The dryness pales the hollow of the prairie that appears. Wooded and covered with ryegrass, this place is unrecognizable as an old railway dump. Today, the dog pulls hard at the sight of a coyote in front of him. I have seen rabbits and pheasants here on other days; watched the birds build nests. The low hills of the dump are between the off-leash trail and the fence with no trespassing signs. Across the fence is Shoreham Yards, the polluted 230-acre site for rail, trucking and bulk distribution two blocks from my house.
In front, a wooden structure. At first I think it might be where someone lives, but closer it’s a discarded shipping pallet with a rail tie over the bed. Maybe I keep coming here because even though it’s a burial place, it’s imperfect. No ruin but active. Diesel particles catch the breeze. Nothing from the past pierces through the tall grass, but I know that above and below ground, past and present, meet here.
It’s June; mayflies line the fence. Snow trillium and skunk cabbage. On the other side of the chain, the US Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry determined that this brownfield site was large and complex, with significant soil contamination related to the oil and solvents reaching deep below, down to the water table, and impacting the water tables.
Discharge poses questions of scale, perception and concern. What died here? What grows from violent soil?
As I walk, I think of Terry Tempest Williams visiting the Great Salt Lake to mourn his dying mother and also the wounded pool of water. “Death is no longer what I imagined,” she wrote. It is not a vacation but an overcrowding and “earthly as a birth”. She can’t prove or disprove that her mother developed cancer after being exposed to atomic bomb tests in their desert home in the 1950s, but one night she joins nine other women who break into ” the contaminated country”. “The women couldn’t take it anymore,” she wrote in her memoir of personal and ecological mourning.
Were the women restless, tired of waiting? It seemed on some days that he was both dying and not dying. How to be with what happens invisibly and relentlessly? The women marched to a testing site to protest the long abuse of the land. When they were arrested, after being questioned about their reason for coming, they replied: “We are mothers and we have come to recover the desert for our children.