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When I moved to a small town in the Mojave Desert last spring, I found myself in a new relationship with garbage.

There’s some serious junk festering in the sands of the Southwest: toxic dumps, airplane graveyards, nuclear test sites, and so on. An abandoned disposal site in Yuma, Ariz., holds a mountain of toxic e-waste from California. The Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County, near the Mexican border, takes in rail-transported loads of garbage from Los Angeles. And the lonely section of the Mojave between Victorville and Las Vegas is known to be a choice stretch of body-dumping territory.

It makes for an odd and sometimes grim American miscellany. But the longer I’m here, the more inevitable the combination of desert and trash seems to be.

We live in a country that promises eternal newness. But we’ve never been great at dealing with yesterday’s new––the old new, the long-dead new, the new stuff that’s no longer shiny. It haunts us, gathering dust in the corners, lingering in the air like an unpleasant smell. It makes us uncomfortable, cluttering our lives. So we cast it away—into an emptiness that seems to dwarf it, a place where nobody will notice it.

This gesture makes sense, if you assume vastness and cleanliness are the same. They aren’t, of course. But it’s hard to remember that from our usual vantage on the desert—which is from a distance.

Even here in Southern California, I can climb away from what we leave behind. The scramble up 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto is itself a kind of cleansing. The last half-hour to the peak is a crawl over white boulders, like chunks of old, hardened clouds, before a last breathless balance up the highest slab. At the top, 360 degrees of pure perception is yours for the turning, the taking, while the desert stretches its vast and apparently golden carpet far below.

The power of erasure can seem unlimited—at least until it comes up against some of the hardest trash to get rid of: the personal kind. As I get acquainted with the desert’s landscape of castoffs, I recall long-lost trash of my own. The Little Debbie wrappers, leftovers and wadded-up pieces of paper scattered around raccoon-raided cans in my childhood backyard in Florida; the stale peanut butter and marshmallows we used to trap said raccoons and then later release them by the creek; the decorative bunches of eucalyptus that I hauled from a dumpster and sold to neighbors out of my Radio Flyer wagon. The many apartment furnishings I gathered curbside on garbage collection days in Los Angeles. The pink sweatbands that found their way from my trash in New York City onto the head and wrists of a homeless man at the next subway station.

Many of us have bagged and tied off all kinds of memories and feelings, and buried them deep, left them to decompose, hoping that they’ll somehow disappear in the vastness of time and experience. But our memories and desires are not so easily disposed of. Periodic radioactivity of the heart is part of the human condition. We’ve all got some personal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant inside.

“Throwing away” just might be the dominant fiction of American consciousness. It’s the flipside of the American dream, a dark corollary to the myth of the West: The ability to become whatever you desire requires the ability to toss things away without looking back. We handle our personal garbage pretty irresponsibly. Perhaps, if we’re serious about valuing our environment, it behooves us to value our inner landscapes, too, expanding the notion of “sustainability” so that it includes more than just physical ways of being. Emotional trash may not disappear easily, but it’s a hardy material. It can be reused. Recycled. Whether for love, art or the common good, there’s tremendous power in learning to own what we wish we could just throw away.

So, in an awkward move toward reintegration, I am making an inventory of what I find as I dig into my own exterior and interior deserts.

Kleenex. Three peach pits. A wad of masking tape. Cat poop. Bad drafts of poems.

An empty box of assumptions. Old grudges. Some limitations. Some hopes, some sadness, some fear.

And this glazed, broken bowl that, if I bend over it at just the right angle, throws back a blurred reflection.

Elizabeth Wyatt is a writer and artist based in Joshua Tree. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

“Litter, and it will hurt. It hurts the community, and the fines will hurt when you get caught. Half of the litter is accidental, from things blown off trucks and such, but the other half doesn't reflect positively on the community.” —Walt Thompson

I have a message for the person who intentionally dumps trash and unwanted items into the desert.

You are a total jackass.

It does not matter whether you dump in a neighborhood or an open space. Shame on you, as you are responsible for:

• Environmental degradation. Bringing in hazardous waste, plastics, plastic bags, diapers, clothes, tires and commercial waste is not conducive to a healthy ecosystem. Waste gets into waterways; it damages vegetation; animals and birds eat it; it attracts rodents and crickets.

“Dump sites containing waste tires provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can multiply 100 times faster than normal during our warmer months. Severe illnesses, including West Nile virus and encephalitis, have been attributed to disease-carrying mosquitoes originating from discarded waste tires,” said the Imperial County Public Health Department in a 2007 research paper.

• Physical and health risks—especially to kids. Kids might see some of these areas as improvised playgrounds—which means they could be playing in chemical waste. Rodents living at the dumpsite might have the hantavirus, and there is high risk of sharp objects like broken glass, rusty metal nails and so forth.

• Lowering property values. Who wants to live in a neighborhood where there is a large amount of trash? According to the Keep America Beautiful website: “93 percent of homeowners say a littered neighborhood would decrease their assessment of a home’s value and influences their decision to purchase a property. And 40 percent estimated that litter would reduce a home’s value by 10 percent to 24 percent.”

• Using taxpayer money unnecessarily. Billions of dollars, both from government and private sources, are spent each year cleaning up other people’s trash. According to a 2009 Keep America Beautiful study, the United States spends $11.5 BILLION on cleaning up litter every year. This does NOT include organizing campaigns to educate people not to dump. Let’s put that in perspective: If your salary is $29,000 per year, it would take 34,482 years to earn just $1 billion. Wouldn’t you prefer that this money be spent on something useful, rather than loathsome individuals or groups who can’t be responsible for their own shit?

• Trashing the Salton Sea. If you dump your trash into a wash, it will move down the wash. There isn’t much rain—but when it rains, it pours, and all that trash will end up in the sea. And let’s not forget our fabulous wind. Guess who eats the trash? The birds and the fish. Hazardous liquids seep into the soil and pollute the waterways. Oh, but I hear some of you say: The Salton Sea deserves to dry up anyway. Well, if the sea is allowed to dry up, the trash and the pollutants will not. Instead, they’ll blow through the valley during high winds.

Thanks for all that, illegal dumper.

So why do people dump in the desert? What on Earth makes them think it is OK? Laziness, a lack of education, because it is easy, or a total disregard for anything outside of their narrow world-view, for starters.

Perhaps it also includes a misunderstanding of the desert landscape: To many, the desert landscape is not alive; they do not see the damage that their dumping can create. However, the desert is actually an ecological wonder, and if people would spend more time in it and learn about the ecosystem, they may begin to have a different connection with this landscape in which we all live.

So, what can we do about illegal dumping? Mainly, it boils down to education:

• Most trash-haulers will pick up bulky items and electronic waste, often for free, on designated days, or if you ask in advance. Hazardous materials can be dropped off at various locations, and a lot of communities organize annual or twice-a-year household hazardous waste collection days. Each city is different, and it may take a little bit of research and planning—but that is what being an adult is all about. Google is handy; type in the name of your city, your trash service, and the service you require, and you’ll probably have more links and information than you can swing an old motor-oil bottle at.

• Educate kids while they are young about the effects of illegal dumping. Every school district should organize an annual cleanup day in the areas surrounding their schools. Every child is better off after attending a community cleanup, as they see first-hand the effects of illegal dumping—and the time and effort that is required to clear an area of trash.

• Spread the word about what we can all do if one of us sees someone in the act of dumping illegally, or the aftermath. For one, you can call the local sheriff’s department or police department. While illegal dumping tends to be unfortunately low on law enforcement’s priority list, they are responsible for acting on your behalf. There are also task forces and other resources in place, like IVAN, which is set up to take reports on illegal dumping activity. The website is pretty easy to use—and you can even upload photographs.

• Would-be illegal dumpers need to understand that there are consequences. In Riverside County, according to the waste-management website, “The fine is $5,000. If the illegal dumping involves commercial quantities, you may be imprisoned up to six months and fined $3,000 upon the first conviction, $6,000 upon the second conviction, and $10,000 for a third conviction. Vehicles may be seized and impounded for 30 days when used in the act of illegal dumping; related costs may exceed $1,000.” The county has started putting up cameras at well-known illegal trash sites, too.

If I had my way, I would walk every dumper out to their own personal dump site, make them pick up their own trash, videotape the whole thing, and shame them each publicly.

This year’s annual community cleanup at the Salton Sea takes place on Saturday, Nov. 9; please come and volunteer from 9 a.m. to noon at the corner of Sea Elf Street and Salton Bay Drive, off South Marina Drive in Salton City. Snacks and water will be provided, as will gloves, bags and some picker-uppers. If you have any questions, contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Published in Community Voices