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Unforgettable teacher: Bill Rathje

He Loves Trash

Photo: Louie Psihoyos

THE COLLECTOR: Rathje studies what society has thrown out.

Was Bill Rathje more comfortable standing in the front of a classroom or on top of a landfill? It’s a toss-up.

I first saw Rathje’s name listed next to his spring quarter class, The Archaeology of Modern Times, my sophomore year. Modern “artifacts” would be studied, said the course description. There was a short list, including electric generators in the West, the strategies of tech moguls and several “noteworthy” U.S. landfills. “You see,” said Rathje, explaining his syllabus, “I’m a garbologist by training.” Officially he was a lecturer in the program in archaeology. But was this really a word, garbology? Doubtful, I took it to the top authority, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Garbology (noun). Orig. U.S. W. Rathje’s term for the scientific study of the refuse of a modern society; the investigation of material discarded by a society considered as an aspect of social science.

His appearance in the OED made just as much an impression on me as his physical manifestation: lumbering and smiling, lost in a vest with a half-million pockets. I went back to my dorm after class and relayed the afternoon’s tale to my roommate.

He was unmoved: “Oh yeah, Rathje.” Apparently he’d seen the garbologist give a kind of sermon at one of the co-ops about the recreational potential of landfills. It concluded with his proposal for creating America’s first garbage rodeo.

And then there was Rathje’s office—an artifact in its own right. Gold trophies from local waste management corporations stood beside trowels, models of landfills in New York and academic texts on archaeological theory. On a framed magazine cover was a younger Rathje high atop a landfill, looking out like an optimist toward the future—except there was trash everywhere and the sunsetting sky was blood red, leaving the whole thing looking more like some sci-fi thriller scene where something very, very terrible had happened.

Rathje, who began his career studying the ancient Maya, is the kind of man who can collapse the distinction between past and present. “What do we know about the ancient Americans anyway?” he used to say. “Our history of civilization is a history of broken pots and pans. All we know about is what they threw away.”

I’ll always remember a dinner at Ming’s Restaurant in Palo Alto, when Rathje introduced me to an old friend of his, Dr. Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist who studied contamination in toilets. Gerba had just finished explaining some detail about urinals to me when Rathje broke in: “That’s what you get for having dinner with a microbiologist.”

“Listen,” said Gerba, more to Rathje than to me, “A garbage man shouldn’t be talking.”

—NICK CASEY, ’05  

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