Project Description

Spectacle Island

The Boston City Archives occupies an unassuming yellow building in the industrial area of West Roxbury, just a stow’s crow from the VA Hospital. As soon as I arrive, the curator is quick to mention that they have no record of how the photo album came into their possession, other than it must have been assembled by a former resident of Spectacle Island &, at some point, passed into the hands of the Sanitary Division at the Boston Public Works. None of the photographs offer a clear chronology of the island’s early history of European settlement & without any identifying marks—no shaky scrawls or signatures—it provides little insight as to who may have owned the album. Many of the pictures are poor Xeroxes, although amongst the mix are photographs of garbage barges, bulldozers, & the working range lights—pictures, which appear to have been commissioned by the Boston Public Works. Included in the album are also snapshots of the residents themselves, homely portraits of families, children & young women caught mid-grin, but who make eye contact through the light & celluloid. They don’t look like waste. On the surface, the more domestic images suggest a vibrant community to paint the rich everyday life of garbage in the Boston Harbor. We know that there was a schoolhouse on the island, implying that many families considered the dump their permanent home.

Whoever curated the photo album knew that some memories have fingers. Docunauts know the power of the document to feeling.

all before the invention of rubbish was prehistory

The photo album is all the more remarkable since nothing of the island’s former identity as Boston’s  landfill remains—at very least, not visibly on the surface. Not only have the ruins of the old schoolhouse & range lights been removed, but so too has the Native American midden, where archaeologists unurfed arrowheads & sea shells on the island’s southern drumlin, although a visitor marker identifying the dig site has since been placed next to the hiking trail.  While artifacts of pre- & post-European settlement have been excised from the island, others like asbestos, sea glass, & sea pottery frequently wash up onto the shore. Sea glass is produced from broken bottles, tossed into the ocean & weathered down by currents until the surface is frosted & the edges are smooth. From a distance, it is often indistinguishable from organic pebble & stone. Green & brown shards of natural sea glass litter the beach & signs sternly caution victors not to remove these ‘artifacts.’ As I step off the ferry, a robomessage plays over the loudspeaker: “Spectacle Island is a carry on, carry off island…there are no rubbish bins on the island.”

I am anxious about returning home. A poetronaut I greatly admire said not to worry, that they people I know back on the islands will die. I’m comforted by their eerie prophecy of death. I have a frog called plastic in my throat.

another petronaut had gathered hundreds of sea glass
& organised it by colour on the log

An island is a slow moving phantom. Geological change leaves indices and traces. Waste, as Michael Thompson suggests, is not a stable category but subject to a malleable social system of value that often shifts over time & space. “The boundary between rubbish and non-rubbish,” he argues, “is not fixed but moves in response to social pressures.”[1] Sea glass and sea pottery apparently illustrate this instability of the category of waste-value, which is to say they have transformed from items of refuse into coveted, auratic fetishes. Shanks, Platt, & Rathje point out that “99 percent of what most archaeologists dig up, record, and analyze in obsessive detail is what past peoples threw away as worthless.”[2] So while waste has exhausted value in the past, it can reactivate a use-function as contemporary conditions change. Sea glass, for example, often has an afterlife as jewelry. Nowadays, organisations like the North American Sea Glass Association (NASGA) actively support enthusiasts & collectors of sea glass & provide assistance for those wishing to identify ‘authentic sea glass’ from the mass produced variety. Waste is a renewable resource.

the garbage mound on the southern drumlin

The island drumlins are environments of deep time: deposits of glacial till, gravel, & other organic rubble accumulating & piling up over a long period. Boston Harbor is dotted with these geological formations, some of which are now connected to the mainland by causeways and, in the process, they lose their specificity as unique island ecosystems. At 4.2 miles from the city’s Long Wharf, Spectacle Island has been spared from being absorbed into the mainland. Once comprising of two rounded drumlins, connected by a sandbar, it looked like a pair of spectacles to observers in Boston city. In the eighteenth century, the island housed a smallpox quarantine for European migrants. Over the course of the nineteenth century, its space was increasingly appropriated for other industries. In 1857, local business man Nahum Ward purchased the island for $15,000 & established a much needed horse-rendering factory, where over 2000 carcasses—which had been previously dumped directly into the harbour—were turned into grease, hide, & glue each year. Locals constructed two summer hotels, a casino, & a brothel. The park ranger neglects to tell me about the island’s sex. Ward’s factory continued to operate until it shuttered in 1910, & the city of Boston built a sanitation & disposal factory in its stead. A grease extraction plant was also  established to manufacture soap in 1921. By this time, Spectacle Island had fully transitioned into the city’s dump. Between 1916 & 1933 the waste & grease industries shared the island with residential homes & a little red schoolhouse to service the island’s families.[3] The unlined landfill closed in 1959 by which time the families were finally forced off the island. Over the next fifty years, leachate, produced by the decomposing garbage, leaked into Boston’s already heavily polluted waterways. Solid waste further fueled underground fires that burned continuously under the landfill. By the 1980s, pollution in “the harbor of shame” was considered the worst in the country.[4] The leachate flows were a significant enough problem that the federal government sued the city & the state of Massachusetts to clean up the island for good.[5]

monarch butterflies swarmed the island with the cold beat of their wings

I want to limpet the island as long as possible since the ferry departs early and the park will soon close for the season. Instead, I lichen fragments of inarticulate plastic & strange ethics. What will future carbonauts make of garbage 30 feet under my feet? I pick up a stone in my shoe, which I leave for days wedged between the fabric of my polka dot soles.

winter flounder, striped bass, bluefish, barnacles, & clams
citizened the harbour undocumented

Landfills, as Jennifer Gabrys points out, often constitute new mining opportunities in the twenty first century, “where instead of dismantling entire mountains for minerals, we can turn to these hills of consumption to extract materials.”[6] But Spectacle Island has undergone a different instar of an afterlife in the Boston imaginary. Much like other landfill sites, garbage has helped to fill in much of Spectacle Island’s natural hills as well as extended its highest elevation to 176 feet. Nowadays, the island is thoroughly capped & replanted with flora thanks to an extensive ecological restoration effort that began in the last decade of the twentieth century. Even the silver chimney vents that release the pent up methane gas percolating under the mounds are so inconspicuously placed next to trees that they blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. “In the ruin,” writes Walter Benjamin, “history has merged sensuously with the setting. And so configured, history finds expression not as a process of eternal life, but rather as one of unstoppable decline.”[7] Yet Spectacle Island can also be seen as an allegory not just for modern decline but a chronic rebirth. The island’s spectacular rejuvenation, on the one hand, draws attention to the American landscapes of waste but on the other, it also problematises our notions of ecological restoration as a progressive continuity from untouched wilderness to industrial modernity to ecological degradation & finally to ecological regeneration. Waste is the continuation of life by other means. So what? Trevor Paglen wondered what it means to know our extinction, and do it anyway.[8] I wonder if we have an obligation not to endure. Slow disaster is a grain in the voice & remains unspeakable.

how to word between settlement & displacement
(the road pulled the body forward)

Spectacle Island speaks to the continuities of carbonaut failure and the lack of care for contained ecosystems. Ironically, however, its garbage may save it. Other lands will disappear. Climate Change, the guide said, will erode Boston’s built harbour. The sea will take back the mainland. Boston will ghost but the garbage mounds may keep Spectacle Island above sea level.

It’s not until I am back in Philadelphia that I finally turn over & violently shake my shoe to dislodge the stone that has been bothering me for days. A green piece of sea glass falls out.

the seagull half-remembered flight
the birds don’t talk about the urf

[1] Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 12.

[2] M. Shanks, D. Platt, & W. Rathje, “The Perfume of Garbage: Modernity & the Archaeological,” Modernism/Modernity, 11 no. 1 (2004): 65.

[3] See Edward Rowe Snow, The Islands of Boston Harbor (Carlise, MA: Commonwealth, 1971), 401–4.

[4] Eric Jay Dolin, Political Waters: The Long, Dirty, Contentious, Incredibly Expensive but Eventually Triumphant History of Boston Harbor: A Unique Environmental Success Story (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 1.

[5] Robert L. France, Handbook of Regenerative Landscape Design (New York: CRC Press, 2008), 29.

[6] Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 141.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “The Ruin,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, edited by Thomas Y. Levin, Brigid Doherty, and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 180.

[8] Naturally I misremember the quote. The correct quotation is: “How is it that we knew exactly how we would kill ourselves, and went ahead with it all anyway.” Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures (Berkley: University of California Press, 2012), 11.

Orchid Tierney

Orchid Tierney is from Aotearoa, New Zealand, and currently resides in Philadelphia. Her chapbooks include Brachiation (Dunedin: GumTree Press, 2012) and The World in Small Parts (Chicago: Dancing Girl Press, 2012), and a full-length sound translation of The Book of Margery Kempe, Earsay (TrollThread, 2016). She co-edits Supplement, an annual anthology on Philadelphia writing.