The landfill is one of three hubs on which life on Nantucket rotates around--the post office and the grocery store the two others. Stay long enough at any of the three and you are sure to run into everyone you know, including maybe some you are trying to avoid.
In early January, cars line up at the dump with Christmas trees strapped to the roofs, ready to be turned into mulch for flower beds. In the summer, when the wind is blowing in from the west, you can smell the dump before you see it. In October, when scallop season opens, folks drive out to the dump to add their spent scallop sells to the ever-growing pile, guarded by gulls. In the spring, when people open their homes for the year, they clean out the dust and last season’s clothes, and bring offerings to the take it or leave it.
There’s something about the dump, and the take it or leave it swap shack in particular, that brings the Nantucketers out in droves. The shack is even shingled, resembling a small cottage, but the difference between this house all the others is that one wall has been replaced by an electric garage door, to allow a front-end loader to clean it out weekly.
If the landfill itself is a windswept wasteland, the take it or leave it is a treasure trove. Call it spring cleaning, call it the joy of tidying up, but the take it or leave it is swarmed with treasure hunters, nearly every time of year. Nantucketers have always lived for the thrill of the hunt, but we’ve moved on from whales in search of lightly used furniture and clothing. There are certain books I see again and again in heavy rotation at the dump, and certain authors I’ve pledged literary allegiance to, and always rescue from the weekly purge.
I’ve been picking through things other people left behind as long as I can remember. Over on the Outer Cape, where I grew up, many trips out of Provincetown were bookended by visits to the Truro Swap Shop. If you thought about something long enough--a certain book, for instance--it would seemingly materialize at the dump, dropped off by someone you saw every day but whose name you could never remember.
On Nantucket, where most of the items sold at the shops in town are only within reach to many year-rounders during end of season sales, people take great pride in crafting whole wardrobes, even outfitting entire homes, from dump finds. This old Yankee lust for thrift is not relegated to any income bracket--you’ll see brand new cars parked next to rusted-out pickup trucks at the dump.
On an island with finite space, what happens to our trash, and how we can produce less of it is a question that you are forced to reckon with weekly as you haul your own trash to the dump. Huge green hills, once mountains of trash, now capped landfill cells, serve as a reminder of our refuse. Gulls circle, looking for something to eat. And people circle the take it or leave it, hoping to find the one thing they never knew they needed.