As most Biddeford natives know, the park served as the town dump for many years before being shut down and allowed to sit idle for a while. Over time, the accumulated garbage, along with the gravel that was routinely brought in to cover it up, had grown into a huge mound. And eventually, nature stepped back in to set things right again, as only she can.
Thanks to the wind and rain and melting snows, and thanks to the untiring work of birds and bugs that constantly disperse seeds across the landscape, Rotary Park is back to some wild and disheveled semblance of what it once was, albeit a bit steeper now. On one side, the area opens up sans tree canopy, and leads to a shady beach and picnic area that serve as a popular gathering spot during the summer months. Across the river, one catches a glimpse of outer Lincoln Street on the Saco side, and from there, the river curves in a northwesterly direction toward Dayton.
As a young child, I remember my father diligently remembering to put the household trash out every Sunday night for the next day’s curbside pickup. Out went our two galvanized metal cans at a time when all trash went into the same receptacle. Nobody cared about the environment in those days, as all our trash was going to end up being burned anyway. But for those of us kids who lived in town, and who’d never seen the dump, no connection was ever made between the trash we generated and where it really ended up. What didn’t burn had to be buried, hence the sacrificial mound that grew larger on the outer end of Main Street each year.
I will never forget my first trip to the dump. I was quite young – perhaps no older than 5 – and my mother, ever the adventurous soul, decided to take a walk there from our duplex apartment on Bradbury Street with the express purpose of showing it to me. Holding onto the side of the stroller in which my younger sister rode in style and comfort, I trudged along the mile or so of sidewalks that seemed to go on forever before me.
Suddenly, the acrid, unpleasant stench of burning trash wafted in our direction. And there it was, the mountain of dirt and gravel studded with every type of refuse known to humankind. Small fires burned here and there, everywhere, from the edge of the street back and along the steep gravel entryway that led to the top of the mound. Cars moved slowly in and out, stopping to unload their contributions, then going home to start the process of accumulation all over again.
I remember my mother stooping to examine the trash closest to us, instructing me to stay near the carriage at all times, which I did. There was no such thing as a recycling swap-box back then, and lots of people scavenged dumps for treasures. The words, “Look what I got at the dump,” were commonplace back then, and come to think of it, they still are.
A few years later, I was to return to the Biddeford dump with the father of a neighbor and friend, who, for some reason, never put his trash out on the sidewalk on Sunday nights but preferred to take it there himself. When Mr. G. was finished dropping off his trash, he took us for a slow ride out along the riverside where small fires still burned all along the edges, much to my amazement. The incongruity of that never left me. Today, I can still picture the scene: river, dirt road and open burning dump, all just inches from each other.
That exit road is still there, and now leads to a boat launch and a couple of open spots along the shoreline between some trees where people go to fish or swim. And that’s where I stopped one day last week and stared up at what had once been the looming trash pile – no less amazed now than I was then – more than half a century ago. But now, the fires have all been doused, and it is as though no one ever took a single piece of garbage to that spot. The mound is draped with vegetation on all sides in the form of trees, shrubs, vines and wildflowers galore. Japanese knotweed, wild asters, milkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod and blue cornflowers now line that side of the gravel lane that runs along the river just as it did back then. It dazzles me now no less than it did in the 1950s, but for vastly different reasons.
As Frost so aptly put it, “Nothing gold can stay.” But nature, in her dauntless zeal, takes what once gleamed, removes the tarnish, and restores it to its former grandeur, or to a very acceptable semblance. And how much richer we all are for it!