I'd like to tell you that I live two doors down from Chapel Hill's garbage dump, but you'd probably object. First off, you would say, we don't use that term anymore; it's landfill, please and thank you. Next, you would observe that, aside from the town's ubiquitous brown rollouts at curbside on Tuesdays and blue tubs on Wednesdays, there's very little evidence of garbage in this neighborhood. And my neighborhood, you'd conclude, could not be zoned for a landfill, located, as we are, about halfway between the police department and the Y.
"So, what's the joke?" you'd ask.
No joke: My elderly neighbor told me some years ago that he remembers when the ravine about 250 feet down our street was where Chapel Hill dumped its trash back in the '20s and '30s, when this area was country and, except for the bootlegger up the hill, uninhabited. When my wife and I bought our place 15 years ago, the woods just behind the house had a bright green carpet of lush growth below and a yellow-green canopy filtering the sun overhead. It was beautiful, I suppose, but both layers are gone now, victims of my hatchet and Roundup. The carpet, you see, was poison ivy; the canopy, kudzu. As I dug out the kudzu roots, I unearthed a piece of a bridle, a tin pot, a horseshoe, rusted hardware and machine parts I couldn't identify. When I described these to my neighbor, he told me that our two properties had been a farm worked by his forebears. His memories of the trash dump and the bootlegger followed. I sought his assurance that I wasn't living on a pile of garbage. No, he said, no, our end of the street is too flat; it's human nature to want to dump things down a ravine so they more or less disappear.
And now the dump itself has disappeared. With my dog, McKenzie, I have explored the side of the ravine, even digging a little with the heel of my boot to find little but a hefty bed of leaves, twigs and needles beneath the pines and oaks. My own woods will revert to that state someday, I suppose, but for now it is my "garden," my hobby, my pride and joy. I work hard, sweat much, drink beer, work some more.
I keep at it, thinking from time to time about who else may have been back here among these trees. There were the Peace family farmers, revenuers, fur trappers, traders and explorers. In 1792, landowner Matthew McCauley donated this area—100 acres in all, which certainly would have included my small woods—to help fund establishment of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Perhaps Indians camped here before McCauley's time; after him, soldiers, in butternut or blue. Whoever they were, whatever they were doing, they seem to have left me just enough metal parts from their lives, their endeavors, to let me know that they were here.