Digging Glass

It began with a few fifths.

Booze, that is; the outdated measurement itself – embossed on the heels of the innumerable bottles we have plucked from the tree line along Factory Road – when taken into account alongside its more modern metric counterpart (750 mL), hints that this area has been a popular drinking spot since long before Old Grand-Dad was a twinkle in your father’s eye.

Even today, the winding little Baltimore County byway – bordered by private and state-owned forest, as well as the handful of homes clustered near Factory’s southern terminus – is an anomalous throwback to an earlier, pre-code time. It’s a two-way street, though its oddly narrow, unmarked width might lead one to reasonably conclude otherwise. A rural cousin of the now-congested horse-and-buggy routes of old east coast cities like Boston and Philadelphia – now paved, but never built with cars in mind. Much like a pre-pandemic world forced to retrofit to a new reality…

Directly or indirectly, COVID-19 has informed almost every decision we’ve made since mid-March 2020: staying home as much as possible, to minimize our chances of exposure; thoroughly cleaning anything that comes into the house; taking regular walks, to counter the inertia of daily teleworking; ordering a reach extender to more safely bag the litter we find along our favorite route – Factory Road. Sometimes, as we collect the trash, I wonder how often (if ever) it crosses the minds of those who so casually toss their half-smoked butts, Wendy’s wrappers, and empty White Claws out their windows, at speed. Also in the regular mix: dental floss picks; used latex gloves; home pregnancy tests; and spent shotgun shells.

Then there are the anomalies, like the rusting cylinder of nitrous oxide in the drainage ditch beside the road, or the pay phone in the nearby woods. Their origins – a great source of speculation – don’t really matter, as these items are today as much fixtures of the surrounding landscape as the gentle hills, the rocks and trees.

Some three dozen trash bags later, and with the roadside now clean enough to draw the occasional encouraging honk from passing cars, we turned our attention inward, beyond the tree line, into the woods. More fifths, and four-fifths, gallons and full pints – the cast-off bones of clandestine late-night benders. The more interesting ones – embossed or easily identified brands; unique shapes, sizes, and colors; unfamiliar names – come home with us.

The rest get recycled.

Digging glass from the forest floor led us to discover several old trash pits – most likely the detritus from a couple of overgrown foundations in the woods and their one-time occupants. I spent a few college summers working for a South Jersey DPW, where I learned to build amateur forensic profiles of people based on what they threw away, how much of it, and how often. Stacks of well-read Sunday papers. A neatly polished-off handle of Myers’s – just like last week’s, and the one from the week before that. Bag upon bag of meticulously landscaped brush.

The glass bones that litter these lonely woods tell their own story. Heavy, green Coke bottles. Car polish. Zinc-lidded Mason jars. A Depression-era knockoff Vaseline. Amber Clorox bottles. Turpentine. A 1940s hair crème. Mustard. Ketchup. Soft drinks. Booze, of course (and nearly as much aspirin). And hundred-year-old bottles from breweries killed by Prohibition. Together with midcentury license plates, a rust-flaked Radio Flyer, and the odd horseshoe, they comprise the long-forgotten ruins of a routine that one day, not so very long ago, left home and never came back.

We’ve resurrected several items from the forest floor. Much of the glass has cleaned up beautifully. Apothecary bottles of all colors, shapes, and sizes now line our kitchen sills like the usual snake-oil suspects. Beside a blue-tinted Ball Perfect Mason jar, a King Syrup bottle holds freshly cut flowers from the yard. Even an ordinary glass salt shaker that would have been at home on any Cold War kitchen table once again fulfills its intended purpose.

Like a flood of cheap, single-use plastic, COVID-19 has upped the ante for our disposable culture. Bits of the old normal will eventually be recycled, repurposed, to be sure. But I sometimes wonder, as I stand at the kitchen sink, scrubbing off the latest haul, what those who will kick about the woods, the riverbeds, and shorelines a hundred years hence will make of what we threw away…

More photos @digging_glass

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