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“Wasteland” in the Ozarks

June 18, 2011

The 2010 Oscar nominated documentary film, “Wasteland” profiles a few of the estimated 250,000 people in Brazil who make their living reusing and recycling the trash the rest of the population generates.

The Ozarks has its own 1976 version of “Wasteland”.

I lay in bed listening to the nearby early summer nighttime chirping of crickets and tree frogs. The more distant sounds of highway traffic and dogs barking completed the nocturnal ambient noise drifting through the open windows of my new non air conditioned abode in Salem, Missouri.
So much for nostalgic sensory memories.

Humans and animals pick through pick through garbage at an open burn waste dump in the rural Ozarks-1976.

An old woman and a dog look for something usable or edible in an open burn waste dump in the rural Ozarks in 1976. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

What really got my attention this night was the smell drifting through the window screens; a burning smell. This smell wasn’t the sweet smell of wood smoke on autumn days but the acrid smell of stuff burning that will burn but wasn’t made with the intention to burn it. Things like household products and the stuff we need or think we need to live each day.

The next afternoon on my way home from work, I made it a mission to follow my nose to the source of the offending odors. I found it at the end of a gravel road across the highway from where I lived.

At the end of the road the terrain dropped off to a sloping hillside until it reached flat ground again 30 or 40 feet below. At the top of the hill garbage trucks, pickup trucks and even cars would back up and empty their contents down the side of the hill.

An Ozarks' Version of "Wasteland"

Two boys pick through refuse at an open burn waste dump in the Ozarks-1976. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Within a few minutes, three or four or a half-dozen people would gather around the fresh drop and begin picking through it. Men, women, children and the old all made up the group of people who gathered daily to find something they needed or could use that others didn’t need or couldn’t use.

I photographed some of the pickers and approached a few but found none anxious to talk. Most turned and walked away when they saw my camera. Whether the shame of such pursuit is self-imposed or handed down from society, it is there regardless.

An attendant told me most of the pickers came late in the afternoon when most of the trash was dumped. Then in the early evening he would set fire to what would burn reducing the volume on the hillside.

The resulting piece was offered to the editor as a photo page with little copy since I wasn’t able to really talk to the subjects. If I remember correctly, I likened the experience to walking into Dante’s Inferno and presented it as a window the people of the town could look through and see a part of their town most of them had never seen.

I’m not sure if it was really appreciated but I had found the source of my sleepless nights; the nocturnal smells drifting past my open bedroom window and now visions of people picking through garbage.

  John S. Stewart

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