Friday, May 14, 2004

April 20, 2004, cont'd

We have been touring Horizons Unlimited, a sheltered workshop on the south edge of Emmetsburg. Teresa Murphy is my tour guide. We are out in the plant, talking about the sorting and baling for recycling that goes on here.

Off to our right are a couple openings into the building, so that the public can drop off recyclables at the plant any hour of the day or night. Materials put through the openings drop into cages inside, which are emptied daily - cardboard into one cage, tin in another, plastic in the third. Outside there is a shed for collecting dropped-off magazines, and containers for local glass and newspapers. The magazine shed gets emptied once a week, the glass container twice a week, and the newspaper container whenever it gets full.

We moved deeper into the building, into the cardboard area. Here is where plastic bags and styrofoam that had been deposited with cardboard get sorted out, as well as juice cartons, which are too waxy to be recycled as cardboard. The greasiest part of pizzas boxes also gets discarded as garbage. The big baler that handles the cardboard is a "self-tyer," while bales from the two I'd seen previously have to be tied by hand.

Cardboard bales weigh about eighteen hundred pounds each. Twenty-four bales make a load. H-U ships about three loads of cardboard per month, to a place in Becker, Minnesota, which recycles it. A truck from the plant in Becker drops off freshly-made cardboard in Mason City or Clear Lake, Teresa told me, then comes to Emmetsburg to pick up a load of cardboard to take back to Becker. The circle is completed.

"This is the DNR building," Teresa said as we entered the newest portion of the plant. The building had been constructed with the help of a grant from the DNR. Before the addition, there had been so much plastic piled up in the existing space that it was difficult getting any sorting done.

The DNR grant helped pay for another baler, too, one used exclusively for plastics. Because they have a tendency to expand so greatly, bales of plastic have to be double-tied with heavier gauge wire than is required for paper or tin; otherwise the wires may break and scatter plastic across the room.

A conveyor carries the plastics up into the baler. Because milk jugs are more valuable by themselves instead of mixed with other plastics, they are baled separately. The plastics are loaded onto the sorting table with the Bobcat. Some consumers were baling milk jugs while I watched. That meant only milk jugs could go up the conveyor into the baler. Garbage had to be sorted out - plastic bags, lids, bottle caps, etc. All the milk jugs had to have their caps removed and discarded. Consumers had to put Number One plastic in one container, Number Three plastic in another container. Number Two plastic, the milk jugs, was already going up the conveyor. Any other plastics have to be discarded as junk.

A bale of pop bottles will weigh about one thousand pounds, Teresa said. Milk jugs come in at thirteen hundred pounds per bale, as do color #2 plastics. About six semi loads of baled plastic are hauled away each year. Sometimes, Teresa said, the plastic will go to Mohawk Carpets in Georgia to be recycled into carpets; some loads go to Siouxland Recovery in Sioux City, Iowa.

I suppose it wouldn't be very exciting work, standing at the sorting table, removing the cap from an occasional milk jug or pop bottle, letting the milk jugs fall onto the conveyor, sorting the remaining plastic into this container or that one for later baling. It wouldn't be very exciting, handling the dirty plastic all day. Sorting is gross work. Most of the consumers working here were wearing gloves to help keep their hands clean. Even as they concentrated on their work, they had time to look up, smile, wave at Teresa.

Sometimes the consumers will take the cap off a detergent container and find it filled with used insulin needles. Immediately they replace the cap and the container is taken to the plant's safety director to be stored with the other "sharps" in the "sharps container." Sharps and bio-hazard materials are picked up once a month.

It had been raining since I came into the building for the tour and it was still raining; Teresa and I had to go outside to get to the Redemption Center, which handles all the cans and bottles that have the Iowa 5-cent redemption printed on them.

Two big plastic bags will hold approximately five hundred aluminum cans. Up to five hundred cans gets the best price for the public bringing cans into the Redemption Center. Large quantities brought in all at once get docked one cent per can; this is done to encourage a smooth flow of customers at the Redemption Center, rather than allowing lines to form and delays to occur. Commercial customers such as taverns get a 4-cent redemption for their cans, which are left for counting at the center's convenience.

Algona, twenty-five miles to the east, still has a redemption center, but most others in the area have closed.

To be continued....



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29, April 30, May 10, May 11, and May 13, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

Canadian film-makers apparently have problems with "heroic characters." According to McGregor, they "are even more ambivalent about heroic solutions." "Often this reluctance towards a heroic solution entails some kind of containment strategy," McGregor says. "As one might expect, the commonest version of this involves an appeal to community."

Here in the middle west, I don't know whether it's "heroism," or duty. We do what needs to be done and are embarrassed when someone notices. Those we would put on the hero's pedestal go reluctantly. Grant Wood's "American Gothic" is not a portrait of two people comfortable representing their fellows.

We are a pragmatic bunch as well. Whatever solution will work, well that's the way we'll go. Does the task require some rugged individualism? A farm boy will step up to bat. Is cooperation needed? A community comes together.

Out here, being a hero isn't something done when times get tough - it's something practiced every day, in small ways, unnoticed. Caring for an aging, failing parent is heroic. Teaching an autistic child is. So is changing a tire for a stranded motorist. We've got a reputation for rugged individualism, sure; at the same time, when I've asked about the characteristics of the people in their area, at least one person in each of my 12 Vagabond focus communities has said: "These people are caring. They'll do anything for you." That doesn't sound like "heroism" and "heroic solutions" in the sense that McGregor is using the terms, but it sounds like heroism to me. And no doubt it is part of our middle western definition of community, writ in the dictionary of our hearts, not scrawled on some public wall.


MAY 12, 1998

The morning ritual. I rise about 5:00 a.m. and work at writing for two hours. At 7:00 a.m. I start my shower for work, dress as a businessman, sort of. Putting on coat and tie for me is very much like the priest putting on chasuble and stole. That symbolism. Then I drive to work, taking note of my morning thoughts along the way. In the parking lot at the printing plant, I sit for a bit while I record those observations. Some would look at me askance as I sit there, scribbling. Screw 'em if they can't take a joke.

This morning is no different. Blue sky and bright sun. A wonderful day in May. I will spoil it by going to work. The need to make a living keeps us on the straight and narrow, doesn't it? The owner is a good man, but a Republican. His challenge is to make money on his money. That is not my challenge - although I do want him to succeed. My challenge is the juggling, the puzzle, the making of something excellent where nothing had been before. It is different than the money impulse, isn't it?

A still pond. The call of the mourning dove. Morning dove. Good morning, dove. Morning, love.

Fairwater is a trim and tidy village. Mowed lawns. Colorful flower beds. Houses that are cared for. Ah, there - a rusted out automobile.

North of town - another field has sprouted, in green rows. Is it corn or beans? And there - another one. 'Tis the season.

The pattern of tractor and planter in the soil: this is some massive artwork, isn't it?

A new calf stands on new legs in the pasture of cows and donkeys just south of Five Corners. Farther north, a farm wife drives a tractor pulling a flat rack. She has covered her hair with a scarf. She is in the field picking up rocks. This is a task that never ends. You think you have them all, then over the winter some wicked elf spreads more on your fields. Is this a picture of hell?


MAY 13, 1998
Another fine day, after a little rain last night. The mourning dove flies from our driveway. The wind ruffles the surface of the pond. Blue sky. Here we go.

Great piles of stone have been dumped in the canning factory's field north of town. Perhaps they will put stone along the paths of the tires of their irrigation unit?

The field of peas is already thick green. There is a hint of corn in another field. Blossoms are off the trees in the orchard of the farmstead north of Carter Road. The old horse is out to the far end of his pasture this morning. This is not usual. What is it a portent of?

The fields south of Five Corners are still wet, still untilled. The weeds overtake them.

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