Modern midden: one person's trash is another's history book
November 30, 2019 9:59 PM   Subscribe

On the county, state, and national levels, wilderness parks are often beloved for their natural wonders: handsome trees, cantilevered rock formations, shrinking glaciers—and not the things that people leave behind in them. But over time, many park staffers have found themselves caretakers of this historic debris. The older stuff strewn around can be a window into understanding a landscape and how people have used it. That’s how a couple dozen decades-old bottles and cans came to be cultural heritage objects in the custody of Fire Island staff. Sometimes Trash Is Treasured in America’s National Parks -- Bottles, cans, and more can reveal a long history of industry, recreation, and shenanigans. Similarly: Along the Remains of Route 66, Road Trip Trash Has Become Treasure -- Welcome to the “throw zone.” (Atlas Obscura x2)

From the first article:
While different types of public land in the United States—managed by the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service, for instance—are subject to different laws about land use, there is overarching legislation about protecting things that are old—mundane or otherwise. Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA), anything found on federal land, such as the Fire Island National Seashore, that is 100 years or older is considered an archaeological resource. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which created the National Register of Historic Places, lowers the age threshold to 50 years but has other criteria, such as association with an important person or event.
Historic trash has the most value when it’s left alone. Just like any other form of archaeology, context is key, and what’s around any given piece of trash is as or more important than the item itself. Archaeologists and other park staff often choose to leave the trash in place, but visitors, either through well-meaning ignorance or the desire for souvenirs, may not. Some guests just make off with stuff, while others with the “pack-it-in, pack-it-out” ethos might think they’re helping out. Joshua Tree made the news during the federal government shutdown in 2019, when some well-intentioned folks went in, garbage bags in hand, to clean up after some raucous, messy guests, Theuer says. Sometimes, he adds, they went too far, and picked up some historic stuff, too.
Word of the day: garbology, the study of modern refuse and trash as well as the use of trash cans, compactors and various types of trash can liners (Wikipedia), with the fun fact that A. J. Weberman invented the word garbology in 1971 when he went through Bob Dylan's trash.
posted by filthy light thief (4 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I keep a scrapbook of mundane garbage for this reason. Every now and then I put a food wrapper, store receipt or junkmail in it. Mostly because I am at the age where I know that things disappear (including my memories!) and it is fun to look back and see what was in the background of my life a while ago.
posted by srboisvert at 7:34 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Once, on a spring trip to Big Bend NP, I stopped on the side of the road and hiked out to a blooming yucca to see hummingbirds. On the way out I came across what may have been a camp for people building the highway up to the Basin. It was mostly old beer cans and bottles, but there were oil cans and a coffee pot, a lot of stuff. I'd bet no one had been there in years.
posted by Bee'sWing at 7:50 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wasn't it Edward Abbey who advocated for littering freedom - provide work for future archeologists, something along those lines?
posted by Chitownfats at 3:07 PM on December 2, 2019

We've all seen pictures of rivers of trash in places that don't have effective waste management. Leaving aside any health risks that presents I'd prefer if BC didn't look like that even if it makes the work of future archaeologists harder/impossible.
posted by Mitheral at 7:35 AM on December 3, 2019

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