Our four-year-old has been collecting plant parts: sticks, seed pods, frangipani blossoms, the broad, yellow leaves of a palm-like tree I cannot name. We find these specimens in our entryway or play kitchen in all stages of after-life, from colorful and supple to brown and limp or brittle — a cleaning challenge and visual answer to our daughter’s questions about death. As the yellow leaves go “back to the soil,” so do we.
We have not discussed bodies placed in the earth that do not biodegrade: substances that degrade. I got a look at these two years ago, when a field near our complex turned into a waste dump. The area, about the size of a soccer pitch, separates our walled parking lot from a Thai primary school, whose students we hear singing patriotic anthems at outdoor assemblies. In our first years here, the field had a trickle of a stream in it and filled the nights with choruses of insects and frogs, including some that sounded like cows mooing on fast-forward. During the daytime, I could watch wind ripple grasses taller than me as I walked our infant up and down, up and down the hall outside the front door, which overlooked the field. One day I waved across the field to students at a window watching a squall, and they waved back; I felt like a rock star. Then the dump trucks came.
An unhurried but steady stream of trucks began to visit the field and dump what looked like dirt and brush and later boards, poles, paint cans, even a discarded toilet and varnished cabinetry. A couch appeared and a rudimentary sala shelter, where I would see a man napping, barely shaded from full sun, apparently minding a semi-organized landfill operation. What had begun as a few piles at one end of the field crept to its middle, burying the grass and choking the stream. This created a new view for us and the school, which abutted the field directly with a bank of unscreened, often unshuttered windows.
My husband and I raised questions about the dump with our apartment housing committee. We learned it was a dump for construction waste, which alarmed me since seeds from the field had blown to coat our screen door seasonally; surely noxious dust would also travel. A friend suggested asbestos might be less regulated in Thailand, and an Internet search (limited, since only in English) did not reassure me. I began to hear at amplified volume the crashes of loads landing day after day and watched with dread as clouds of gray dust (concrete? asbestos?) rose above them.
We kept voicing concern in what suddenly seemed a race against time. It took time for our neighbors to learn of the dumping, since many units did not have a direct view. It took time for the right people to negotiate a cease-dump when concern had spread. Meanwhile, trucks kept coming, effectively sealing the field’s fate with each load. After negotiations progressed, we saw noncompliance: a sign forbidding dumping was erected and then knocked down; heavy roadblocks were placed and then somehow dragged away. More trucks came, sometimes at night, as if to dump as much waste as possible before the axe fell. An activity I first considered innocent, if harmful, in a developing country with lower “green” awareness, now prompted me to take photos from behind our vertical blinds, so the dumpers could not identify me and act on feelings of hostility.
The story of this dump came to an anticlimactic end in a couple of ways. First, my family moved to a different wing of our complex not downwind or in view of the piles. Second, the dumping subsided, grass grew over the waste not scavenged or smoothed, and structures a bit like tent poles were built to facilitate regular bird-singing contests: decoratively carved, wooden birdcages were hung from the structures and the songbirds inside rated on their singing. Apartment dwellers near the field began to complain of noise from loudspeakers at these events, not the waste beneath. And sometime later, an earthmoving operation began; I hear the land may now be developed as housing. Only time will tell.
I am glad that the active dumping phase of this field’s story is finished. Yet I cringe at what it showed me, about the ease of dumping trash on the ground; the difficulty of removing it; humans’ strange ability to pollute land meters from young children, whose health could suffer the most and who cannot fight back. And the way a truck can empty with the push of a button while emails, talks with neighbors, and punitive actions can take weeks to work. I am sobered, too, by my response to the dump, by how I planned a move rather than standing firm — though arguably a conflict over Thai land was not ours, as expats, to fight.
Finally, I saw from our door exactly what happens to paint cans and treated boards and mysterious gray dusts that do not, like leaves and blossoms, decompose with time: they sit. And sit. And soak in rain, and bake in sun, and threaten air and water and trust between people — and never go “back to the soil,” though they may be buried and vanish from mind. I saw this but have yet to tell our daughter, perhaps because it is sad, and so close, and so clearly not what ought to happen. I know that, like death, she will bring it up one day. When that happens, I wonder what I will say.
Today (April 22) is Earth Day.