(About trash, context, identity, and reality)
While I was emerging from the ocean during a beach vacation in South Carolina, I picked up a piece of trash, a torn plastic Dasani water bottle label that was floating on the surface. I carried it up the beach and tossed it into my basket behind our umbrella, and then I dropped into a chair for a nap. When I woke up, I was surprised to see that the label was gone; a few minutes later I realized that the label had become a flag waving atop my son’s sandcastle. It was no longer trash. The location of the label determined what it was. Floating in the ocean – it was trash. Wedged in a split reed and stuck in a pile of sand – it was an ornament, a flag.
On this same trip my wife was looking for sea glass (basically pieces of broken bottles (trash) that have been tossed around in salt water). It changes to “sea glass” primarily because it’s found in a new place. Still, it’s clearly not the same piece of glass that originally entered the ocean; the ocean has changed it, too, battering it around and such. Nothing can ever really claim to be unchanging. Pocahontas sang that we can’t step into the same river twice (or was that Heraclitus?): similarly, the broken bottles can transform into more than sea glass; their “river” can continue to change if my wife makes the sea glass into jewelry. The wisdom of Disney is inspiring.
Everything changes all the time. As Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “where does [a] chair end and the rest of things begin? Which atom belongs to the chair, and which atom belongs to surrounding space? The chair is perpetually gaining and losing atoms. It is not exactly differentiated from its surroundings, nor is it exactly self-identical as time slips by.” The chair (and every other physical object) is part of a micro-river of atoms that are constantly changing location on a very small scale.
My life is filled with macro-examples of transformations because of changes in location. Recently our new toilet came in a cardboard box, its container. When I broke it down and took it to Rumpke’s bins on the west side of Goodale Park, it became corrugated recycling. But soon after, on a morning walk in the park with my dog, I saw on the north porch of the Shelterhouse that it had become a bed for a homeless man. When I cleaned that porch during the next Friends of Goodale Park work day, I was too lazy to take it back to the recycling bins, and I threw it in the dumpster with the rest of the accumulated porch junk. It had become trash.
Our physical relationship to objects makes a difference. Where an object is determines what it is. When a Palmetto Ale bottle contains beer in the refrigerator, or in my hand, it is a beverage container. When it’s empty, and is placed in the bin for brown glass, it’s recycling. When the recycling truck is driving on highway 17, hits a bump and loses the bottle in the Ashepoo River, it’s trash. And when it flows into the Atlantic, breaks and bounces around on the floor of the ocean for a while, it’s sea glass. When it’s dangling from my wife’s bracelet, it’s jewelry. Context is everything.
And as usual, this relates to much more than just trash. Everything we have and everything we use (e.g., my house, a baseball, an iPod, my neighbor’s Prius, the International Space Station) is made out of stuff that we found lying around on the surface of the Earth, or just a fingernail-scratch beneath it. Sure, we’ve modified much of it, but it was originally just lying around in some elemental state. And context is everything; all those things were at one time just “Earth debris”. As they became interesting to us and we moved them into their new useful positions, we started to call them by other names (e.g., swords, fortifications, firewood). Some debris changes only once, while other debris changes many times as it moves down a river of existence that is unique each time we step into it.
Perhaps the most surprising realization is that my body itself is one of these changing rivers. My body’s “upstream” (the food, water, and oxygen that enters my body) constantly flows both through me and with me. For example, when a particular piece of fruit is on a tree or in my hand, it’s an apple. When I eat and start to digest it, the identity of the apple blurs as the minerals and pulp that used to be “apple” begin to incorporate into my own body. At that point, where is the apple? What is the apple? Part of it becomes part of me, and part of it leaves me to become part of another life cycle. In both cases it’s the same apple-debris, but in a new location. Just like the Dasani label, the sea-glass, and my cardboard toilet container.
My bodily river moves downstream in other ways, too. My hair is part of me until it’s left on Azzaro’s salon floor, my fingernails are no longer “me” when they end up in the wastebasket, and my skin silently flakes off, separating from me, disintegrating, and becoming soil in the landscapes where I live, work and play. Just like everything else, I am dirt (Earth debris), albeit a more highly organized form. I am part of a river of dirt intersecting with other rivers. When parts of me flaked off during that summer vacation and fell in the sand, they even became part of a South Carolina beach. Spending the week there was good for me; I came back a different person.