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Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on February 22, 2016

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“We all put Vaseline on our teeth before performing.”

Long before she won a Gold Medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics at Whistler, Canada with her partner Scott Moir, the figure skater Tessa Virtue was already a highly accomplished athlete. She’s the daughter of my wife’s cousins and we met at a family function. Finding ourselves parked next to each other with our plates on our laps, I asked her my favorite dinner party question about information that is often buried so deep that no one else can find it:

“Tell me something about what you do that nobody else knows.”

The Vaseline answer, it turned out, is related to the lack of humidity in ice rinks. The air in rinks is dry and, as one twirls about the ice, dry teeth mean dry lips that can stick, ruining one’s perfect smile.

The question helped to fill my dusty cave of trivia, mostly useless, but sometimes useful. Sometimes I ask the question and am confronted with disturbing information such as from the man I met had put himself through university as a gravedigger. He said that after the mourners left, the diggers would usually take turns jumping on tops of the cheaper coffins to cave in the wood boxes before re-filling in the grave with dirt. The reason was to avoid having the wood gradually rot from ground water and insect infestation and buckle under the weight of the soil above. Jumping on them first would avoid the future gardening hassles of dealing with an unseemly indentation in an otherwise smooth lawn. In retrospect, it probably also avoided the horror of visiting relatives, who might question the periodic addition of soil on top of the grave of their dearly departed.

Somewhat related to the gravedigger’s answer was another from Dory Cameron, a high school classmate, who went on to study archeology at the University of Toronto. Years later, we happened to meet and, in the course of the afternoon, I asked the question and she in turn asked me the question that had intrigued her when she had started her degree studies. “Why are ancient cities so often buried, sometimes a hundred meters or so below ground?”

Pleased with my shrugging ignorance, she pointed out that it was the cleaners of the world that kept civilization secure. “Look in the doorway of an abandoned building,” she explained. “The wind blows in a few leaves and bits of garbage, dust settles, grass grows, the grass dies and becomes a lattice for more dirt and debris and boom, before you know it, the dirt is piling ever higher. Give it a few centuries and much of a city will disappear.”

She went on to explain that what would be left might appear as a mound or low hill and, above it, another city might be built, simply because the old advantages of location were still there and the site’s strategic height enhanced. Thirteen layers of city may have been built on the location of what we think was the ancient city of Troy, the subject of Homer’s epic poem Iliad telling of the battle over the abduction of Helen, a queen of Sparta and the gods who fought the war by proxy.

It all gives one a deep respect for the cleaners of the world.

Many other things are buried deliberately. The late British-Canadian artist Toni Onley had a great reverence for Japanese art traditions. When one of his fine watercolor brushes finished its life of usefulness, rather than cast it into the nearest garbage can, he would hold a private ceremony and respectfully bury it.

With less respect, North American farmers would often bury large pieces of broken machinery that were beyond repair. As cities expand onto what was once surrounding farmland, developers are sometimes surprised in their excavations to find an old rusting tractor in a newly dug pit where they intended to locate the foundation of a new building.

Landfills, waste disposal sites, and other modern names for garbage dumps will likely become places of wonder for archeologists a thousand years from now. We can imagine them sorting through layers of discarded goods to add to their understanding of our culture. What have you put in your garbage this week? What will decay and what will endure? What will those precious fragments tell future diggers about you? Will your worn-out toothbrush someday end up in a museum?

On the island where I live, my daily walks often take me past the home of Dave and Louise. With a small fleet of trucks, they run the garbage service on our island, as well as a number of other businesses. Organic advocates, they not only grow expansive amounts of fruits and vegetables for themselves and for sale but also maintain a dozen beehives on their property.

Many years ago, when Dave was driving his rounds, he noticed a child’s yellow dump truck discarded beside a set of bins. Impulsively, he took it home and dropped it beside his driveway. And then another. And another, and now there are a hundred or so of them, carefully parked as if waiting to depart en masse on some toy ship to build some distant toy city.

Broken though they are, they are attractive and capture the attention of many people passing by. Parents are uncertain about their children’s yearnings to play with them and some permit it and some don’t. I don’t think Dave minds as long as they’re put back where they belong.

In another context – a gallery, perhaps – the collection would be considered an art piece. Year after year, I glance at them as I pass by. I see some bits rusting and I imagine they will someday be swept away after Dave and Louise themselves are buried, or slowly sink into the ground as well as memory like Ancient Troy, if left in place.

When I next see them, I will ask Dave and Louise my dinner party question. Who knows what buried answer they might have?

Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More

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