Historical & future perspectives on contemporary trash

We gather just after 9am. A crisp May morning has greeted us and hats, gloves, and long jackets are donned for the first time these early days of winter. The location has an awkward entry near a motorway on ramp. A mature grapefruit hangs its shoddily coloured fruit, which are (like the dwelling) past its best. Fallen large fruit scatter the edge of the driveway, some brave ones which had ventured on to the cracked concrete are long squashed, leaving a mess in equal parts of forest kakariki and kowhai like a badly spray painted bridge. These are remnants of a lost time, a former housing existence.

We enter through the empty kitchen, boots on. That rule will change shortly, I think as I note the state of the old porridge coloured carpet, scattered with flecks of mud from contractors. The house is gutted, aside from a temporary large table from a cheap office supply store and a bunch of chairs, adorning the lounge. Cold still surrounds us so jackets are kept on as we bunker down. Eight people border the oval table, breathing heavily. In the middle is a large rectangle map covering most of the space and illustrating the surrounding areas. The feeling is a tense mix of excitement and business.

We’re here to discuss archaeological and cultural heritage in a former council house but it feels more like we’re part of a militia with tactics being plotted in a seized villa on the edge of a Polish town in 1942. It is somewhat true. The local council has commandeered one of its rental housing properties as an HQ for the coming months while roading upgrade works commence and I’m there to hear the plan of works.

We’re kicked off by the chief archaeologist, it seems fitting that she is somewhat aged, with a calm voice and glassed over eyes, interested in former times. She outlines, amongst many things, that we’ll have to be careful of uncovering settlers’ rubbish dumps. Apparently it was common practice to bury one’s rubbish in the garden one week at a time in small spade dug holes, meaning a line up of little dumps were made. We’re forewarned that this could lead to little time capsules of information about the past popping up as the contractors dig virgin ground. I suddenly have a new respect for rubbish heaps. We’ll mention midden shortly ourselves (these indicate a former Maori settlement, the waste discarded from shellfish and other food often still remains a few hundred years later). I’m distracted by the thought that much of what we glean from the past is through our trash. How sad.

If our future humans accidentally come across Hampton Downs whilst digging something in the year 2,500 they’ll have a field day and an ecological nightmare. What would they glean from us? Daily over a million people in central Auckland have their trash shipped 100km upstream to the Waikato for another province to bear the brunt of our waste. The mighty Waikato river that flows down stream nearby returns towards Auckland, incidentally providing 8% of the city’s water. Oh oh. Electronics, plastics, pesticides, tyres, metals….leachates.

But what will that really tell them when they uncover our trash? Soon there will be no books, no physical records of what we’re doing. We’ll be in a dark age masked by the information age. Our children won’t have picture albums, they would have been subjected to their parents’ Facebook pages, likely obsolete before they’re old enough to appreciate that they were plastered across the internet without consenting to such fame. They’ll be left without their own records. (Mental note to print blogs). Future humans will wonder what we did; what we were thinking. Hints will be there in the form of couches and televisions and banana skins. They’ll ponder how we managed to create islands of plastic the size of Australia in the Pacific, were we trying to create new lands? New floating countries in the face of rising seas? But landfills, landfills might hold the answer. My fleeting respect for Hampton Downs landfill passes.

We shift to other hot topics like the importance of cultural monitoring, the need for local iwi to watch over the works. Because after all, before settlers came and dumped their little time capsules in their farm yards, tangata whenua gardened, lived and worked their whenua and as a result in Tamaki Makaurau, you never know what taonga or koiwi you’ll stumble across. And they certainly are not made of plastic.

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