The Art of Junk

The Art of Junk

The Art of Junk 640 480 Amber Burke

A Love-song to New Mexico’s Litter

The refrigerators and metal desks at preposterous angles in the arroyo. The wheelless cars, their patinas pale, sun-scraped, their hoods agape, by the rio. The stained-glass green shards of beer bottles glimmering on the side of the mesa. The tattered trampolines outside the adobes on the llano, torn mesh siding fluttering like batwings. Here in my new home of New Mexico, junk jots the grand landscape.

I am not complaining. The opposite: I fault the artists who stand with their backs to the piles of old tires to render the mountains without what remains of the mines; I pity the photographers who duck to keep the unused telephone lines out of their frames or wait to snap their pictures of the tarantula until it migrates away from the tumbleweeds of tangled barbed wire. They are Edward Curtises, doctoring the clocks out of tribal lodges and missing more interesting truths. These artists are worse off, to my mind, for idealizing nature, for pretending this land is all sublime, that there is nothing in it of us and our detritus, that there isn’t something worth capturing in that junk and its juxtapositions.

But then, I am from North Dakota, a state where a practicality reigns, and even the nicest trampoline in a yard would signify a dangerous tendency toward fancy, where scrupulousness is the rule, and any lapse in yard care would mean a moral or two is failing. I exaggerate, but only slightly, for there, I’ve known an exercise bike left on show on a balcony to occasion a conversation after church; a boat parked on the street overnight to earn phone calls from neighbors; clothes hung out to dry in the front yard to serve as no less than summons to police.

And so I am struck by the junk here, which I find more beautiful–and infinitely more provocative–than any intentional ornaments. Its challenges are not unlike those posed by any Found Art housed in a museum: to flout our expectations of what we are liable to see somewhere special, to point out the strangeness of the limits we place on what we are willing to admire. Why not admire the smooth, white curve of porcelain, the just-so drain-holes of a urinal atop a pedestal? Why not admire the shovel’s strong right angle between shaft and scoop, its shadows accordioning over the gallery wall? Why not, then, admire how the snow balances in ridges on the precipitous metal diagonals of a felled antenna, or the sharp dark triangle cut in the lid of a doomed tin can that rust is turning the exact same shade of red as the land?

I see the junk I am talking about during the walks I take from my rented casita in Coyote, in the Red Rock area of Rio Arriba, population 120, give or take. In winter, I walk mid-afternoons, the warmest time of day. In the spring, I don’t walk much because of the knee-deep mud. In the summer and fall, when I have the light and the trees still have their leaves, I walk after dinner.

Sometimes I head south, where an old Ford banks the ford, doing its part to prevent erosion; but, more often, I take the longer walk through the chamisa and cane cholla to the red mesa that fashions the northern border of the property, following a trail of odd odds and ends. I walk over a patch where I was once startled to hear the squeak of springs beneath my feet. (I looked down and saw a mattress half-buried in the earth.) Farther along, I pass a black high-heeled shoe, in the witchy strapped style of the 30’s, the tongue of its insole curled and moldering. Near the mesa, there is a broken record player, of tan plastic, in the dirt. (I’ve lifted it; nothing inside but spiders.) Each jumps out of the landscape like a clue. What are they doing here?  These anatopic objects jostle like those in surrealist paintings: like the ball, the glove, the broken bust in Chirico’s Song of Love, daring the viewer to make a story or to solve a puzzle: What has the mattress to do with the shoe to do with the record player?

I climb the mesa carefully, stepping on the solid places in the scree. On the plateau, there are collapsed canvas tents, broken votives, toy car parts are scattered among piles of chert—the rock shavings left by the littering hunters who, in centuries past, used to sit up here and carve arrowheads as they waited for the mule deer and the elk. I come up here, and keep my eyes to the ground, because maybe lightning will re-strike: once, after a storm, I found on this ledge an obsidian birdpoint arrowhead, so gleamingly clean it was as if it been dropped just a moment ago on the red dirt.

On another part of the plateau, tucked into a niche in a white boulder is a small blue tin. The first time I saw it, I thought of Alice in Wonderland and opened it expecting a present: a bon-bon, sweetmeats, toffee someone unseen had left for me. In it: white ashes flecked with gray bones. I closed the tin, closed in myself an impulse to free the ashes to the wind, and tucked it back in place.

Whenever I am up here, I have to remind myself to look up, to look beyond what humans have left behind, to Nature’s messes: the white rock that houses the tin of ashes is one boulder among many white boulders that look to have been dropped from the moon. The distant mesas are mostly red, with yellow or white streaks that look spray-painted. At their bases are piles of soft scree interspersed with heaps of large rocks, many cracked in half as if they had been hurled by angry gods. Above these mesas, clouds tend to pile, like white heads blocking the blue screen of the sky, until the sun sets with a silent explosion of radioactive peaches and pinks.

It is a striking place, and so I live here, thirty minutes from gas and bread and milk, and an hour from anything that could be called a city, and make fires in the woodstove for heat and lug in jugs of water to drink. There is a well, but the red rocks tinge the water with uranium and other unpotable minerals. I shower rarely, since showers leave me covered with a fine layer of silt; the white towels I dry myself with turn pink. Sometimes the faucets don’t work because of how quickly nature dams the filters with mud and leaves.

Nature, my nearest neighbor, can be heedless, inconsiderate; she does not dim her lights or muffle her sounds. Nights, the stars are an unswept mess. (Though they have been there for eons, they don’t rust like tin; they keep their aluminum glint.) When the moon is full, it shines like a headlight through the bedroom window, and the coyotes yowl like car alarms. Toads do their ribbeting, crickets their cricketing, and the birds will not countenance late risers, so I sleep with earplugs.

Some of nature’s litter varies with the seasons. In the fall, the cottonwoods lose their leaves and, after thunderstorms, shed their branches like last year’s antlers. Tarantulas migrate en masse, over the dirt, up the outhouse walls, across the street, Halloween tchotchkes gone rogue. Winters, a thousand bulldozers in the sky dump down snow from their blades in a great white heap, and when it’s time for the snow to melt, icicles crash down from the overhanging roof and shatter on the flagstones below.

Come spring, when the clouds spill rain with abandon, the mud is primordial: to step outside is to pancake the bottom of one’s shoes with red sludge. Feathers protrude from the mud like tossed spears; the occasional snakeskin, thick as my wrist, curls; bones abound: femurs with their fisted heads, vertebrae big as cupholders. Perhaps these were transported here in the beaks of hawks or the mouths of coyotes, but they seem to be belched up by the mud, as if the earth itself made a meal of the mammal. The spring rains clean the windows just as birds are hatching, and I hear startling, sickening thuds: finch chicks fling themselves at the corner windows and drop to the ground. Sometimes they get up; sometimes they don’t.

The wind that starts in spring, so fierce I expect the stars to rattle like cans, does not stop until well into summer, by which time the land has dried, and it is so hot the rattlesnakes want to come inside for the coolness of the tile. Then the wind becomes a Dustbowl wind. In through the screens and cracks, red dust comes, accrues, on books, in books, in the lidded pots in the pantry, turning new things old, white things red. The upside: the dust makes the windows dirty enough that the birds do not fly into them.


Given the eagerness of the summer wind to yank your papers from hands and blow bottles off the porch table, I am beginning to understand some of the rubbish about, especially in combination with culture. If your yard has turned to your storage space, as yards often do here, because of the shortage of closets and basements and attics in the old adobes and the new trailers, the unsentimental wind will part you from the possessions you weren’t ready to say goodbye to but didn’t want in the house. If you intend to burn your trash, you might find out you must cancel your planned bonfire because of the wilder fires. The wind will undo your burn pile faster than the fire danger wanes. Moreover, it is work to pack up and tote off a refrigerator to that distant dump; it is less work to tip that refrigerator from the back of your truck into a ditch.

Throughout Rio Arriba county, there are burglaries:  you might leave your place, lock it up, and come back to find the door open, your belongings scattered. Missing: your generator; your tools; your plates; everything that blinks.  And, after this happens once or twice, you give up and go. You forget about husbanding your things; you let them end up where they will.

But I can’t help thinking there is something more; that the owner of the dilapidating truck is somehow pleased by it, as I am. Sees it, next to the rock, next to the river, among the cacti, as being rather like his mind, a place where unrelated and unequal thoughts arrange themselves side by side (What shall I do for dinner? What shall I do with my life?), where loves of seemingly different orders (for example, for a beloved, a cat, a candlestick) all end up matching in magnitude: a statue, a glove, and a ball on set on the same picture plane.

Perhaps the trampoline makes time visible: a flat black hourglass. It could even signal acceptance of the inevitability of all declines, of our own declines: the trampoline is me. Or not. It could be the opposite, an offering to entropy: take it, not me?


I could be wrong. I have conducted only the most desultory comparative studies. I have gone nowhere with metal detectors. Perhaps there is not more junk spread over the landscape here than there is in any less populous place; perhaps it is simply not hidden from view. In the Great Plains, for example, where the grass grows thick as fur, obscuring the earth, how could you find an arrowhead? In the humid jungles of Central America where foliage and moss grow quickly, or the Middle East, where sand dunes migrate, how could you find a city? Here, what gets buried by the dust the rains excavate, and much of what we leave behind stays exposed atop the bare between patches of sage and clumps of grass that do their best to grow, but cannot hide everything, cannot erase the past.

Though I throw dinner scraps outside, for the rabbits and the finches, I try to keep a hold of my things when the wind kicks up. On days I feel guilty for everything I have taken from the earth, and for living in a house with bird-murdering windows, I pick up the empty cigarette packs, lighters, beer cans, and bottles cast off along the side of the highway by those for whom littering is apparently just one vice among many.

I am less eager to bag the record player that houses the spiders or the shoe warped and eaten by mold, to haul out the mattress that is home to the mice, to chisel out the truck that banks the ford. It seems to me that museum Nature, from whom we’ve taken so much and given so little that is helpful, ought to keep a few things of ours she has taken for her own collection, and we ought to bless these acquisitions with our attention.

Header photograph © Amber Burke.

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