve them) and I have never been able to think like they do. They see things differently. We’re not all the same people. But the even more ironic thing is that the second-home-owners are desperately seeking authenticity by (usually unconsciously) sweeping away the actual authentic culture (the indigenous peoples of all kinds, from the native nations to the farmers to the factory workers) and building artificial, pretend versions in their place. Yet their desire for cultural authenticity never seems to be sated, and they use their affluence to travel the world seeking it, creating “ideal communities” Upstate, or clearing out cities for gentrification, or buying dead factories to make shrines for art that strives to get them back in touch with the “authentic.” They’re always chasing the indigenous peoples away — but in the end, they’re always chasing after them.

What an absurd cycle. Does it have to be this way? And does there have to be conflict? The Two Row Wampum says no. It seems to me the indigenous peoples of today’s upstate regions, and the “new people” from elsewhere (I mean the affluent, not the immigrant), ought to work out a new agreement. But such an agreement won’t happen if we don’t have any good local leaders to articulate and respond to what is actually happening.

A trash quote worth recycling

This quote is just one small excerpt from another blogger’s much wider-ranging reflection on human civilization and achievement. But since Syracuse’s litter problems seem to come up time and time again, I thought it worth highlighting.

Almost every driver has carefully checked to see who’s around before thinking about innocently chucking an empty gas station coffee cup, water bottle, candy wrapper, or cigarette box out of their window. For each one of us, justifying this act is easy, but it’s only easy because there are no short-term consequences. “So what?” and “Who cares?” make up the bulk of the typically ignorant responses. The prisoners will pick it up, right?

Well, what about the garbage crisis in Italy? What about the massive plastic island floating in the Pacific Ocean? Each piece of trash carries a so-called innocent story, which climaxes years later into an epically guilty tale.


In Rwanda, every last Saturday of the month, from 7 to 11 a.m., the entire nation rolls up its sleeves and (by law and custom) cleans up stuff. This is called umuganda (“contribution”), and has been a tradition in the country since before the Europeans arrived. Officially, if you don’t come out of your house and clean up stuff on umuganda day, you can be arrested. Even the president and other high-ranking officials participate. It’s also a day when ordinary citizens can ask questions of their government officials working beside them, so it serves a dual communal purpose.

In 1994, during the genocide, umuganda was utilized by government officials as a means of calling citizens to come out and either kill their neighbors, or to clean up (i.e., hide) their dead bodies. It’s probable that few questions were asked of the government during that time.

Here’s a Rwandan article on today’s umuganda days, and suggestions on how they could be meaningfully expanded. Despite Rwanda’s terrible recent past, it appears that they are at a point where they can talk about moving beyond just “taking out the trash,” whereas here we haven’t even gotten that far. What transformable local traditions (appropriate to our own local culture, not Rwanda’s) have we got when it comes to community service?

Filth and filth

I was going to call this post “Giant Tit Spotted on Offramp to Herald Place.” But this is a family blog, and “tit” is one of the Seven Words You Can’t Say on Family Blogs, so I didn’t. Instead, I’m going to try, in the spirit of the late George Carlin, to analyze filth at length. And we have a filth problem in Syracuse: perhaps we don’t have enough of it.

Here are two standup guys doing Syracuse a good turn and hoping to make a difference. A couple months ago, they cleaned the offramp to Herald Place in less than 20 minutes and made a high quality video to explain and publicize the problem. If we had just 50 more volunteers like them we could probably clean up Syracuse for a whole weekend… if everyone could just get their schedules together. Maybe our elected leaders would strive to live up to the dedication of our citizens, and understand they need to give Syracuse the beautification commission it really deserves.

What would Carlin have said? He would have said “Bleep that bleep.” I didn’t always agree with him, but he always made me think.

Sadly, nobody in power takes the broad daylight approach seriously. Don’t get me wrong: They should take it seriously. And they do, but they don’t. The intellect says “Yes, yes,” but the political will just rolls over and falls asleep. Now, if I was a DPW crew manager controlled by whatever strings control whoever makes whatever phone calls, I have to be honest and say I’d be watching these guys and admiring their work, because they just did my work for me — work I’m under contract to do, except no one thinks it’s their job to schedule the work in a coordinated manner.

Here’s a new suggestion: maybe we should stop sending mature men to do a boy’s work. Because putting trash into a Hefty bag is probably not the only thing you can legally or constructively do with it. And no, I’m not just talking about creating graffiti out of pre-existing dirt. I’m not just talking about kudzu topiaries of questionable taste. I’m talking giant genitalia made of garbage. The more embarrassing to middle-class sensibilities, the better.

Now, I’m sure someone would have to research the precise legalities of picking up multiple fragments of pre-thrown trash and just mistakenly dropping them into a suggestive shape (you can’t just go off half-cocked). But, lest anyone think my suggestion just comes from the blue, let’s take a quick look at the recent history of art, trash and filth in our fair city, and ask a couple questions — here respectfully submitted:

Question One: Why was a giant insect recently made out of trash and safely displayed at Lipe Art Park? I mean, that’s a cute idea. And Lipe is a very public space. The “Litter Bug” is not all that provocative, however. Alas, it is just not filthy enough. Could we do even better worse?

Question Two: Why was provocative (some might say obscene) art recently put on display at one of our city’s spanking new art galleries for the wine and cheese set — where it arguably couldn’t do the local masses any practical good? There is most certainly a niche for provocative art in Syracuse — but some of the artists tasked with the mission of saving Syracuse don’t seem to want to take advantage of the abundance of free on-site materials just sitting in empty, high-traffic public spaces that have a big potential audience just driving by each morning. (Explain that one to me — without using the word “grant.”)

I have no answers, but it’s disheartening to watch all of these good people making earnest efforts at doing something truly worthwhile in Syracuse, yet just orbiting around each other, and never connecting. There’s civic spirit, there’s imagination, there’s boldness, but there’s just something keeping all these ingredients from reacting with one another and creating something that penetrates the consciousness of those in charge.

So at least consider it as a thought experiment. What if some suburban mom orbiting the city center gets offended that her children are getting a free education? And sets off a chain reaction of phone calls to Joanie Mahoney’s office to Mayor Driscoll’s to the SPD, and some joker gets in trouble, and the voracious national media has a field day with it (“Syracuse: Trashiest City in America?”).

Or, you could just make that one phone call. “Mayor Driscoll, if you’d prefer not to see a gigantic gar-boob — or worse — erected somewhere along some highly visible thoroughfare that you forgot to vacuum, I’d think about picking up the phone and coordinating some regular cleanup with the State of New York.”

Or are are things not that desperate yet?

Just a throwaway post, tossed from the window of a speeding blog. But Syracuse is a great recycling town. Why not turn that junk into “junk” today?

Recycling on other planets

Recycling is a fact of life in Onondaga County. Not only does it take energy (mental and physical) to recycle, but it probably takes constant PR pushes to make it work or, at least, deliver the illusion of success. OCRRA, a state authority, has kept up the steady drumbeat for almost 20 years and now I think most citizens of CNY respond pretty much like trained seals, even if we don’t always swish the right stuff into the right basket. It also helps that people generally have good (and quick) experiences during waste drop-off days at the dump, and that the recyclebins (this has become one word in the Syracuse area) are easy to obtain and replace.

How different things are in Houston…

Houston recycles just 2.6 percent of its total waste, according to a study this year by Waste News, a trade magazine… Landfill costs here are cheap. The city’s sprawling, no-zoning layout makes collection expensive, and there is little public support for the kind of effort it takes to sort glass, paper and plastics. And there appears to be even less for placing fees on excess trash. The city picks up garbage at some 340,000 households, and fewer than half have recycling bins. About 25,000 households are on the waiting list for the bins, but the city says it cannot afford more bins.

Those without the special bins must cart their recyclable garbage to one of just nine full-service drop-off depots in the city. But when Monica Pope, a locally renowned chef, approached a city-run recycling depot in her silver pick-up truck full of containers, she was turned away. “They said my truck was too full,” Ms. Pope recalled, laughing. “There are cultures that just don’t get it, and, unfortunately, Houston is one of them.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco, which has a recycling rate comparable to Onondaga County’s, wants to make recycling mandatory, with trash collecting companies acting as monitors. Understandably, even some green-minded people are balking at that idea. San Francisco apparently wants to be “zero-waste” by 2020 — but is that sustainable, or even attainable, if you have to mandate it? What really changes behavior in the long term?