Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bottle Hoard

For some reason photographers love the stacks of green, brown and clear bottles we accumulated over seven years. The hoard invokes jokes like “That looks like my liver!” and concerns and critiques that “I hope you didn’t drink all those yourselves.” Those bottles are waiting for something. Maybe they’ll be mortared into luminous walls, or stacked to retain a bed of soil. Meanwhile, I’ve stopped collecting.

Recycled bottles in Austin are taken to a sorting facility with the rest of the curbside recycleables, but they are not melted down into new bottles or washed and reused. Glass is trucked to the FM 812 Resource Recovery Center (formerly called the FM 812 Landfill), joining a hoard that must make my stack look like a little shard. The City grinds up some of the glass and gives it away as “glass mulch,” free if you bag it yourself.  You can use it in landscaping instead of decomposed granite to add some color and sparkle, or pretend to be a circus performer who dances on broken glass.

I was surprised how fast our bottles accumulated. A big party could bring in over a hundred. At one point the yard had multiple stacks that got so high the bottles started rolling off the top. Now wine bottles are hidden in the storage shed, gallon jars line the chicken coop, and all the beer/soda/sparkling water bottles are in an eight foot long stack about fifteen bottles high and three deep against the shed.  The stacks are kept in place by gravity, a pattern of arrested flow. They would roll away if not buttressed by cinder blocks on one end and a wood scrap and concrete stairs on the other. The pattern has the grace of holding together without money and permanence. Bottle wall building requires a surprising amount of mortar, but stacking just takes time.

The front of our house is festooned with bottle cap snakes. Like our stacked bottles, the caps seem to index a habitual drinking habit (or at least obsessive collecting, or having too much time one your hands, or the willingness to waste it, or something not quite right). John Milkovisch’s Beer Can House in Houston is similarly armored with all that remained of what he drank over eighteen years, a shameless display of what had piled up through everyday consumption routines. The creator of the Mano Poderosa art yard, Mary Kraemer, dispels the drinking stigma by pointing out that the half-buried blue bottles that line her garden labyrinth come from the Ecology Action recycling center. The glinting bottles drink in the sunlight, concentrating its presence in the garden.  

Although our bottle stacks are so orderly they are photogenic, the bottle pile signals disorders like hoarding or alcoholism, bad attachments to forms of waste or getting wasted. As living garbage, the bottles are filled with danger and promise. They are tiny habitats that might have been filled with beer yeast and bacteria, or where mosquitoes might breed (something code enforcers scrutinize). They are at once cast-off traces and unrealized projects. The stacks reveal and embody the slow, steady piling up of routine desires and immanent possibilities. What would your bottle hoard look like, if you saved them for a few years? What would you do with them all?


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