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Dump Diving And Other Post-Modern Arts

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Ed and I were sorting our recyclables at the dump on a frigid day recently, when I stumbled on two boxes of what looked, under a thick layer of greasy dust, like old canning jars. I peered closer and sure enough, there must have been over a dozen in all, both clear glass and blue, their metal bails and glass lids intact. Some were “Lightning,” a brand I\’d never heard of before.

How could anybody throw out such a treasure? Didn\’t he know how fabulous old canning jars look filled with dried red peppers, or pasta, or dried rose petals? I asked the attendant if it was all right to take some of the jars, and he said yes, grinning at my excitement. And I was excited, sort of the way I imagine morel hunters feel when they come upon an especially good patch. This was my first experience with what I believe is called “dump diving,” and I loved it.

I got into this something-for-(almost)-nothing mode in the fall, when the economy was worsening and everyone worried about the cost of heating oil. That prompted me to attend the rummage sale at a nearby village, where I purchased a collection of thick woolen sweaters, for an average of $1.50 apiece, that are seeing me through a cold winter in a chilly house.

The first frosts came around Halloween, and the chickens ran out of bugs and grass to forage as the cost of store-bought chicken food rose. Everywhere I looked, though, people\’s porches were festooned with carved pumpkins destined for the compost pile, or worse yet, the trash. So we got permission and scavenged a bunch of jack o\’lanterns that kept the chickens happy, and their egg-yolks bright orange, for weeks.

Again, it was the chickens who inspired me to ask for my first “doggy bag” at a restaurant, something that, much to Ed\’s amusement, I had always considered declasse. Now, if even a single french fry remains on my plate, I ask to take it home.

Ed and I were in the truck this afternoon and heard a woman on NPR who had furnished and decorated a 3,000-square-foot McMansion with items from thrift shops, from furniture to toys to clothing hanging in the closets. She did this to support thrift shops that give their proceeds to charity, and to demonstrate that you can have something for almost nothing.

And where were Ed and I going while listening to this? We were on our way to a place that makes wooden pallets and lets us scavenge discarded sticks of wood to use as kindling for our stove.

A friend and I are collecting instances of our grandmothers\’ thrifty arts, long forgotten ways of making-do that are now being, or should be, resurrected. Here\’s an instance from my own grandmother: when bottom sheets got worn in the middle (these were the flat kind that you had to tuck under the mattress), she would cut them in half longitudinally and sew the original edges together, so that the fabric that was still in good shape was now in the center of the bed. I still have the remnants of one such sheet, made of homespun. (I were to weave a sheet with my own hands, I too would be extremely reluctant to throw it out.)

Women used to spend lots of time darning, especially socks. I\’ve said in an earlier post that I\’m too impatient to darn socks. But I did once make a terrific sweater for my small dog , Mojo, out of an old sock.

There\’s a substantial collection of wine corks in my kitchen drawer. I wonder what they might be good for? I can\’t bear to throw them out.

If you have any old, or even new, grandmotherly tricks, pass them on!

15 Responses

  1. My grandmother was born and raised in New York City yet she made her own soap out of the trimmings from cuts of meat. She started doing so during The War and never stopped (she also started baking bread then and, thank God, never stopped doing that either). I once helped her with the soap and it still makes me shudder to think that I poured lye into a vat without any protective clothing or goggles.

  2. You know how to MAKE SOAP?? Have you considered giving a workshop? Though I must say I might have trouble coming up with enough fat….I\’ve heard of people saving soap slivers when the bars get too small to handle, then melting them to make new bars, but that\’s SO derivative.

  3. I was recently talking to Sioux who said she was jumping on the movement bandwagon to buy nothing new in 2009 (food is obviously excepted here).And Tim found his first alto recorder at that same dump.

  4. I\’m going to try to take these lessons to heart this year. Mostly my year will be about Throwing Things Away, stripping down, digging out. There are new things I want, definitely, but I will try not to be hasty, and see if what I have can be reused and repurposed.You know, I wonder if non-Vermonters know the wonders of The Town Dump. It is SO not what I expected when I heard IB talk about it. Ours was essentially a combination community center and recycling station. People sorted their Stuph into the myriad collection bins—newspapers separate from magazines separate from white office paper separate from colored office paper; bins for plastics, for glass, for aluminum cans, for tin cans, for garbage—and then there were the large items that no one could use, pieces of furniture, the pallets that Lali mentioned, mirrors…it was fascinating to see what others threw away, and fun to pick through anything that called to us. I spent a lot of time at the magazine bin, picking up fascinating small-circulation journals or catalogs for things I never knew I wanted. After sorting, disposing, and collecting, people would stand around and catch up on the news, chatting happily the way they did in the general store or the post office. I knew those neighbors, spread for miles across the Town, better than I know the ones down here who live just yards from my front door. We ate in each others\’ homes, had pleasant evenings of board games, went to community meetings and town dinners at the firehouse, volunteered at the library. I have been in precisely one neighbor\’s home down here, and that was only so I could babysit their cat.Sorry to be so long-winded, Lali. I\’m just feeling especially nostalgic this morning.

  5. here in Palm Bay, we make a habit of taking the perfectly good goods from dumpsters. The waste is a crime. And any night-before-trash-day one looks at the trash by the homes, amazing things can be found. many I have picked out to sell later in the week for great gobs of cash.My dog\’s bed is a butterfly chair. Perfect. From the trash.So is much of our food, organic even, from major grocery stores.We\’ve furnished whole homes with perfectly good remains from other folk\’s homes. And Freecycle rules!At present, I am working with the city commission to make major changes in how garbage is handled here. With me luck.

  6. I\’m not quite on that bandwagon, although if I think about it hard enough I realize I\’m pretty close anyhow. My grandmother was the oldest daughter in a family seriously affected by the depression–her frugality skipped my dad\’s generation and landed squarely in my lap.As for soap slivers, we just attach them to the top of the next bar…

  7. Grandma made soap flakes out of old slivers and used them in the clothes washer.Lali, I made sure she wrote down her soap recipe before she died and have preserved the document as the sacred relic that it is – however in this day and age I am sure you can get it off the internet in considerably less than a second.

  8. I have to say I do not like the idea of the \”nothing new\” movement (first I\’ve heard of it) – or at least I think this is precisely the wrong moment for it when so many people desperately need a sale- any sale. I think we would be better off with a \”buy something if you can afford it\” movement.

  9. Adam,Sounds like you\’ve been ahead of the trend all along. Good luck with the city commission. A butterfly chair–I used to have one of those in grad school!Alison,Are you supposed to slice all those corks into neat circles before you strew them on the ground?Bridgett,Ah yes, the soap bars with their little sliver hats, I know them well. But sometimes the slivers fall off.Elizabeth,I don\’t see a way out of the spend/save dilemma. On the one hand, Americans have been drowning in material goods for decades, and it\’s natural and wholesome to want to cut back. On the other, we could drive the country right back to the 14th century if we all stop buying. But how do we figure out what we truly can afford these days? For people on a fixed income or at risk of job loss what looks affordable one month may turn out to be beyond their means the next.

  10. Yes, it is true that it can be hard to characterize what one can afford. And certainly in our materialistic society restraint can be wholesome – however what I see at work here is the spirit of excess spending inverted into an unreasonable and extreme culture of restraint. And right now that kind of extremism is very dangerous – I don\’t need to remind such a literate crowd that it was the fear-based pull back in spending that really brought on the Great Depression. I think people should consider the benefits of spending and also try to invest dollars in their own community – it may seem extravagant to go out to dinner when people are losing their homes but you are keeping your neighbors who own that restaurant afloat – plus the good time you have might give you the optimism that ultimately helps your economic cause. To answer your question Lali, I think the way out of the spend/save dilemma is not to frame it as either/or but to both spend and save and try to make decisions that are as free as possible from the distorted perspective of the moment – just as one should have when the cultural message was spend, spend, spend.

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