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One of the most recent volleys in a long-running moral critique of consumption, pollution, and imperialism comes from Mt. Everest, where uneasy scholars and activists have long decried the detritus left on the world’s tallest peak. In 1963 National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop was part of the first American team to scale Everest, and he described the mountain as “the world’s highest junk yard.” Indeed, climbers ascending the mountain have discarded oxygen tanks, tattered tents, food containers, and a helicopter, and dead climbers have been left on the peak since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in an ascent attempt in 1924. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled the mountain for the first time in 1953, and Hillary later said “I must admit, when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them. That was nearly forty years ago and in those days hardly anyone had even heard of conservation.” When the New York Times examined the massive growth of tourism to Nepal in 1978, Hillary lamented that the Everest region “is now an ecological slum. Tins and trash clutter up the paths and campsites. … The traditional culture is being crushed by the insidious economic machine.”
Last week the head of Nepal’s mountaineering association spearheaded the charge to address the most repulsive of this trash when he took aim on “large amounts of feces and urine” left on the world’s tallest mountain. The Washington Post amplified the rhetoric over human waste on the peak when it repeated Grayson Schaffer’s 2013 description of Everest as a “fecal time bomb,” quite possibly the most colorful description ever provided for a potential ecological disaster. By various counts, over 5000 climbers have relieved themselves on Everest and left “pyramids of human excrement.” In 2012 a Washington Post column by Schaffer had sounded the same jarring image of the Everest base camp outhouses “continuously overflowing with waste.” Last year Outside’s Lauren Steele reported on climbers’ longstanding practice of defecating into glacier crevasses, and with mountain warming “the glacier—and the waste entombed within it—is slowly making its way back toward Base Camp,” where climbers drink the melt water.
A 1992 study found that the digging of small pits to hold human feces at Everest sites had “resulted in the creation of `moonscapes,’” and the two-day walk trail from the Lukla airport to the Everest base camp was referred to as “the `garbage’ or `toilet paper’ trail because of the quantities of refuse generated by trekking groups and individuals.” A 2014 study of Everest trash suggested that each year up to 26,500 pounds of human excrement is deposited on the mountain, and while much of this is transported from base camps to pits at a nearby frozen lake bed the space is beginning to run out.
Elizabeth Mazzolini’s wonderful 2012 analysis of trash on Everest examines the mountain as a historical and cultural marker that evokes a range of contradictions and ambiguities: once a symbol of empire conquered by Great Britain, Everest has often loomed as a symbol of unspoiled nature in its rawest state, even as its ascent today risks appearing to be degraded by uber-wealthy thrill-seeking individualists leaving behind a trail of discards. Mazzolini quite convincingly underscores that feces secures a distinctive status in the pantheon of litter gracing Everest’s slopes, which she examines as a contested terrain on which the meanings of refuse and waste are disputed.
The trope of Everest as an undifferentiated “junkyard” does not capture the repulsiveness of human waste or the astounding image of “mountains” of excrement piled onto Everest, so excreta makes an especially rich platform for a variety of lamentations about materiality and waste. For instance, the Chicago Tribune’s Rex Huppke intoned that “We took the highest mountain on Earth, one of the world’s most beautiful wonders and arguably the hardest place to access short of the moon, and we conquered it, and then we thought, `Hey, this seems like a cool place to poop.’ … We befoul everything we touch.” In 2011 The Stir’s Lindsay Mannering echoed that the specter of excrement undid her imagination of Everest as untouched wilderness: “When I think of Mount Everest, I think of serene vistas, clean, white snow, and air so crisp you could crack it. Turns out, it’s not exactly as pristine as I’d imagined. The world’s tallest mountain is covered in poop.”
Much of this rhetoric is a shallow effort to shock us with the human defilement of one of the world’s most pristine places: the most remote and undisturbed of all earthly places is fouled by our most symbolically offensive waste. This does not ignore the genuine environmental impacts of pollution on Everest or climbers’ responsibility for ethical environmental stewardship. Instead, it illuminates how we construct various forms of “waste” and how they intersect with our fluid notions of nature, tourism, and consumption. Of course, elimination is a universal reality on mountain climbs, backpacking treks, and moments that otherwise do not include sanitary facilities, but in these moments removed from toilets and sewer systems it is difficult to perpetuate our tendency to imagine human deposits as “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” Everest climbers are now required to bring down roughly 18 pounds of waste and their own personal refuse; however, hauling refuse back down the peak risks delaying climbers and increasing the already-significant chance of death. Expeditions removed 5000 pounds of trash from the mountain in 1994, and subsequent expeditions have brought down tons of refuse from the peak, but concrete waste management policies for Everest continue to be developed.
Climbers and backpackers have long practiced systematic “poop protocols” governing the disposal of human waste, and parks including Mount Rainier, Mt. Shasta, and Yosemite all have mandatory policies that all human feces must be packed out of the park. The challenge of dealing with the call of nature in the midst of nature is common to many distant places. In 2012, for instance, the Alaska Dispatch estimated that 65 tons of frozen human feces rested on Mt. McKinley (a.k.a., Denali), though the park now uses Clean Mountain Cans to pack out human waste. Research on melting glaciers in the Denali National Park has found that in 15-25 years feces with surviving bacteria will begin to re-emerge from glaciers; the danger of those bacteria to most humans are modest in such a huge ecosystem, but the remains pose dramatic aesthetic and sensory violations that break from an ethic of being good stewards for the environment.
Climate change lurks in the background of many of these discussions on refuse in the most remote “natural” destinations. For instance, Mazzolini underscores that the effects of global warming on Everest could be vastly more threatening to Everest than the refuse scattered on its slopes by lucrative tourist expeditions. Melting snow on Everest has revealed more than a half-century of discards once concealed by snow, so the refuse now hazards appearing to be a problem because of its literal visibility and aesthetic violation of Everest’s fantasized purity.
Canada’s Cirque of the Unclimbables faces a similar half-century record of human waste at the base camp at the foot of some of the Northwest Territory’s most storied climbs. However, when a pit toilet was installed at the Fairy Meadows base camp in 2000 it met with resistance, with Mark Synnott reporting that “for some, the three-foot-square toilet and shoulder-high privacy screens are more unsightly than the turds.” Opponents of the project argued that architecture undermined the appeal of the distant Northwest Territory and signaled the inevitable march of capital into the backcountry, since in the most remote reaches of British Columbia “toilets eventually paved the way for full-scale lodges.”
The disgusting power of elimination is always heightened by its literal presence; for instance, much of 19th and 20th century sanitary reform literature was driven by the material and aesthetic unpleasantness of outhouses, with observers routinely engaging in a sensory rhetoric about the abhorrence of excrement and excretion itself. Perhaps no place could be more “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” than the slopes of Everest, so it is perhaps easy to ignore the scatter of oxygen bottles and tent fragments littering the distant mountain, but the evocative image of a colossal peak covered with human waste is hard to evade. Nevertheless, the Western attention to Everest’s littering risks evading profound sanitary issues in our midst and leaving our own human waste management practices and technologies unexamined. Everest is fantasized as one of the world’s most pristine and undefiled places, so its pollution seems vastly more morally reprehensible than such refuse might in most of urban America, which seems far removed from the notion of “nature.” Tourists and climbers on Mt. Everest certainly should be expected to behave ethically and practice responsible waste management, but much of the discussion on Everest’s human waste deposits constructs waste in powerful sensory ways that are heightened by their placement on the apparently pure white snow of the world’s tallest mountain.
Barry C. Bishop
1963 How we climbed Everest. National Geographic 124(4): 477-508.
Brent Bishop and Chris Naumann
1996 Mount Everest: Reclamation of the World’s Highest Junk Yard. Mountain Research and Development 16(3):323-327. (subscription access)
1978 Himalayas Lure Tourists To a Forbidding Kingdom. The New York Times 29 May 1978: 10.
Alton C. Byers and Kamal Banskota
1992 Environmental Impacts of Back-country Tourism on Three Sides of Everest. In World Heritage Twenty Years Later, edited by Jim Thorsell, pp. 105-122. The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland.
1995 A Report on Human Waste Management in Sagarmatha National Park. Unpublished report, Environmental Program, University of Vermont and School for International Training, Kathmandu, Nepal.
2012 The Garbage Question on Top of the World. In Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice, eds Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini, pp. 147-168. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The New York Times
1983 Nepal Fears Mount Everest Could Become Pile of Trash. The New York Times
09 Feb 1983: A4.
2000 Climbing Mount Everest: Postcolonialism in the Culture of Ascent. In Postcolonizing the Commonwealth: Studies in Literature and Culture, edited by Rowland Smith, pp. 51-73. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario.
2012 Tourism Meets the Sacred: Khumbu Sherpa Place-based Spiritual Values in Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal. In Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture, eds. Bas Verschuuren, Jeffrey McNeely, Robert Wild, and Gonzalo Oviedo, pp.88-97. Earthscan, Washingotn, D.C.
Gülnur Tumbat and Russell W. Belk
2011 Marketplace Tensions in Extraordinary Experiences. Journal of Consumer Research 38(1):42-61. (subscription access)
Climber with CMC can image from Coley Gentzel, National Park Service
Everest base camp 2008 image from emlfaulk
Everest base camp toilet tent image from Asian Trekking
Detroit’s 8 Mile Road is perhaps today best known as the thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood where Marshall Mathers grew up. Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile told his story of life adjoining the roadway that has often loomed as the line separating White and Black Detroit. The neighborhood’s residents and decline have routinely been reduced to shallow clichés, like USA Today’s 2002 conclusion that “8 Mile Road remains what it was three decades ago: a catch basin for the city’s human flotsam”; in 2006 The Guardian called 8 Mile Road “America’s most notorious highway, the road that divides black from white.” Such rhetoric provides little insight into Detroit, but it does underscore the emotion if not irrationality that shapes how we imagine landscapes along and across color lines. Many of these landscapes today are in ruins or are prosaic declining spaces like stretches of 8 Mile Road, so they are easy to ignore or reduce to shallow analyses. Nevertheless, viewed simply as dehistoricized ruins these places risk being divorced from a legion of racist inequalities that have shaped the contemporary American city. Read the rest of this entry
On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln went to the theatre for the evening, a night that would end in his murder and death the following morning. Lincoln’s pockets contained a handful of prosaic and idiosyncratic things: two pairs of eye glasses, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a Confederate banknote and nine newspaper clippings. The things in Lincoln’s pockets were perhaps a chance assemblage, like the $62.00 and a plane ticket in Kurt Cobain’s pocket when he died in April, 1994. Those scatters of things in Lincoln and Cobain’s pockets occupied perhaps the most intimate of all clothing spaces that we generally reserve for our most essential and meaningful things. We tend to see pockets as harboring a special class of prosaic yet consequential things even as the pockets themselves claim a distinctively intimate but unexamined status.
Few spaces could be more familiar yet more unremarked upon than pockets. Clothing pockets are a presence of sorts, but like edges of an excavation unit their material definition may be made by their tangible boundaries and the things in them rather than the vacuum that is perhaps the actual pocket. Pockets are distinctively intimate since they are stitched into our public garments yet conceal our bodies, and they hold a narrow range of small things like coins, keys, wallets, phones, makeup, lighters, and similar objects that for various reasons are held close to our bodies and accessible to our hands. There are some idiosyncratic but illuminating insights into privacy, place, and self that can be made based on an “excavation” of pockets and the cargo that finds refuge in them. Read the rest of this entry
While most of our cats are curled up on the couch, at least a handful of them appear to be lounging in stylish, creative, and even well-designed furnishings that would put many couches to shame. This new wave of cat furnishings goes beyond the commonplace cat tower or scratch pad covered in non-descript carpet fragments that bored your cat within an hour. Even the most indifferent cat would be curious about a host of astounding feline furnishings with massive turning wheels, sky towers, cat beds, toilet towers, neo-futurist scratching pads, cat tunnel sofas, and wonderful pieces of cat-climbing sculpture. For those of us concerned about design, LazyBonezz’ Metropolitan pet bunk bed (in ebony or fire red) is typical of the new goods that will accommodate your pampered cat (or trim dog) in a sleek wood and stainless steel bunk bed accessed by skid-resistant steps and outfitted with microfiber cushions. A precious few cats are even more fortunate to have the run of houses designed to turn people spaces into three-dimensional volumes accessible to cats via ceiling-suspended walkways and climbing walls.
It would be easy to dismiss cat design and high-style cat products simply as misplaced affluence, but focusing purely on pet spending ignores the ways our pets profoundly shape our own household materiality. The fascinating Hauspanther web page inventories many of these high-style cat consumer goods, arguing that “good design can enhance the way we live with cats, improving our lives and the lives of our beloved feline companions. By paying attention to the design of objects and environments, we can create living spaces that accommodate the natural instincts of cats – keeping them happy, healthy and well behaved – without compromising our own sense of style and comfort.” Read the rest of this entry
Perhaps all scholarship inevitably hazards descending into stale convention or becoming an insular academic pursuit. One of the most novel recent movements to unsettle archaeological conventions is “punk archaeology,” which is perhaps most clearly illustrated in William Caraher, Kostis Kourelis, and Andrew Reinhard’s edited 2014 collection Punk Archaeology. A fascinating Society for Historical Archaeology session last week examined punk archaeology, especially the public dimensions that Lorna Richardson has most closely examined. Punk archaeologists are leery of being narrowly defined, but a punk research perspective typically takes aim on “mainstream” archaeology: that is, in archaeology and many other disciplines the notion of punk seeks to transform scholarship that is normative, predictable, easily ignored, apolitical, emotionless, overly academic, or simply dull. Punk archaeology embraces a critical and compelling assault on unquestioned scholarly traditions and the academy, and it drew a roomful of people at the SHA conference and has received plenty of press coverage. Nevertheless, it may deliver death rites to a stereotyped mainstream and academy that have already disappeared or never existed in the first place.
Simply labeling any scholarship punk is a bit of a rhetorical maneuver, a point made by Zack Furniss’ Punkademics and also underscored in fandom scholarship that has contemplated the relationship between fans and academics since the 1980’s (cf. Matt Hills’ “fan-as-intellectual,” Henry Jenkins’ “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” blog, and Tanya Cochran’s study of “scholar-fandom”). A punk archaeology risks posing a clumsy contrast between, on the one hand, the notion of punk as spontaneous, experiential, anti-intellectual, and anarchic and, on the other hand, the stereotype of academic archaeologists as insular and unimaginative squares committed to jargon and tweed jackets. The line between academics and everyday people has long been much more complicated and frequently violated than we are often willing to acknowledge; there certainly are some academics committed to deep-seated scholarly traditions and clueless about The Simpsons, but there is little evidence that most academics are indifferent to everyday life and popular culture or that popular artists are not themselves intellectuals. Read the rest of this entry
Archaeologists are routinely flummoxed by the idiosyncratic dimensions of material things; we seem unable in most instances to capture the personal histories and inchoate emotions invested in apparently prosaic things. Nearly all of us have random objects or souvenirs from childhood trips, mundane things associated with life events, or objects passed down to us, and when we are not present to tell those stories they are impossible to capture archaeologically. A novel kickstarter project proposes to ensure these individual and idiosyncratic meanings remain literally attached to things. Bemoir proposes to capture oral histories and other data sources about an object’s history and record them via near field technology. For instance, your grandfather could relate the tale of a well-loved teddy bear, you could include pictures of him with it, and you could add a background history on the bear itself; similarly, you could give somebody a piece of art, attach an interview with the artist, and include a story about the gift-giving occasion that you share via Bemoir’s web page and app.
On the one hand, the appeal of Bemoir is its capacity to relate utterly idiosyncratic histories told in the vehicle of everyday things and oral memory. The archaeological record and material world are certainly populated by myriad things with such histories that we know in only cursory ways (e.g., “this was my mom’s watch”), or they are lodged only in our own minds or simply lost over time. For instance, I hand-write nearly everything like this blog post in journals before transferring the text to digital form. That perhaps harbors some philosophical insight into the process of writing (compare Tim Ingold’s defense of hand writing), and I like the literal sensation of a pen nib on paper and the visual dimension of seeing and rearranging text. However, in large part I do so because I have a wonderful Waterman fountain pen. In pure functional terms, the pen is easy enough to describe in its physical composition and decorative style, and any modestly skilled archaeologist would deduce its age and original price and assess the symbolism of the Waterman firm and hand-writing in the 21st century. Such analysis is the nuts-and-bolts of archaeology, but such descriptive details would rarely appear in the oral histories of things that Bemoir aspires to produce. Read the rest of this entry
In 1970, African-American engineer Adel Allen testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights about his experience as one of suburban St. Louis’ earliest Black residents. Allen circumspectly assessed the police services he initially received in his otherwise White suburb of Kirkwood, concluding that “I think we got more police protection than we required when I first moved there. I don’t know if they were protecting me or protecting someone from me.” Allen related experiences with the police that ring familiar today, indicating that “I don’t think there’s a black man in South St. Louis County that hasn’t been stopped at least once if he’s been here more than 2 weeks. . . .There’s an almost automatic suspicion that goes along with being black. . . . I’ve been stopped, searched, and I don’t mean searched in the milder sense, I mean laying across the hood of a car. And then told after they found nothing that my tail light bulb was burned out, or I should have dimmed my lights, something like that.”
Adel Allen’s experience underscores the tense, long-term relationship between police and the color line, and perhaps it is tempting to conclude that his story might now be considered a historical aberration. However, not far from Kirkwood over a half-century after Allen moved to St. Louis, Michael Brown’s death has complicated the American imagination of public space and the color line. That landscape is perhaps most uncomfortably evoked by the otherwise prosaic suburban street where Brown’s body lay for nearly four hours after he was shot August 9th. The stretch of Canfield Drive where Brown died has become part of an informal memorial landscape, with an array of idiosyncratic things placed along the street by a steady stream of visitors. The spectacle of Brown’s body on the non-descript street captures much of the tensions with local police, but the spontaneous memorialization of the Canfield Drive landscape—and resistance to it–provides an especially interesting insight into the ways we discuss race and public space.
The memorialization of the spot where Michael Brown fell illuminates the Black experience of state racism and extrajudicial punishment, but some observers want Canfield Drive to again become invisible. Many commentators simply rationalize Brown’s shooting, and some reduce the August encounter to an anomaly in an otherwise equitable society. Asking how society should remember this stretch of pavement beyond the aftermath of Brown’s death—or if we should publicly remember it at all–asks how (or if) we should materialize landscapes of racism and death. Read the rest of this entry
A host of photographers, community historians, and self-styled urban critics have produced a fascinating visualization of the architectural detritus of cities, industry, and various failings of modernity. That flood of so-called “ruin porn” has unleashed a complex breadth of artistic creativity as well as anxieties about the social implications of gaze and how we see, photograph, and imagine architectural remains. Much of the uneasiness with ruin photography laments the camera’s gaze as a selective and seemingly distorted representation of our visual and physical experience of an objective reality: that is, the implication is that a photographer frames landscapes in selective ways, and the realities confirmed by our eyes are somehow corrupted by digital filters, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR), and camera lens filters that toy with color balance, light intensity, and nearly every dimension of a photographic image. This somewhat awkwardly ignores our fascination with ruins and ruin images; it suggests that we should privilege how our eyes and bodies experience ruin landscapes; and it perhaps implies that the only “authentic” representations of ruins can come from residents and people who can somehow lay claim to ruined places’ narratives.
The visual and physical gaze on ruins is now being further complicated by the emergence of drone videos documenting ruin landscapes. For instance, in 2014 British filmmaker Danny Cooke visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone to film the remains of the 1986 nuclear accident for a 60 Minutes report. Chernobyl is one of the world’s most intensively photographed ruin sites, a uniquely captivating abandonment in which a whole community apparently dropped everything in place. The site is used by various observers to evoke the resilience of nature, underscore humans’ consequential impact on public health and the environment, and illuminate a state’s enormous arrogance, so it is an enormously magnetic dark tourism site (nearly 10,000 people visit the exclusion zone each year, see a really interesting analysis of this tourism on The Bohemian Blog). Read the rest of this entry
In 1918 over 500 million people were infected by the influenza virus, and its lethality–between 20 and 100 million people died—reaches well beyond AIDS, the Plague, and even the Great War itself. It is not difficult to comprehend the terror induced by viral disease: we live in a historical moment in which some infectious disease can be rapidly spread aboard airlines and cruise ships; the media and a host of online outlets fan anxieties about epidemic diseases; and popular culture delivers warnings about apocalypse, zombies, and doomsday preparations. In contrast to the European battlefield in 1918, it was enormously difficult to imagine the material form and aesthetics of a virus that moved invisibly and left as its material wake broken and dead bodies. Viruses are terrifying because they are so hard to imagine as concrete things, so we spend much of our energy imagining how we can perceive and protect ourselves against an unseen specter. Read the rest of this entry
The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees. The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape. Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.
Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space. Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites. Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences. Read the rest of this entry