Book Burning

For most of the world, there is little thought that goes into disposing of something.  You simply put it in the trash bin, set that bin on the curb roughly once a week, and it magically disappears.  When you live where we do, though, there is more to it than that.  For those in our “neighborhood” who elect to pay for regular trash service, they pay roughly ten times what it costs in the city for the privilege.  As an alternative, we have the option of bagging our trash and hauling it off to the local dumpster once a week for a set price per bag.  Many of us, on the other hand, find alternative ways to deal with unwanted stuff.

There is a well-defined and graduated scale of sophistication in back-woods trash disposal.  Lowest on the totem-pole are the jerks who look for some unattended place to simply dump their crap and make it someone else’s problem.  These are scumbags who don’t think twice about throwing a half-empty 20oz beer can out of the truck window and into your yard.  May they get warts and boils on their intimate parts.

Next up the ladder of sophistication are the old-school farmers who never get rid of anything, opting instead to throw it on the pile that’s been building in the back lot since grandpa discarded an old plow or other piece of worn-out farm equipment, saving it “just in case.”  This crowd doesn’t really care much about what others think, but scoff at making their junk someone else’s problem.  They respect others property rights, and expect you to respect theirs by not complaining when their front yard looks like a scrap-heap.  The only time this group becomes a problem is when they die or move, necessitating a major cleanup effort.  They do have a bad habit of dumping fairly toxic stuff rather than incinerating or otherwise dealing with it.

Next there are those who believe in having their own personal landfill and dig a big hole somewhere on their property to push everything into, thereby dealing with the cosmetic issues the first kind of “freestyle landscaping” causes by burying it.  Unfortunately, this group isn’t very particular about what goes into the holes, tossing used motor oil, unused agricultural chemicals, furniture, plastics, and anything else they happen to accumulate into the pit to contaminate the groundwater.  Recognizing the limit on space, they often have a habit of separating at least the large items with metal in them for eventual recycling (usually when they move or die).

Next in sophistication are those who get tired of digging new holes, so they burn the pile in the hole on a regular basis and only cap it off when the ash builds up.  This tends to minimize the space used and consume many of the more nasty chemicals and plastics that would otherwise pollute or clog landfills.   The ash it produces, however, is toxic in itself.

Finally, there are guys like me.  In our house, we separate our waste into a few simple categories.  First, there is food waste.  There is no point in wasting what would otherwise be effective fertilizer, so 100% of it is either fed to the chickens or composted.  Second, there is the organic matter that isn’t easily composted or edible like paper, cardboard and wood.  This we burn in our fire-pit, collecting the ashes and scattering them in the field to return the minerals that remain to the soil.  Third is anyting metal.  Metal doesn’t burn, and I don’t like the idea of burying a bunch of it on my property, even if it isn’t likely to be toxic, so it gets collected until there is a sufficient pile of it and I turn it in for scrap.  Finally there are glass, plastic, and contaminated paper products.  Glass and plastic aren’t worth recycling here, so it isn’t separated from the other things I can’t recycle.  All of this is burned in a ventilated burn-barrel.  When the barrel fills with ashes broken glass, and anything else that didn’t burn up, the ashes are triple-bagged and hauled off to the dump-station where they are taken to a lined landfill.

Between being conscientious about the kinds of stuff we buy and making the most of the system I described above, we’ve reduced our contributions to the landfill to about two to three moderately large trash bags every six months while only spending about $20 in that same time-frame.  I don’t want to hear any griping about air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions.  I’ve considered the alternatives, and this has the least overall impact on the environment without going to uneconomical extremes.  The only real down-side is the work that goes into burning.

So, what is the point of this long dissertation on how country rednecks get rid of trash?  Recently, Liz and I went through our extensive collection of books and down-sized the library.  One consequence of this was a decision to rely on electronic means for many materials that are readily available for free via the Internet, and the library for books that aren’t likely to be referenced frequently.  Many of the books we identified as excess are worth selling, others were worth donating to the local second-hand stores.  However, we had a large number (mostly religious and available for free on-line) that were not likely to be marketable even at a thrift store.

Given that we have to pay for every bag of trash we throw away, and that you can only reasonably put so many books into one bag without it tearing through, I didn’t want to just throw them out.  Not only that, but the ash content of the paper is rich in trace minerals that can fortify soil, and most of the inks used in modern printing are vegetable based so I wasn’t worried about any concentration of toxic crap in the ash.  The books simply had to be burned.

Burning books is not something that feels intellectually good.  Generally speaking, book burning brings up imagery like the Nazis prior to WWII or the firemen from Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.  I treasure books, information, and the free-exchange of ideas (even when I disagree with them).  The idea of doing something supported by fascists to stamp out or bury information causes cognitive dissonance.   However, I’ve a long track record of overcoming hesitation when something needs to be done.

Last night, Isaac, Michael, and I spent the evening burning the pile of junk books.  Something I’ve learned over the couple of years we’ve lived here is that you can’t just throw a book in the fire and expect it to reduce to a small heap of ashes.  In fact, there are few things that are ultimately flammable which are harder to burn.  If you want a book to burn, you have to separate the leaves of paper to allow the air to circulate, otherwise the ash from the outside pages smothers the pages within and results in a book with scorched edges that is generally intact.   The three of us spent most of the night tearing out pages, crumpling them, and adding them to the fire slowly enough to prevent suffocating it.

Burning books is a slow, hot, smelly, smoky, painful, tiring process.  While I was stirring the pile of burning paper with a shovel last night to make sure everything burned down completely, I reflected on how much malice there must have been in the hearts of people who participated in burning “unwanted” documents in Nazi Germany.  While I don’t understand how you could get to a point where it would be appropriate to eradicate and criminalize dissenting opinions, I now have some minor insight into how committed those who got to that point were.  They must have really been committed to spend that kind of energy.  As for me, I’ll be happy if I never have to burn another book again.

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