MaKailah McKinley, Guest Writer (mmckinley@wwc)
One of my first and fondest memories is of playing with fire. The multitude of memories have, with time, become distilled into one. Dusk is settling onto the prairie and the recently techno-colour sky has slipped into a dome of blues. The east is already a blue-black, the west a brilliant teal and a slow fade connects the two. My grandmother walks out to the trio of rusted-to-red metal barrels and lights a single match on the inside of the nearest one, protecting it from the wind. She moves her work-stained hand steady and light, allowing the small flame to ignite bits of paper. The movement of the match is reminiscent of a bee—alighting on flowers.
She stands and watches for a few moments to assure the fire has caught. Meanwhile, I am scavenging for the perfect stick. I hear my grandma’s voice, always gentle yet stern: “Now, you know what they say… if you play with fire you’ll wet the bed.” An insecure half-smile creeps across my face and I continue on my hunt. The thunk from the wooden door signals her departure and the beginning of my time alone with the fire.
I am barely taller than the barrels, but I can see inside and I can feel the heat on my face. I love to watch the flames. Interacting with the flames feels sacred, a kind of ritual. I use my stick to flip through the yellow pages of a burning phone book; the edges curl in, turning black first, then ash white. The end of the short branch catches a flame just long enough to turn it a hot bright orange; that same colour shows up in the sunset from time to time. The sky has grown darker now; the east more bruised black and the west a royal blue, an almost imperceivable fade between them. The heat from the fire has flushed my cheeks.
I use the stick to move objects to their optimal burning positions. I sift through the burning newspaper, toilet paper rolls, cereal boxes, bread bag, ice cream containers, plastic bottle, light bulb, bits of fabric, aluminum foil, styrofoam plate, a wad of hair, old pair of shoes, toothbrush package, a stained rag, more paper.
I watch it all burn, as the heat intensifies on my face. I use my stick to pull back the melting trash bag, allowing more refuse to spill out towards the flames. I twist the sticky melted plastic onto the end of my branch and put it into the fire.
I watch as it begins to bubble and drip, then as it turns burnt black. One of my first and fondest memories is playing with burning trash.
In rural Kansas, as with many other rural areas, there is no such thing as a trash pick-up. It is not an option to drop off your garbage in the nearest town, when the nearest town’s trash travels more than half-an-hour’s drive away, to be deposited in the nearest landfill. When the nearest landfill is a thirty-minute drive away, recycling is unheard of.
Burning waste is a logical conclusion. It didn’t occur to me until many years later what the repercussions of such a habit could entail.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college, I went home. My younger cousin was pregnant, expecting her first child. We had grown up together and I felt it was important to be there for her. There are a lot of topics we disagree on—we always have. I lived that summer grabbing aerosol cans from her and patiently explaining alternative childbearing philosophies. One day in particular I will never forget. I walked outside to find my eight-months-pregnant cousin, standing beside a can of burning refuse. The panic I felt—I was less than patient in explaining to her that what she was doing was a terrible idea.
When I attempted to explain to my cousin, or any member of my family, that burning trash releases dioxins, they looked at me like I had been abducted by aliens. I quickly realized that if I began listing off toxic gases and chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), and polycyclic organic matter (POMs) that are often released in burning trash, my chances of communicating with my family would not improve.
We discussed the incinerator that manages much of the waste in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a large city near-by. I found that by discussing a topic other than the one at hand, communication became much easier. “Well, you see, there’s alota folks down there in Tulsa, so nobody’s gotta take care of their own business by themselves. It’s just not like that ‘round here,” was a comment from my Grandfather on the topic. I think it was then that I realized that burning trash for my family was connected to a kind of independence.
In order for anyone in our area of Kansas to dispose of their waste by any other means than burning, they must associate themselves with a business that will do it for them. Many residents of rural Kansas tend gardens, raise cattle, and fix their own vehicles. Most folks own a gun, a piece of land, and a personal well. There is a growing interest in the rural mid-west of “getting off the grid” and having wind or solar power, therefore being independent once again.
It didn’t take me long to realize that to my family, I was not only attempting to tell them they were behaving ignorantly, but also that they should participate in “the city way” and pay someone to take care of something they could do themselves.
Back at my cousin’s house, I looked around at all of the gifts from the baby shower, displayed in the freshly painted nursery. Everything was disposable and individually wrapped. Tiny pink socks dawning small pastel ribbons, inside of pink wrapping plastic were crowding a pink dresser . Miniature shoes inside of plastic pony boxes and throw-away diapers not much bigger than my hand were piled in a second-hand rocking chair.
On the wall hung a black and white photograph of my mother as a baby and her two brothers, my cousin’s father included, sitting on a wooden fence. In the picture my mother wears a cloth diaper.
When my grandmother raised her children, she reused cloth diapers until they were worn out and then she burned them. We used to think it was safe to burn your trash. Now we have more knowledge about what is safe to burn and how to best do it. In rural Kansas the knowledge isn’t there yet. They are supplied with all the plastics but not the knowledge of how they can be dangerous. Kansas is full of potential hazardous materials, with no one to dispose of them properly, with no one to tell them that the world has changed and not just anything can be burned these days.
“Will you take this outside for me?” my grandma says, as she hands me a bag full of wrapping paper from our Christmas celebration. I take the bag outside, hearing the deep thud of the wooden door closing behind me. Outside the ground is frozen solid, the earth crunching beneath my boots. The sky is black, open and star-sprinkled around me. The bitter Kansas wind whips across the plains, dives right through my clothes and takes a million tiny bites of my most tender flesh. The sharp and stark coldness makes me shiver and I walk to the same rusted-red metal cans that I have known all my life. I put the bag into the nearest burn barrel and hurry back inside to help my grandmother clean up the house.