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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Fascinated by Decay (p. 3)

From chapter "Decay"

I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth. -Henry Miller

As long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by decay, by how things fall apart, or how they don’t.  As a young child I used my tiny fingers to explore rotting wood and the creatures who lived inside.  I loved watching ants quickly find dropped food, and soon began leaving crumbs on purpose so I could watch the ants struggle to carry off bread and meat and fruit and vegetables (and potato chips and Cheetos) and other junk too, for which I should now apologize).  When I was a little older I would go to the same spot week after week to watch what happened to a fallen leaf or broken twig, or to horse, cow or dog manure.  I remember going year after year to see changes in piles of wood, junked swing sets, throw-out appliances.  And I remember trips to ghost towns in the mountains of Colorado, where I explored mines and house and stores that a hundred years before were bustling with humans, but now weathered, falling in, bustling instead with insects, lizards who sunned themselves on planks and skittered away when I approached, and leaves skipping away in the wind.  I remember mine tailings, some scarred over and blanketed with plants trying to eke out an existence, some shaped into scabrous piles of rocks still incapable of supporting any life whatsoever, and some with open wounds still bleeding tainted, discolored, poisonous water into their surroundings.  I remember wondering how long these wounds would last.

In my early teens I read an article-I think it was in Smithsonian magazine but I could be easily wrong-about what would happen to some of the iconic creations of civilization if humans disappeared tomorrow.  The article focused on the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which would last a long time before it eroded: Hoover Dam, which thankfully wouldn’t last too long before it collapsed: and the Sears Tower in Chicago, which without supervision would, if I recall correctly, fall in on itself in a matter of decades.  

The point is that I don’t remember many articles I read as an early teen but I remember that one.

I also remember an assignment given by my eighth-grade science teacher. We were supposed to observe two processes – they could be whatever we wanted – differentiated by one substantial variable.   A friend taped a bean to the back of a television for a month, then grew it and another bean side by side to see if the radiation harmed the TV bean (it didn’t seem to).  Someone else-and this is unsurprising coming from a junior high student – soaked one pot of beans overnight and didn’t soak another, cooked both, ate them at different times, and tested for differences in his flatulence.  For my own experiment I went to a market and bought a big fish, cut it in two, put half in a bucket of water and the other half on the floor, then watched the two decay.  I didn’t tell my mom about the experiment, and I didn’t set it up far from where we lived, but rather, stupidly, in an outbuilding attached to the house.  A couple of days into the experiment, my mom began to wonder if a mouse had died in the walls, and the day after that she started asking, “What is that smell?” I told her. She-and this speaks volumes about my childhood and why, for better or worse, I turned out the way I did- didn’t make me abandon the experiment, but rather move it to where she couldn’t smell it.

Although decay fascinated me, I have to admit moving the fish wasn’t fun.  The fish in the bucket was easy: just carry the bucket, the contents of which had turned the color and consistency of two-thirds melted chocolate ice cream (but smelled altogether different), to another spot.  The fish on the floor was more problematic. It had already become a pulsing, flowing mound of liquefied fish and maggots (who later became the fattest, slowest, tamest flies I’ve ever seen).  I carried this mass on a coal scoop, stopping several times to dampen my gag reflex. That night I dreamt again and again of maggots.

Notwithstanding my fascination with decay, it was not a pleasant night.

The health of the land begins with shit, with dead bodies, with body parts that fall to the ground. It begins with death, decomposition, decay.  It begins with eating, metabolizing, excreting. That’s how it always been, since the beginning of life. You feed me, I feed the soil, the soil feeds everyone, the soil feeds me, I feed you, you feel the soil and so on.

* * *

Here’s another way to look at it. I eat you, the soil eats me, everyone eats the soil, I eat the soil, you eat me, the soil eats you.

It’s all the same.

* * *

Our relationship-both personal and collective-with shit, and more broadly with our waste products, reveals much about our relationship with the land- with our habitat-a gift of fertile soil, given in response to the nourishment our habitat gives us-into something toxic, something harmful. Something shameful. And that is a terrible shame.