I've been walking my dog at an abandoned industrial park adjacent
to a superfund site near my house over the last nine months or so. Just long
enough for the creosote to soak under our skins and start rearranging our DNA,
I suppose-- hers more than mine, as she spends a lot more time wallowing in
mud puddles than I do, but then again she's in even less danger of passing her
genes on than I. She's a young dog, a puppy (a monster, actually), and she needs
a lot of run-time or she destroys the things I love. Her daily hour-long preventative
outdoor rampages provide me with ample opportunity to consider post-industrial
capitalism and the environment, and a superfund site is just the kind of place
to do it.
I've always been drawn to the aesthetic combination of industrial
disaster and pastoral beauty, and these recent dog walks are not the first time
I've appreciated the results. Nature by itself lacks the kind of drama that
a human protagonist brings to the landscape. A walk in the woods with some hoot
owls and weeds is kind of a bore (admit it), but bring on the specter of slow,
painful death through cancer or heavy-metal poisoning and you've got yourself
a show. Some of the prettiest places I've ever been to are of dubious environmental
virtue. I've visited the Department of Energy's notorious Hanford
Site, for instance-- my grandfather's family used to live there before the
government moved everyone out, and they allow descendents of former residents
to visit the (otherwise closed) area once a year. It's an interesting tour:
the bus takes you through a lovely landscape teeming with wildlife and mysterious
scientific experiments explained only in the vaguest of terms. And then, when
I see some news item about another spill or leak or release I think, "Wow!
I've been there!"
A close up of St. Johns' Guernica, later covered
with the 4 foot high initials "TMR"
I've long thought someone could make an honest buck or two from
a "Superfun Superfund Tour" program: something that would combine
our national fascination with natural (and unnatural) disasters with our love
of pretty places. A good superfund tour would give you a little education on
the process of cleanup, maybe a little political context (clean-up good, corporate
polluters bad, etc.), and then let you loose amongst the brambles, beer bottles,
and corroded barrels. There wouldn't be the kind of environmental-impact hand-wringing
you get with things like Alaskan tour ships and visits to pristine nature sites,
and tourists wouldn't have to be asked twice to "leave only footprints,
take only photographs."
I consider myself pretty lucky to have a superfund site practically
in my own back yard, essentially to myself. The only other people I see on a
regular basis are either DEQ contractors or ROTC from the nearby University
of Portland. But this doesn't mean I'm the only person using the place-- I've
had the occasional close encounter with random joggers, film location scouts,
and what I assume are art photography students. And there are signs of humanity
in the ever-changing graffiti on the abandoned husks of buildings. I assume
from messages and various ramp structures that skate punks visit there pretty
regularly. One section of wall was covered with a glorious free-form mural I
was calling St. John's Guernica until it was painted over by someone calling
him or herself "TMR."
I started arranging the debris into little tableaus
like Teddy the superfund
Judging by the amount of dog shit I find, I'm not the only one
to walk my dog in the area; and judging from the human shit my dog finds, dog
walking isn't the only thing going on. There's a lot of illicit dumping that
goes on at the site, and the ever-changing piles of junk give the landscape
just enough human kinetics to keep it interesting. To date I've found: massive
amounts of yard waste, hats, shoes and sweaters, a box of someone's papers from
an old folks home (I assumed this was left by someone who'd gotten fired from
their depressing job, although why they'd take their office belongings to an
abandoned site is beyond me; the papers themselves quickly spread from one small
cardboard box to cover several acres); three couches; two chairs; many (empty)
spray paint cans; and one very sad little teddy bear. Fascinating!
Rusty scary crane.
The landscape is also dotted with larger, industrial-scale refuse
and rusted-out ancient machinery, including a huge crane on a barge that looks
like something leftover from Soviet Russia. When my cousin Shane came to town,
I took him and his pitbull to the site because I knew he'd help me explore it
fully. I'd grown up admiring Shane as the biggest bad-ass dare-devil I knew;
he was the kind of guy who climbs the Golden Gate bridge in the dark after a
couple of beers. We climbed the crane until we realized we were both too old
to go any higher-- still on the stairs, I'm ashamed to say. He then descended
on a metal ladder into the hull until the sounds of what he hoped was a bilge
pump scared him enough to keep him from going any deeper. Shane theorized that
someone might have a pump running off a car battery or something. The thought
of a machine still working amidst all the rust and broken glass creeped me out
almost as much as if the noise were coming from an actual ghost, or underwater
Fake distressed brick painted on actually dis- tressed
concrete wall as part of a movie set.
If I had to guess, I'd say the most popular activities at the
site are, in order of popularity: toxic waste disposal and cleanup; illegal
dumping; ROTC training; dog walking; skateboarding and graffitizing; shitting;
and movie-making. I know of at least two movies that have been made there (The
Hunted, which is terrible, but lingers in the form of fake damage painted
onto real damaged buildings) and Boring, Oregon which was described to
me as an indie-film by some guys who were standing around a couple of SUVs with
another crane of some kind. I talked to the director of Boring, Oregon
briefly and he said he couldn't wait to stop filming at the place: it made him
feel dirty. And I have to say that, except for valiant cousin Shane, I haven't
had much luck attracting friends to the place.
I can't completely blame them. One of the downsides to taking
these anti-nature walks, in addition to stepping on a broken beer bottle or
ripping your skirt on errant barbed wire, is the ever-present danger of finding
a dead body. That's a danger when walking a dog anywhere as far as I'm concerned,
but I've seen enough crime scenes on television to know that this is exactly
the kind of place a serial killer would bring someone to torture and leave the
Remember: take only pictures!
The one genuinely scary encounter I've had at the site occurred
at around 6:30 one morning, when the concrete was still wet with dew and the
sun was just reaching over the hills to the smoke stack. An old black BMW broke
the morning calm by careening through the rubble towards me. I saw a grinning
man driving and a young boy, about 6, in the passenger seat. They drove past
me, up a hidden road into the wooded hill. I knew the road to be one-way (blocked
at the top as it was by a padlocked gate with "no trespassing, no dumping"
signs) because it is my preferred route. When the car and passengers failed
to emerge after 20 minutes I followed their path, both because it is my usual
route and because I was curious and beginning to feel concerned. It seemed to
me that any bird-watchers should have come out of the woods by then. I began
to think I had seen a ghost when I didn't see the car on the road as I walked
up the hill, but then I realized they must have turned off on a small gravel
path that diverges from the main road. I began to feel frightened, both for
myself and for the little boy-- the only thing at the end of that path is more
rubble, and its secluded location makes it an ideal spot for dirty business.
(My mother will not appreciate me mentioning this, but it was this path I once
took her on when she desperately needed to take a shit after joining me on my
walk too soon after her morning coffee.)
One of the many skater structures.
I walked along the path, debating whether it was more prudent
to make a lot of noise or a little. At the end of the path, almost hidden behind
a large pile of dirt and blackberries, I saw just enough of the car to tell
that the hood was open and there was someone sitting in it. At this point I
faced what I saw (and still feel to be) a dilemma: if I truly felt this boy
was in danger, should I rush the car immediately, dog barking at my heels, and
demand to know what the hell was going on? Or should I call 911 on my cell phone
and explain to the dispatcher where I was and the vague sense of danger I thought
the boy was in? And what if it was nothing? What if it was a homeless family,
come to get an early start on their oil change? What if they were bird watchers,
taking a break or using the BMW as a kind of new-fangled bird blind? What if
my assumption that a man alone with a young boy in an abandoned industrial site
at dawn could be up to no good was a paranoid reflection of society's assumption
that men are evil? And would a child molester be doing his business so early
in the morning?
I probably took probably the worst of all routes, and I ran up the hill the
University of Portland campus police office. The site is directly behind the
University of Portland, and since the killing of a coed in a dorm 2 years ago
the campus cops have been more visible. The guard I spoke to was receptive,
but as I left I saw him peering over the bluff down the hill in the wrong direction.
"The road's that way," I said. And went home.
A view of the grounds from inside the skater structures building.
Despite the ever-present danger of encountering dead bodies and
despicable crimes, I'm still filled with optimism and even joy by my visits
to my local superfund site, and am reminded of themes more optimistic than terror
and repugnance. Leo Marx wrote an important work of American Studies in the
1970s called The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal
in America, which I read in graduate school and only vaguely remember now,
but I think of it often, if only because of the catchy title. (It's also the
name of a goth band, or so the internet tells me.) Marx wrote about how American
writers and artists had negotiated the contradiction between the ideal of industrial
progress and romantic pastoral-- the kind of mindset that asserts there's nothing
cuter than a talking pig cookie jar on a checkered table cloth in a suburban
subdivision. One of the images he conjured repeatedly was that of technology
penetrating natural landscapes-- e.g., Hawthorne hearing a train whistle from
Sleepy Hollow, and paintings of shiny trains heading into virgin Western landscapes.
Invasive yet inspirational butterfly bushes with creepy building in the distance.
One of the things that I like about my superfund site is that
it inverts Marx' s theme: instead of some machine ravaging nature, you get the
sweet little butterfly bushes and blackberry brambles pushing up through concrete
pads. Both are invasive species and would likely not satisfy anyone with a nuanced
appreciation of the environment. Still, there's something so plucky about it
that I can't help but admire even the dreaded Himalayan blackberry. In this
post-industrial economy, reclamation of urban industrial sites is a popular
element of the new urbanism, and something of a fad in my hometown of Portland,
Oregon. Former grain silos become bistros, loading docks become antique malls,
freight depots become Home Depots, brownfields become soccer fields, sweatshops
become artists lofts, etc., etc. In contrast to the urban reclamation of the
industrial, there's something very reassuring about seeing nature take over,
even if it's invasive, non-native species that do the job. I've no doubt they'll
soon be replaced with trendy condos built by developers in the hopes of recapturing
some of the millions they've spent in cleaning up the place. But in the meantime,
me, my dog, the local child molesters, and the ROTC get the place to ourselves.
Mary Wheeler is some sort of academic currently residing
in Portland, OR. She also maintains the blog site Mary's
Great Ideas. This is her first essay for Lime Tea.