outside academe

Disposable Traces

Featured Story in The Afterlife of Discarded Objects

There is something both lingering and ephemeral about a home created while in perpetual movement between places. As an anthropologist constantly traveling to write about life in different parts of the world, I acquire objects that illustrate my thoughts as they take shape in each locale--Banksy prints of people hunting shopping carts or power washing cave art, a book on craftsmanship from the used bookstore across the street. In this way I ride the inertia of movement, but extend roots along the way.

As we moved from Arctic Finland to Harvard for the academic year, my husband Matt and I carried silver Sámi jewellery and wooden knives. For Christmas, his family gave us a butcher block from the old kitchen of their 200-year-old farmhouse in upstate New York. These were things meant to weave our own histories with that of Prescott Street.

For all the possessions that are acquired many more are disposed of. I bought a beanbag so that I could have a comfortable spot by the window to pour through old library books. I knew I could empty the beanbag once the year was over, fold up the linen cover and carry it to another alcove, then refill it. In the spring we left many of our things--from the lamp without a light bulb to dented garbage bins--out in the corridor of our apartment building; soon after we heard shuffling, then the clanking of metal parts as the objects were carried away by students assembling their own temporary homes.

But the beans... I did not realize how difficult it would be to get rid of them. They are made from expanded polystyrene, a material that resembles Styrofoam. They are mostly air, 98 percent, and cannot simply be thrown out, because pouring them over the trash sends the small pieces flying, clinging to hands and all surfaces, and evading any attempts to contain them. NPR published an article claiming that the chemicals from discarded beanbag fill are in our shellfish. I reflected on this finding as Matt and I sat indulging in local fare of oysters on our last evening in Cambridge. The things we discard, presumably sent away to accumulate elsewhere as we move on to a new city, actually end up travelling in our very bones and capillaries.

At the end of the year we packed up our apartment and drove it to Matt's house in upstate New York. We returned the butcher block for safekeeping, and added our books to the shelves. For many years Matt's mom has been taking pieces of old fabric and making them into quilts. In her bedroom there is one such quilt made by her great great grandmother; it oversees her work as she stitches. When Matt and I bring our own belongings into this house, we entwine our stories with those of countless generations.

But what of the things we never bring back? What of the polystyrene, and the lamps with no light bulbs? Some will carry on lives elsewhere, others will stay with us even though they were never meant to be kept, making their way back through clams and oysters. As we pack and unpack, procure and discard, we pass through the lives of those who accumulate things in place. Maybe one day Matt and I will stop migrating and disposing. Instead we will take pieces of the things we no longer need and stitch them together. We will add these to his mother's quilts, and those of her great great grandmother. And we will wonder about the durability of our traces.

The quilt.

The quilt.


Published in Meat For Tea The Valley Review Volume 8 Issue 4 (ENGLISH BREAKFAST)

I have always wanted a little hipster hideout, although I never much cared for the oversized glasses. Matt led me up the steps of the old Victorian in center Cambridge. The paint was thick with the years—clearly Harvard housing did not think it necessary to strip paint before reapplying. Instead they dressed the wood in a myriad of colors—a Renaissance lady preparing for a ball.

I travel back and forth from my doctoral study in Cambridge, England, eager for just a few moments with my husband. In England the medieval buildings look down sternly at the lowly passerby, while Harvard feels like Cambridge’s fun younger brother. I have been warned that the spring features the Primal Scream, when Harvard students strip off academic stress to bare skin, and sprint around Harvard Square, circling stately buildings and proud oaks. I am now taking a year to do anthropological fieldwork in Finnish Lapland, and I periodically take refuge in the comparative warmth of the Boston area. My eclectic lifestyle fits the niches of Cambridge, and I settle in like a migratory Arctic bird, a deranged albatross seeking its mate in the New World instead of circumpolar latitudes.


The first days I spent crawling, kneeling, and reaching on tippy toes with a sponge and some ‘magic erasers,’ washing the walls, floors, and ceilings like a housecleaner on acid. Our studio apartment appeared to be an attic space, containing long-forgotten corners. Preparing food or taking a shower became aerobic feats—Matt stood paralyzed as the water beat against him, boxed in by walls, while I did squats to dodge the protruding ceiling parts in the throes of preparing a sandwich. The kitchen walls had a yellow residue from many adventurous cooking episodes, and once again Harvard Housing had chosen to paint over the grime, which nevertheless bubbled to the surface under a white-yellow coating. The place was reminiscent of Matt’s childhood home in upstate New York, before it had been restored from its 200-year-old wear. I kept scrubbing, determined to turn the little attic into a home.

Before my arrival Matt bought teas from Trader Joe’s, salt in small containers, and stood them on the kitchen counter beside a pineapple. The first weeks we slept on a mattress by a window looking out at the art museum. In the mornings the Old Baptist Church beat its bells in a steeple of stone, and in the evenings we heard a choir of boys singing from unknown directions. Even then I knew I had found my space.

During our first year of marriage, Matt transferred his PhD studies in archaeology from Penn to Harvard. We had lived in West Philly, in a room rented out by two cat-loving ladies; the shared bathroom had mold growing out of the places where the wall paper was peeling away in waves. One time Matt was chased down the street walking home at seven in the evening on a Tuesday, and ever since we avoided going out after dark and always looked left and right for assailants before crossing the street. Philadelphia’s rows of abandoned homes stand in stark contrast to Cambridge’s manicured streets, packed with residents eager to pay several thousand a month for a Harry Potter closet space. But there is a deep gap within this atmosphere of Good Ol’ Harvard: A notice sent out over the summer warned of homeless people sleeping on the front steps of our building. On the streets, some of these men and women make paper flowers, others wrap metal arrangements around stones. Somehow the poverty melts into accessories for the romantic, and many students continue on through Harvard’s larger-than-life gates, to lawns where multicolored chairs dot the lawns under the oak trees, like perfectly-placed acorns.

On weekend mornings Matt and I put on our sneakers and cross the bridge into Boston. We walk for miles, past cops acting out scenes from the Gangs of New York as they chase down Stop-sign evaders. September along the Charles River feels like a slice of upstate New York, and I half-expect to find apples on the trees. The regal homes of Commonwealth Avenue watch us curiously as we walk the alley of trees through its center, circling the statues of Revolutionary War generals, suffragists, and writers. Then the Public Garden appears in its conical bushes and prim flower arrangements, a serenade to the swan boats that float through coquettishly. We return home invigorated on feet well-trodden, clambering up to our attic space with some iceberg lettuce and blue cheese picked up from an overpriced marketplace.

Between these adventures our academic work continues—I am trying to absorb two obscure Finno-Ugric languages in preparation for my return to Finland, while Matt trudges through archaeology readings. When we find ourselves behind our computers and coffee mugs too long, we lie side by side and look outside to the old streets of Cambridge. We listen to the bells of the stone church, remembering that the ringing never stopped, every fifteen minutes, as we turned pages. When our books are read and dusty, the church will continue to sound for the residents of Harvard Street.

Migrations to Harvard Street. By Natalia Magnani

Migrations to Harvard Street. By Natalia Magnani

Beneath Lenin's Elbow

Published in Skipping Stones (2014) and The Blue Hour (October 2013)

War memorial in Kiev, Ukraine.

War memorial in Kiev, Ukraine.