Henry David Thoreau, in Walden’s chapter “Economy,” writes of American naturalist William Bartram’s experience with a Native-American tradition called a busk.
Bartram writes that every so often a tribe “would collect all their worn out clothes and other despicable things, sweep and cleanse their houses, squares, and the whole town of their filth, which with all the remaining grain and other old provisions they cast together into one common heap, and consume it with fire.”
Thinking of Bartram, I toss Bam-Bam in the trash. Bedrock’s little troglodyte is moldy and, like a cross-dresser from the Pleistocene era, he wears Pebbles’ leopard-print cave woman suit. On eBay a much nicer example is getting no bids, even at 99 cents. So it’s on to the landfill with Barney and Betty Rubble’s only begotten son, for future archeologists to find. What will they make of America’s mid-’60s fetish for cave man nostalgia?
As we creep toward the Season of Giving I began to worry about what we’re going to do with all of our nation’s belongings when no one wants them any longer. The fading “Flintstones” franchise is only the tip of an unmeltable plastic iceberg.
In late spring I took scenic roads, not gridlocked and boring Interstate 81, to visit Virginia Military Institute. My memory of the trip to and from Lexington is largely of storage facilities, even in the smallest town or in the middle of nowhere at all. As I roared by these places my mind’s eye dreamed up nearly forgotten icons of once-popular tastes and pastimes, packed away in clammy darkness: a forgotten army of Shirley Temple dolls, mountain ranges of baseball cards, skyscraper stacks of Milton Bradley games, a forest’s worth of Ethan Allen furniture no millennial would ever own. Also include 1970s Spanish colonial stereo cabinets, Golden Books, Pee Wee Herman and his ancestor, Howdy Doody, a ghost of pop culture who faded away the year of my birth.
Alas, Captain Kangaroo. Who mourns for Hoss Cartwright?
For a while I made a little side income buying and selling inexpensive collectibles, mostly old toys and pop-culture items. Now the market for these has entered full-on collapse. In the mid-’90s, I made most of the down payment on a house after parting with a dozen rare 1960s G.I. Joes. Today that same lot of toys would buy me, if I hustled a bit and listed the items well, a weekend at the Jefferson. I’m too poor to deal in real antiques, but I understand from those in the trade that they are having trouble, too. Many items simply won’t sell at any price. What today I cannot sell goes to the thrift store, where I increasingly notice storage containers by the back door.
As I drive around our storage-building nation, my sneaking suspicion is that families guiltily stash Mee-maw and Pee-paw’s treasures out of sight. In rural areas it’s hard to see why: Families have room to build a shed or even a barn. Then again, that would be a daily reminder of ancestors’ lives so, off with Great Aunt Ethel’s paint-by-numbers seascapes and Viewmaster reels of Luray Caverns, where they can molder in an orange locker beside the four-lane.
Perhaps it’s remotely possible that dopamine-addicted youngsters may one day look up from the hundreds of texts and photos they send daily on their phones and decide: “Hey, if I don’t end up under a bridge after the old folks finish wrecking the global economy and planetary ecosystem, I really would like to decorate my 700-square-foot micro-home with Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs and crocheted toilet-roll covers. What’s the combination to mom and dad’s unit at Containers ’R’ Us?”
If that describes the kids in your family, take the considerable monthly rent from the storage fees and go on vacation, after you burn all the contents in a busk to honor your ancestors. While the gradual loss of family possessions and the memories they embody bothers me at a fundamental level, there are things we really could pile up and burn, en masse, reviving the old tradition.
Start with the holiday urge to buy things. Give someone an experience, instead of an item or a gift card for buying more stuff they don’t need. Put a note in a card, preferably a handmade one, with the note, “Bearer gets dinner and drinks of their choice at [fill in their favorite restaurant].” If you do this for a young person, also put away your phone when you take them, and engage them in personal conversation so they don’t look at their own phone. Or shop.
The under 30s who don’t want our stuff may well lead us to a light and nimble future based upon collecting experiences. A post-consumerist America would pump less carbon dioxide into the air, use less landfill space, and reuse and re-purpose in ways that the kids’ Depression-era great-grandparents would consider thrifty and all-American. Keep a few treasured items to give to the next generation, but only to those who learn the story behind them. I’ve slowly been doing that with things like photos of a war-hero uncle and small pieces of furniture my parents loved. I wait until a grandkid is really settled and ready, and then tell the story behind the item.
So get busy. Will your descendants really want your Princess Di Beanie Baby?
If you really think you can’t live without one, Etsy has them priced between $2,000 and $175,000. Get out your credit card. Or box of matches. Have a blessed holiday season. S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
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