Brooke Lange spent her freshman year at the University of Michigan and is currently a junior at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies English and Environmental Studies.
My project originated as a result of the extreme confusion I have experienced as a consumer considering how to have the least negative impact on other people, the planet and myself when making choices on how to spend money, and how to care for or dispose of the things I buy. My consciousness of sustainability as it exists in a capitalist/theoretical environment has been somewhat recent, introduced through schoolwork, student groups, and company info sessions. I have, however, come to realize how an awareness of and confusion about how humans engage with the environment has been staring me in the face since childhood. I grew up thrifting clothes with my grandmother and spent much of my elementary experience with the outdoors as a mainstay of everyday life and was constantly immersed in the natural environment. At the same time, I ate McDonalds once a week, used plastic water bottles every day at soccer practice, and rode around/continue to ride around in my family’s SUV.
Realizing my consumer tendencies were/are at odds with the large and positive role that nature had and has in my life, has been a slow process, but I believe my project and this class have helped me progress towards a firmer understanding of how I need to and can improve my relationship with the environment. I realized that I am likely not the only person grappling with this gray area and so my creative research question became: How can writing engender concern or interest in environmental justice in a population who has little to no formal education on this subject matter?
I have composed three short pieces of fiction which border the line between flash fiction and short stories. I also included photos of a pile of objects and waste, which I believe fit each character’s consumer habits and introduced each character through their image. The writing and images attempt to highlight the intersections between environmental concerns with the activities of everyday. My intention with the photographs I took was to get the reader to see the way in which consumption and waste are often prominent forms of identity, and to question whether consumption is how people should be a large element of how people view themselves.
Keywords: Fiction; photography; sustainability; animal ethics; environmental degradation
You can really learn a lot about someone (from their trash)
Sam Cameron filled his Yeti with black coffee from the ten-year-old Keurig. The drink produced by the aging machine was increasingly acidic but still satisfactory for the forty-year old divorced accountant. Sam lived alone in Westchester just off Route 46 in a new luxe apartment building. Most people would drive past the concrete oasis wondering at the bastion of modern living in the midst of Americana: a highway loomed half a mile from its façade and a belt of fast-food places and gas stations lingered across the street. The mainly elderly inhabitants of the building were kind and quiet neighbors, and it was not often that Sam found himself at odds with one of them. Today however, one of his seemingly unassuming soft-spoken cohabitants had decided that they were going to “change the way things are run around here”.
“Dolores let me help you with that.” The eighty-year-old was carrying a large black trash bag full of bottles and cans.
“Oh thank you Sam. It’s ok. I’m just more worried that I don’t have any of your cans in this bag?” Sam blushed, feeling the memory of a grandmother’s scolding wash over him. He wondered if it was worth mentioning to her that all of the trash went to the same place. The town had run out of reasons (monetary incentive) to continue collecting and recycling aluminum, and so had begun mixing it all together the baby diapers and the coupons, the coke bottle and the cigarettes, the aluminum foil and the plastic knives. But if there was one thing Sam had learned from living in an apartment building with the average age of 78, it was that old people tend to read a lot, especially about local goings on. So, he would be surprised to find that Dolores had missed the multiple newspaper and flyer notices of the town’s change in waste management.
Sam left Dolores sitting in her maroon sedan while he went to collect his own cans. On the one hand he found it extremely frustrating, that he was wasting time on a somewhat fruitless endeavor. This led him to question why he had enough free time to be dealing with this spontaneous chore, which naturally led him to think about his old life. As he sorted through his garbage and picked up beer cans like Easter eggs from around his apartment he meditated on his ex-wife and his children, sitting in the comfy five-bedroom house thirty minutes and a completely different life away from him. Did they collect the cans even though the town had stopped its recycling program? He was so tempted to text Sandra and ask, but wasn’t it embarrassing to not know how your family takes out their trash? Just another sign that he was no longer the father and husband he had promised to be.
He lumbered downstairs with the clinking trash bag in hand. He didn’t even care that the trash juices were going to dribble into the interior of his blue Tesla, his trophy from the divorce, or that it didn’t really make a difference if he poured the cans out the window onto the road as he drove or if he took them to dump. He was probably better leaving them sitting in the parking lot rather than consuming the electricity it would require to transport his half-filled garbage bag.
Unfortunately, Dolores would be upset if she returned in her little maroon sedan to find her single middle-aged neighbor’s bottles and cans strewn around the black asphalt of the apartment building’s parking lot, or worse atop the neon green perfectly manicured landscaping.
Sam turned on his expensive sustainable car to drive a plastic bag full of beer and aluminum down miles of asphalt to a hole in the ground full of hundreds of other plastic bags full of beer and aluminum. On his way back he would likely stop at one of the fast-food places near his apartment complex, buy a chicken sandwich, maybe another beer. The sun would set, Sam would use two gallons of water to take a shower and brush his teeth, blast some AC and roll into bed, the TV murmuring the local news as he snores.
“5 dollars and 75 cents please.” The chipper voice of the bandana-clad barista filled Kennedy’s ears as she placed a crinkled ten dollar bill and two quarters on the counter. “Wait just a second I should have another quarter in here somewhere.” She shuffled around her cards and sorted through her ripped leather change pouch and successfully found the errant quarter.
Kennedy sipped her green matcha latte made with oat milk and organic flavoring through her metal straw. Although failing to make any addition to the flavor she had also mixed in some natural raw sugar and wondered not for the first time why anyone would consume Splenda. Kennedy’s drink matched her similarly neutral green Everlane workout set, and later when she took the subway on her way to the park, she didn’t even crave the Starbucks venti iced vanilla latte the man next to her was drinking. The sweet aroma of the sugary vanilla bean sweetener did not tempt her not even a little bit, and she obviously did not crave the greasy bacon egg and cheese sandwich situated on a double toasted New York bagel. Absolutely not. Do you know how bad cows are for the environment? She tried to garner up that familiar nausea by thinking of trash cans full of wasted meat and the smell of slaughterhouse floors. She was unsuccessful and she couldn’t stop thinking about how she used to eat that same breakfast sandwich before school and how her mother would wake up early to fry the bacon and how she sometimes still sits up in bed hungry with the smell of grease and eggs in her nose.
She reminds herself that it is ok to be nostalgic. She reminds herself that her mother now makes equally delicious vegan toasts and that her mother read a book on how different industries affect the environment, and that her mother has now become a flexitarian and eats meat only two days a week.
She reminds herself that a supportive mother is a supportive mother whether there is bacon on the sandwich or not.
“The Wheels on the Bus GO ROUND and ROUND, ROUND and ROUND” Hannah Ashton bellowed the lyrics of her morning nursery rhyme as she sat seat-belted in the back of the family SUV. Had her mother not been fully caffeinated, Hannah likely would not have been allowed to perform this 7am concert on her way to the bus stop.
The car rustled up dust as it swung off the asphalt main street in small town New England into the parking lot of the onion barn. The onion barn was a local town historical monument and inside was where you would drop off your aluminum cans for collection by local high school students who would return them to the grocery store as a means of funding their sports teams or club events. Outside the barn, was the prominent, if tiny, car park used for everything from baseball games on the neighboring field to school pick-ups. Hannah loved going to the bus stop even though it meant she couldn’t get picked up at home like all of her friends from soccer and softball. Her older brother promised her that this public school was horrible and that their thirty minute commute to school, while long and often bladder restricting, was completely worth it.
What Hannah quickly discovered was that the dirt pit outside of the onion barn was in fact not the empty tire track wasteland that it appeared to be, but a depthy sand trap full of treasure. On the second day of waiting for the bus, it was early September and her mom let her stand with a gaggle of other first graders, while she spoke with the other minivan drivers, she found three things: a metal bracelet with a letter A charm, a piece of soft-edged glass, a pencil, and a plastic water bottle cap. She gathered up this loot, brushed off the dirt on them with the side of her polo and placed them in the small pocket of her backpack along with some plastic polly pockets and littlest pet shop figures. Her gleaning would provide excellent fodder for her doll-playing and so scavenging through the dirt became a daily ritual.
By the end of the first week Hannah had acquired over ten new objects for her collection, which made her an extremely interesting bus playmate and later recess partner; Hannah would sneakily pocket her found object and bring them with her to recess to be used as building materials or furniture in the small dugout holes she and her two friends made for acorn houses. The three girls would use sticks to pry open a small hole in the earth within which they would each place several acorns. They would proceed to layer sticks, dead pinecones grass and moist dirt on the opening of this acorn house hoping to seal it effectively and retrieve its contents in the springtime.
Almost a year passed, and Hanna found herself at the onion barn for a new surprising spectacle: the fair had come to town. Once every year, typically in the dead heat of the summer around July 4th, a traveling set of amusements ranging from fun houses to candy apples to mini roller coasters would arrive in a barrage of vans and trucks prepared to rapidly launch or collapse the whole fair and transport it swiftly to the next town.
This year was Hannah’s first real fair experience but even more so than the games and the fun food, she could not wait to pick through the onion barns dirt in the days after the fair had left. What shard of magic glass carried from some other mysterious land within the tri-state area would she uncover? Amazingly, as Hannah stepped into the dusty minefield with her parents and siblings on their way to the car, she saw a few people milling about the barn. They looked to be much older than her, clearly upper middle school or high school students. As she followed her parents in climbing into the car, she noticed that the students were hoisting huge clear bags of sparking cans into the back of a small flatbed truck. She wondered at where these cans would go and what would actually happen to them. Her experience with recycling had up to that point been throwing paper in the little blue bin at the back of Ms. Mossy’s classroom but seeing all of those bags in one place, being hoisted so assertively by the older kids piqued her interest.
That night Hannah dreamt about a large grey factory in the middle of an open field. She had somehow gotten caught stealing trash from the dirt around the onion barn and was forced to get into the truck with the bags of bottles. The factory was viciously hot when she entered, an open pit stuffed with nearly identical bags of bottles and cans stared at her like so many acorns in their acorn house. The three older kids now had distorted faces and began heaving the bags of aluminum cans into the pit and she couldn’t scream or move when they threw her in with them. The slime of wet plastic and the smell of mixed juices enveloped her as she slushed below the surface into a dark and unbreathable world.
She shot up in bed crying. The dark hole of trash was not something she had considered while picking forgotten things out of the sand.
The next day everything stared at her. The plastic granola bar wrapper on the sidewalk, the cotton candy bags caught on bushes and trees, the Styrofoam cups being idly picked at and sprinkled onto the ground by her brother. The cans clinking in the onion barn. Even the ticket stubs from the fair. No matter what she did she could not get the feeling of slime off of her skin or the smell of the decaying trash juice out of her nose.
“THE Wheels on the BUS GO Round and Round Round and ROUND.” Hannah’s mother sang the tune on the morning school run as encouragement, but the young girl in the backseat sat quietly staring out of the window, counting: a coke bottle, a sock, a tissue, a bottle cap, one flyer notifying townspeople of the changes in waste management policy, one newspaper article about lead in the water, two straws, a dead bird, slimy plastic bags and an endless pit.