I have claimed here recently (in Poop Psychology) that trash begets trash, and this is most certainly true. Beer cans and liquor bottles left near the south porch of the Goodale Park Shelterhouse, or on my tree lawn or in the alley attract more trash, and the area degenerates.
Yet there is another, seemingly paradoxical, side to the story. Far from being antithetical, though, it contains just as much truth: A community that carelessly discards trash is rewarded with artifacts that are preserved for future generations to excavate and discover.
When I learned about archaeology in third grade, our class took part in a mock excavation during a field trip, performing a site survey, establishing our grid, and so on. We found some old silverware and a few coins that Mrs. Fitzgerald had surreptitiously buried for us to find, and then we visited a museum and saw some actual Potawatomi arrowheads and jewelry that had been found at a real site. Inspired, Bill Grant and I buried half a plastic toy pig and my old Tonka truck in the woods behind my parents’ house, imagining who might dig them up some day. At the time, we had no idea why artifacts were valuable; now I realize that if I could dig up that truck today, I might be able to get twenty bucks for it on eBay.
Today’s trash becomes tomorrow’s antique. And why are antiques valuable? Not merely because they are rare, but because they offer a glimpse into our past. Our antiques are the items that escaped the path to the trash, whether because of careful maintenance, compulsive hoarding, or serendipitous misplacement.
Burying stuff in the woods was fun, but it didn’t explain the real archeological mystery to me; I still wondered how cities and whole civilizations could become buried under tons of dirt. How could the earth swallow up a city without anyone noticing? How could dirt pile up so deep without a front-end loader? Pompeii was easy to understand, and I sort of understood how Egyptian tombs could get buried under sand; I had seen how fast the Indiana dunes could move. But what about the Roman ruins of Corinium unearthed in Cirencester, England? This modern city didn’t suddenly arrive on top of Corinium like volcanic ash.
I remembered this childhood puzzle a few years ago when I noticed that the vinca in the cobblestone alley behind our house had completely covered the stone curb. When I lifted the ground cover, I saw that the edge of the road was filled with decomposing leaves and soil. More vinca was growing there, along with a bunch of weeds. I also found a plastic bottle, a beer can, cigarette butts, a Barbie doll, a crumpled grocery list, and a plastic bag. Left to continue, both cobblestone and curb would disappear in a bed of dirt and trash, providing at least the Barbie for future generations of archaeologists to discover.
But naturally, I trimmed the vinca, scooped all the muck into spackle buckets, and swept up the remaining items). Sidewalks that escape edging experience a related effect; dirt and plants creep in from the sides until we walk on grass and forget that a slab of concrete ever existed. My son and I uncovered a similar story while we were uprooting a dying pine tree in our back yard; we discovered a sewer cover and its accompanying cistern (filled with bricks, light bulbs and ash) under two inches of soil.
A better example is York, where a Viking village (Jorvik) was discovered during a building project. As archaeologists dug down through the layers, they found that the original levels of the streets and floors of homes were raised over time because Jorvik residents threw their garbage wherever they happened to be standing at the time. They simply walked on their trash, and we learn about their culture because of it. Similarly, in Durrington Walls, a village that was discovered near Stonehenge, cooking utensils and the half-eaten bones of thousands of slaughtered pigs were casually cast off and trampled by festive Neolithic people, providing us with vital clues to the purpose of this place and its seasonal inhabitants. What if they had carted all the pig debris off to a landfill site? We’d never understand that they partied there while celebrating life, death, and the solstice.
In Victorian Village, the city spirits our trash away, but they always manage to spill some into the alley. I used to think this was just clumsy dumping. I now believe that it’s a ruse devised for our own good, so that our history will be preserved. I now understand how the Refuse Collection Division carries out its task to preserve our cultural legacy.
The trash that spills out into the alley as they “carelessly” dump the 300-gallon containers is intentional and beneficial, meant to work its way under the soil so that our descendants can learn how we lived. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the director of the Historic Preservation Office and the Refuse Collection Division are secretly the same person. The city does not reveal that information on its website.
I have come to see that cleanly and slovenly behaviors are both harmful and helpful, in perfectly complementary ways. It would be unbalanced for us to engage in just one or the other. Although I’ll continue to compulsively clean the curb and remove debris from around the playground and Shelterhouse, I rest easier knowing that someone out there is doing the other right thing.