Buried Beneath

by Sarah Hedrick Joyner

My family has called this little patch of land in Northwest Georgia home for generations. Up the ridge sits the family cemetery with its gravestones half-sunk in the ground, rotten fences scaring intruders, and breathtaking views of the valley below. The only legible stone has 1897 and a forgotten name etched upon its face.

My great-grandparents, Elmer and Bernice, had a distinct memory of the Great Depression. They understood what it was to struggle, they were distrustful of banks, and they were willing to cut costs, no matter the results, to provide for their families.

Elmer owned two dump trucks. He collected the community’s trash and, to save money, avoided the landfill’s fees by opting to dump the contents of his trucks onto the family land. He cut a trail to the far end of the property where it met the railway tracks and began to dump. The trail grew shorter as the dump crept slowly towards their house.

Photograph by Joanna Gallagher

Photograph by Joanna Gallagher

My mother was raised in a small house on the property. She said an entire section of their land was devoted to the skeletons of cars. She and her younger brothers turned that wasteland into their playground, but only by day. After the sun set, the field of gnarled trees, ripped tires, and metal skeletons grew ominous in their imagination. Ghosts came to life in the rusted vehicles and claimed the wasteland for their own.

As they grew older, my mother’s brothers sliced out a piece of the property for their own, paying their grandfather the measly payment he requested, hauling off metal skeletal remains to haunt some other piece of land, and digging pits to toss their mounds of ripped tires into before covering with a thin layer of dirt. “There’s a spot off to the side of my house that has a bit of a bounce to it,” my uncle jokingly tells friends sometimes. He is amused to find that he has his own personal trampoline built into his front yard. Although you can no longer see the pit of tires, they add a bounce to your step as you round the corner to his side door.

As a child, I was disgusted by what I considered to be a terrible case of hoarding on my great-grandparent’s part. But as fate would have it, I have found myself living on the land that is littered with their frugality. On the occasional days when I leave my dog to wander our property unattended, I come home to piles of objects barely distinguishable from one another: rusted cans of rotted food, patches of rugged rubber, metal signs riddled with bullet holes. Craters litter my yard from where she excitedly uncovered her treasure. Days such as these are a reminder of what I live on. What is covered with dirt and grass and the occasional spring bulb coming to bloom; what resides beneath the surface, unseen, speaks of a family’s past, and the persevering character of nature to conquer and adapt.

Twelve miles northeast of this oddly entrancing landscape lies Chattanooga. This mid-sized industrial city in Tennessee struggled to contain its pollution in the middle of the twentieth century. The infamous story goes that as “Chattanooga choked on its own prosperity,” Walter Cronkite proclaimed on national television that the city was officially deemed “the dirtiest city in America” in 1969. Naturally, city planners and councilmen jumped to action, cleaning the air and setting down plans to revitalize the dirty downtown center. One sustainable endeavor included creating a park where an industrial site used to be. What is now Renaissance Park was once a dumping ground for waste as well as the final chapter in a series of toxin bearing streams, all joining here after their winding routes through the northern end of the city and surrounding neighborhoods. When the park was designed, intriguing focal points emerged, including a wetland created to purify the streams feeding into the Tennessee River. Their final paths were forced through a labyrinth of native plants that filtered out toxins before the streams joined the river. As for the scraps of industrialism, instead of hauling them off to landfills outside of the city, they were piled high and covered in dirt and grass. This heaping pile of trash now resembles geometric shapes similar to the ancient tombs of the Egyptians. Students enjoy its slope on snow days, and families rarely stop to consider the biological makeup of the oddly shaped hill as they slide down its side on cardboard boxes.

Sitting atop this pretty pile of trash, one’s imagination is far removed from what lies beneath, the by-product of an appliance factory buried below layers of clay and soil. The oddly shaped hills and recovered wetland are littered with wildflowers and cattails, replacing the rusted scraps and poisoned dirt. In comparison to my family’s land, this landscape is a far better example of how to continue living in an environment where the scraps of our past are maintained in harmony with nature.

Sarah works in communications and marketing at her alma mater, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. When she’s not at her desk stressing over commas and researching (cyber-stalking) for her next write-up, she prefers to spend her time exploring the Chattanooga area’s hiking trails or camping in the mountains with her husband, two toddlers, and most likely one of their three dogs.