In the deep-winter woods, things have a way of sticking out. Things that are out of place. Things that don’t belong. Like a toilet.
A slash of white against the nearly unbroken brown wash of bare trees and dead leaves catches my eye, and I can’t help but investigate. I don’t know that it’s a toilet — not yet. I’m thinking it’s an old enamelware pail or pot. But one thing’s for certain: When something snags my attention in the woods, I always head in for a closer look.
When the toilet’s shape becomes bulbously evident, I laugh out loud. It seems so out of place on this knoll in the big woods, far from the nearest house or road. But I know a good find when I see one. Nearby is a chunk of tin roofing peeking out from the leaves, and a rusty motor of some sort or another, and a trove of old glass bottles. The ground is mounded up and uneven. I’m thinking I’ve hit the mother lode.
I’m never actually looking for a trash pit in the middle of the woods, at least not in a purposeful sort of way. But it seems that I’m always stumbling across these old depositories of cast-off housewares and trash and broken this and busted that — the detritus of everyday living — especially when I’m hiking off-trail. Before curbside trash pickup and modern landfills, rural folks didn’t have much choice. They’d haul their dead sewing machines and crates of tin cans and that old toilet that had sprung its last leak to a gully in the woods, or dig a hole on the edge of the yard, or create a dump just off the corner of a field where it was easy to back in a trash-filled truck or mule cart.
I have to imagine what I don’t see: The artifacts that have moldered away. Books and papers that have melted into the soil.
I sniff out these trash pits like a bird dog on a good scent. A wink of silver on the forest floor could be the corner of an old porcelain sink. A glassy glint could be an old wine bottle, festooned with grapes and vines. I’m always amazed to find evidence of an old homestead or tenant cabin tucked deep in the woods. The homes are gone, the brick chimneys long since knocked down and scavenged, and most evidence of lives and families and tears and laughter scrubbed from the landscape. Except for the trash. Taken together, the flotsam and jetsam of an old trash pit serve as a window into the past.
To archaeologists, these troves of treasured trash are called middens, a term that comes from Middle English and the Danish word mødding, meaning “muck heap.” At Mount Vernon, archaeologists sifted through a midden dating to when George Washington lived at the estate. They found a drawer pull, a copper trunk plate engraved “Gen: Washington,” and exactly 3,363 sherds, or pieces of broken ceramic pots, platters, bowls, and various other types of pottery. Ethnoarchaeologists can get similarly deep into the trashy weeds. They can extract ancient seeds, tufts of hair, bits of bone, and pollen centuries old to re-create the diets of the earliest humans.
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Wandering through the woods of Halifax County, I’m not out to decipher the past or suss out the social structures of tenant farm families. I’m just looking for cool stuff — an old truck tailgate, maybe, or a battered metal pot to hold pens or spare screws.
To get to the cool stuff — cool to me, at least — I have to sort and sift through a world of good old-fashioned trash. I walk around the toilet gently, deliberately. There’s always broken glass and rusty metal at an old trash pit. There’s always a chance of a sun-bathing copperhead lurking around, or a yellow jacket nest under the leaves.
I break off a long stick, and I poke and prod. There are old tin cans, buckets and pails, and what looks to be a few leaf springs from an ancient vehicle. There are glass bottles by the dozen. And that’s just what I can see. I have to imagine what I don’t see: The artifacts that have moldered away. Books and papers that have melted into the soil. Scraps of curtains that might have given a dull, dim cabin a splash of color and life.
photograph by Patrick Faricy
I make a small pile to take home: A couple of old wine bottles. A rusty red-and-white enamelware pail, shot through with rust holes but worth a second chance as a flowerpot. A battered tin saucepan with a broken wooden handle. That might make a good dog food scoop.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the poorest of London’s poor, usually boys, would walk the muddy shore of the Thames River at low tide, searching for anything they could sell — lumps of coal, bits of copper, scraps of metal. Stooped over like feeding birds, they were given a pejorative: Mudlarks, they were called.
Bent over in the woods, that word comes to mind, except to my ear, it rings with a sort of hopeful affection. I am mudlarking through the trash pit, looking for cool stuff, yes. But looking as well for clues about the long-vanished lives of those who were here before.
I pull up an old motor, half sunk in the dirt, like a ship run aground on a shoal. From an old washing machine, maybe? Or a belt sander? Did this rusted hunk of metal once work the red-clay mud out of a farmer’s overalls, or smooth a wooden plank for a baby’s crib?
Only the dirt knows for sure. But I’d like to think that the old farmer, or the old farmer’s wife, would be heartened to know that I was here to ask.