Bad news. The beach is closed. No opening in sight. The memories are packed with nowhere to go, circling the center of my mind’s eye.
I am adapted to bad news. It lands on a hard tall pile, cascading down with resettling rubble. In this I feel joined to each person politely sweeping the edges of their own pile, and to any person accepting its flow onto whatever surface is able to hold it. There are exponentially compounding notices and the piles are teetering. In spite of the danger, the swaying has taken on a lulling quality.
My beach is Dead Horse Bay. I was born and raised in high altitude landlock and I have been living back in it for a while. From here it’s a casual half-day road trip to Dead Horse Point. This place is home, but I am forever longing for the ocean. I spent my twenties attempting autonomy in New York, distressed over the troubling consequences of the popularity of island life. My apartment was a converted funeral home, my car was a decommissioned ambulance, and more often than not my job was a hostile work environment. My recreation was to check the charts for lowest tide times, drive my friends down to the southernmost part of Brooklyn, and comb the shore of Dead Horse Bay for objects of interest. From the parking lot of Floyd Bennett Field, it was a tranquil walk through a rolling meadow of tall grass giving way to dunes hardly covering an eroding landfill with a view of Coney Island. The return to the ambulance was a slog, muscles strained by bags of selected trash.
I have cherished this trash. It has been on the walls of my living room, incorporated into my sculptures, tattooed onto my body. I have moved it across the country in labeled boxes and archived it in neat storage stacks for future consideration. I was far from alone in this pursuit. While it was often possible to feel pleasantly desolate on the beach, on most visits I crossed paths with other combers, strangers clutching their acquisitions with only a small trace of rivalry. Directions were readily available, in the language of people taking pleasure in initiating others into a special place. Over many years, I saw in photographs and jewelry and videos and drawings and installations the distinctly rusted shards of the twentieth century pulled from this infinite mass. In cafés I overheard the hushed excitement of a new devotee recounting their haul. Bar rooms were lined with empty bottles four times the age of the patrons. I once met a woman who makes agile paintings celebrating the details of her experience, and she sent me her studies of Dead Horse Bay finds. She had rendered a chunk of faded teal patterned rubber that was the other half to a favorite piece in my collection—separated and brought back together like a Best Friend’s necklace.
Dead Horse Bay is a spawning ground for horseshoe crabs. These living fossils gather on the beach every spring to lay their eggs on garbage heaps illuminated by the Strawberry Moon. Volunteers stay up through the night to count them as they mate on shifting mounds clinking in the rippling tides. The glass soundtracks the spectacle and dictates the practical footwear of the audience.
A memory floats around me. I went to the beach to search for this ambiguous object, a small black and white composition of dark matter in a plastic ring, an important piece in some industrial game unknown to me. At the water’s edge there was a group of scouts on a field trip to watch the reproducing horseshoe crabs. The children were in turns joyful and disturbed as a naturalist guided them through the scene, vacillating between optimism in ancient routine and tragedy in habitat desecration, settling on hopefulness in the flexibility of animals and their accommodating attitude toward the clutter in their home. A father chaperoned, and at a pause in the presentation, he began an impromptu speech on the moral imperative of environmental stewardship. He suggested the children organize to return to the beach for a cleanup day, thereby testifying to the will of responsible people. I stood on the outskirts of the gathering holding my sandy wet plastic sack of whatever, and imagined wave after wave after wave of diligent child troops relocating the dump piece by piece, rewarded with a badge of a broken bottle and a mantle of souvenirs pried from the hands of adult scavengers shooed from their paradise.
An invitation to the beach invariably opens with addressing the dead horses. The name is a charm to be rubbed, history blinking awake. From the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, trash collected from all over town was brought to this disconnected salt marsh. At the time Dead Horse Bay was called Barren Island, and transit relied on wearing through horses faster than cars need tires changed. A perpetual procession of horses moved through the streets pulling wagons weighed down with horse corpses to be loaded onto barges pushed off toward the farthest edge of the city. The people of Barren Island hand-processed the bodies for use in fertilizer, glue, grease, gelatin, soap, candles, buttons, pigments, perfume, nitroglycerin, handles, filters to bleach sugar white. Leftover sawed up skeletons were thrown into the water, anchoring the renaming of the Bay. The horses were also transmogrified into atmosphere. The stink in those years kept even the lauded social reformer Jacob Riis away; there is sparse documentation of the living conditions in the area. This inverse of a record could be used to diagnose what Robin Nagle, the anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation, terms invisibility syndrome: the willful lack of gaze society affords to garbage workers.
Rarely have I heard included in the narrative the Canarsee name for the area, Equendito. This word from the Munsee language has been translated as “broken lands.”
The legend of Dead Horse Point is vague. Two thousand two hundred and three miles from Dead Horse Bay, it is a mesa in the Colorado Plateau promoted by the local travel council as one of the most photographed vantage points in the world. From this rock perch one can capture a panoramic image containing the Colorado River, Canyonlands, and the La Sal Mountains. In 2019, the Moab Times-Independent framed the naming story as “raw negligence at best or, at worst, cruelty bordering on sadism.” Maybe rustlers used the peninsula in the sky as a corral, trapping unwanted horses on the Point to die. Maybe ranchers herded wild horses there to keep them from competing with cattle. Maybe Mormon settlers stole horses from the Utes and killed them there as a show of force. In 1938, the Times-Independent mused that “when an old cowpoke a generation ago named it Dead Horse Point, little did he think that someday the horseless carriage would drive to its rim and discharge breathless occupants to be astounded by its majestic scenery.” Little did this newspaper writer know that only a few years later uranium deposits would be found in the Chinle and Paradox Formations of Dead Horse Point and mined for use in weapons and nuclear reactors.
I am sitting in a comfortable chair in the alpine desert with sunlight streaming through wavy glass windows. I am reading articles and picking through novel phrases, timelines, frequently asked questions, maps, charts, lists, laws, cliches. Bone seeker. Intrusive investigation. The Principle of Justification. Jornada Del Muerto. Laramide Orogeny. Horsts. Grabens. Head noises. Threshold limits. Shinkolobwe. Undark. I am planted at a wrack line of information debris. I get up to feed dried mealworms to the chickens, pick apricots, and observe our dog swimming in the acequia. The mountains are August brown. Aphids are sucking the sap of the stickiest plants in the garden. There is less atmosphere here to shield me from cosmic rays. I go back inside.
I am pouring sand out of a tea kettle. This is my first trip to Dead Horse Bay. I read an article describing how to find it and what I would find. It is not how I pictured it. I am thinking back to my pockets full of smooth colorful glass pebbles spilling out onto the back seat of my grandfather’s sedan on a road through the swamps of southern New Jersey. My grandfather has been indulging my propensity for picking everything up. There is a dead horseshoe crab in the trunk I could not part with at the beach. We get to the house and I lay out my cache on the back porch. My grandmother comes out from the kitchen and swiftly remediates her environment, allowing me to keep my beach glass in a jam jar and demanding the rotting carcass be buried in the woods behind the barn. A tinge of the unmistakable scent of that burial is in the air at Dead Horse Bay.
Not long after cars took over most horse work, Dead Horse Bay reduction plants closed down. Escalating smell complaints redirected the bulk of daily city trash flow onto trucks and ships bound for incinerators and communities paid to take it. Dumping in the Bay intensified regardless. The remaining residents were forced out to make way for land reclamation. New York built on the ideology that filling in the sea is taking something back.
I processed my landfill harvest in a bucket of tap water in the roof garden outside our kitchen window. Each piece was dunked and swirled until the sand concentrated into a slurry at the bottom of the pail. I laid it all out on the shredded astroturf that separated my feet from the tar. The contents of this garbage was very different from what I put out on the curb. I was embarrassed by the crassness of my prolific food packaging and cat litter. Each batch of Dead Horse Bay trash was a universe of designs and functions. The field of objects drying among our squashes and sunflowers felt personal and precious. I struggled to understand the time in which these belongings were thrown away. I wondered if there would be a time when someone would feel similarly about my tomato paste cans and pineapple soy milk tetra paks.
The land built at Dead Horse Bay was first proposed as a major airport. When Floyd Bennett Field opened, it was touted as having the longest runways in the world. While the project was municipal, the City entered into a partnership with the Navy to establish a base at the Field, coinciding with the conversion of an adjacent Naval installation in the Rockaways into Jacob Riis Park. The Navy expanded their presence as commercial plans for the airport faded. During the outbreak of the Second World War, Floyd Bennett Field was transformed into the U.S. Naval Air Station, New York. By this time most of the tidal estuary had been filled in.
I drove the ten miles from my apartment to Dead Horse Bay on surface streets. When I lived in New York I stayed off the expressway whenever possible, as sitting in traffic has always felt like the waiting room for death. It was often unavoidable, particularly when leaving or coming back into the city. I’ve spent days creeping towards a tunnel. If one person could be called responsible for this mass depression, it is probably Robert Moses, the urban planner with a posthumous reputation on par with other noted twentieth-century tyrannical racists. His doctrine of renewal demanded that thousands of homes be demolished to build infrastructure for cars to advance the real estate boom in suburban development. These houses were in largely working class neighborhoods with residents he considered disposable. The bulk evictions were swift; tenants had little time or money to move. Apartment buildings were crushed with near full contents.
A decade after I moved away from New York I learned that Robert Moses designated Dead Horse Bay to receive ruins generated by his projects. This fact was not on the surface of the common story, but I could have known it sooner had I researched more about what I was unearthing. He was also responsible for the road that leads up to the Floyd Bennett parking lot and the parkland I walked through to the beach. Up until 1953 he discharged city relics into the Bay and covered it with a poorly constructed topsoil layer that promptly began to disintegrate, drawing in generations of amateur archaeologists. When the Navy decommissioned their base, the Dead Horse Bay land was transferred by an act of Congress to the Gateway National Recreation Area. Since the seventies visitors have been hosted by the National Park Service.
Back in the mountains I am listening to a radio show about horseshoe crabs while driving along a familiar stretch of highway. Their blood is described as the color of the sky outside my windshield, and I am learning that the limulus amebocyte lysate it contains has helped their species ride out all of the mass extinction events in the last half-billion years. This substance quickly clots the blood when it is exposed to miniscule amounts of toxins. It is used to test for contaminants in all medical products put into human bodies, including vaccines, implants, and surgical instruments. Since the seventies biomedical corporations have been trapping horseshoe crabs, draining their blood with a needle stuck into their hearts, and then releasing the survivors back into the water to recover and be caught again.
Memory vessels are containers encased in kaleidoscopic mosaics of assorted objects. The art form is thought to have been developed by enslaved people in the American South for use in funerary rites. The vessels were composed of a person’s belongings, often broken to release their spirit, and placed on grave sites or held in the home. In the Bakongo culture the spirit world is turned upside down and connected to the living by water. The memory vessel honored the dead and helped them to cross over. During the Victorian era the practice was taken up in the mass culture and disconnected from death. It was periodically revived through the twentieth century under the banner of American Folk Art.
I am burying bad news under a jumble of history. 2020 is a summer of articles on how “Doomscrolling is Slowly Eroding Your Mental Health.” It is the summer that I read the National Park Service has closed Dead Horse Bay after investigators dug up radioluminescent disks during a survey of the trails and beach. The Navy used the small round widgets to facilitate operating in the dark by screwing the markers onto ship decks and clipping them onto personnel. They contain radium-226. Soil tests indicate that the markers have leaked.
The National Park Service press release reminds readers that digging at Dead Horse Bay is unauthorized, as is removing items. This fig leaf directs an aloof shame onto the innumerable people that have walked the shore, bent down with curiosity, and been corrupted by acquisitiveness. The government that required the bottles littering the beach be marked “Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of this Bottle” to prevent the sin of illicit recycling in the decades after Prohibition is reminding us that we have done wrong in collecting garbage.
The U.S. Advisory Committee on X-ray and Radium Protection proposed the first formal standard for safeguarding people from radiation sources in 1934. Prohibition had just ended and that year my great grandfather opened Garbini’s Bar, after cutting his teeth in the bootlegging concern at his uncle’s bakery. The hours were 6am to 2am to serve the workers coming off their night and day shifts at Dupont’s Chamber Works plant in Carneys Point, New Jersey. When my grandfather got out of the Army after WWII, he went to work in the bar, eventually taking it over after his father’s death. The patrons called their employer Uncle Duppy, and were instructed to inject the byproducts of their labor into the ground and into the Delaware River. The bottles my family handled went to the landfill in accordance with the law.
The April 1920 issue of Scientific American identifies the following objects as containing radioluminescent paint: electric switches, keyhole locators, ships’ compasses, telegraph dials, mine signs, steam gages, pistol sights, poison bottle indicators, bedroom slipper buttons, furniture locator buttons, theater seat numbers, automobile steering-wheel locks, fish bait, and eyes for toy dolls and animals. The article notes that by then more than 4,000,000 watches and clocks had been produced using radium to make the faces glow in the dark. I visualize a radioactive memory jug with a half-life of 1,600 years.
I sift through reports from Dead Horse Bay, minutiae scattered and repeating. I see the ambiguous object in a pensive up-close beach portrait, identified as an old storage battery leaching lead into the water. The unknown gasping open and shut.
On average, Americans receive a radiation dose of about 620 millirem each year, split evenly between background sources (cosmic rays, radon gas released from the ground, etc.) and medical sources (dental X-rays, mammograms, etc.) Radiation in substantial excess of the typical dose can be the cause of—or the treatment for—cancer. There is a latency period ranging from 5 to 60 years for cancer induction, making it difficult to prove a correlation to earlier radiation exposure among an array of other possible factors.
The woods I buried the horseshoe crab in were young. My grandparents built their house next to a farm field, and in the seventies a pit was dug there to deposit silt dredged from the bottom of the Delaware River. Ponds were formed and trees were planted over the disturbance. This ground was drawn from the environment of The Chamber Works Plant, which produced more than 1,200 substances, including smokeless gunpowder, dye, kevlar, freon, neoprene, teflon, leaded gasoline, and refined uranium for atomic weapons. According to a lawsuit filed by the Town of Carney’s Point against the company, Dupont released perfluorooctanoic acid, mercury, benzene, sodium hydroxide, aluminum chloride, ammonia, sulfur, sodium, nitrobenzene, nitrotoluene, chlorobenzene, methyl ammonia, ethyl chloride, and more into the land and water of the town. The woods are now popular with hunters, fishers, picnickers, and drug users whose discarded needles infuriate other visitors.
On the doctor’s intake form, I check boxes and write notes for a history of cancer branching out from all around my family tree. These are broadly ranging malignancies, some leading to early death, others interspersed into extraordinary life spans along with heart troubles, strokes, autoimmune disorders, and worn out body parts. I complain of numbness in my feet and noncompliant hands inflamed by a predisposition for high tension repetitive labor.
There is cancer all along the uranium chain from the mines where it is extracted, the refineries where it is processed, the factories where it is applied, the communities where it is bombed, the power plants where it melts down, the sites where it is dumped, the winds and waters that carry its fallout. This reality doesn’t qualify as news most days. It is muted background noise in a toxic monotony of screaming crises, becoming sharply focused as an imaging tool or a therapy for inhabitants of a decaying ecosystem.
Investigations in 2002 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers turned up polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls at Dead Horse Bay. These substances have the potential to be highly carcinogenic, but are pervasive across so many environments that they did not inspire the urgency of area closure. If public warning was required at every site of military or industrial contamination, nearly all bodies would be marked as hazard harboring.
There is disagreement between historians and artists about where the contents of the beach at Dead Horse Bay belong. Should it be used as material to articulate the desires of the individual or protected as evidence of collective trauma for future generations to decode? There is little debate about the treatment of radioactive waste: deep geological disposal. In the internet, people are worried about saving the trash. They photograph the bright yellow sign notifying them to keep away, they write reviews warning you are risking your life to go there, they wave Geiger counters over their belongings, they declare that they will not stop adding to their stashes, they advocate for preservation.
In a dream I am walking out West on top of a sealed underground museum housing all of the art and collections gleaned from the ocean and brought back to the landlock. A docent endlessly beats a dead horse in the dirt next to an interpretive placard on the history of the aestheticization of ruins. A tour group gathers at a bronze horseshoe crab monument to survivors of mass extinction, grasping pamphlets describing the invisible world.
M. A. Buchholz, M. Cervera, Radium Historical Items Catalog, report prepared for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2008.
Sarah K. Cody, John E. Auwaerter, Cultural Landscape Report for Floyd Bennett Field, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service, 2009.
Ian Frazier, “Blue Bloods,” New Yorker, April 14, 2014.
Sharon Lerner, “Dupont’s Museum of Disastrous Chemistry Continues to Spread Its Poison,” The Intercept, July 7, 2018.
Miriam Sicherman, Brooklyn’s Barren Island: a Forgotten History (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019).
Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2015).