Compost Piles And the Public Order

IN each packet of photos I take here and there around the world are likely to be snapshots of mulch piles with gourds growing on top, firewood stacked in a rain-shedding beehive shape, or fruit trees trellised within the reach of a six-footer's hand. This prompts kidding around the kitchen table. But the most casual arts of property husbandry to me reflect a universal impulse to order.

This impulse is both practical and aesthetic. When it wells up voluntarily within a people, it helps evolve a stable society. In individuals it reflects creativity's relentless search for expression. It reflects a positive attitude toward the uses of time and a predisposition to think of the future.

One could argue that disorder too has its uses - as a form of protest, for instance, against the false orders of hypocrisy and oppression. Litter can be a defense against others' annoying demands. Entropy is observed to set in in organizations that are left leaderless; they go to weeds like abandoned farms. Signs of disorder include a disrespect for the norms of language, the positioning of furniture into bunkers, or a clustering into office cliques like street gangs. When diagnosed, signs of an organization under siege can lead to correction. But again, the presumption is toward order.

I prefer to keep the planting beds covered over winter. My father worried less about that than about other aspects of horticulture: The fresh compost turned under in the spring was ``for next year's garden'' and not this year's, he would say. Here in New England the suburbanite's big Thanksgiving event, apart from church, dinner, and football, is to deal with the huge clutter of leaves. The job is never done: Laggard leaves fall from the oaks all winter, and strays move about the neighborhood like homeless cats.

My garden, for reasons of the underground position of several humongous rocks, is round, about 40 feet in diameter. In the very center is a peg for positioning everything else, around it at a four-foot radius is an herb bed, then a circular path, and then to the garden's circumference a doughnut-shaped bed. On two segments of the garden, like pie wedges with the points bitten off, are vintage compost piles, one with the debris of 1991, the other dated 1992. The rest of the garden is buried under three feet of leaves, the top tapped flat with the pitchfork to catch rain and snow, and the sides sculpted fairly perpendicularly. This year's leaves will settle to a foot or so. A couple of thicker wedges will be made of them in the spring, and a single wedge by next fall, by which time the older piles will have been turned under or spread as mulch. To this eye, from the house window, the garden is a work of art. Fellow composters around the world would recognize the effort.

The impulse to order is not rational - it is pre-rational. It is an inclination to design seen in the larger order of things, as in the shapes of leaves and acorns. Seasons imply that time too is governed by the recurring elements of design. And there is a certainty in composting that the earthworms will come and that bacteria will assist in the breakdown, the reduction of litter, and that the garden soil will steadily be improved.

Gratis. Economy is enjoyed by productive, creative people; they indulge neither in stinting nor in excess, either of which would impoverish the future.

Bringing order to a community or city is akin to bringing order to a property. The new mayor of Detroit, for example, or the about-to-be-elected new mayor of Rome, will have his hands full. Rome's corruption is millennial, but it also represents a clutter of patronage, kickbacks, and criminality that costs too much for today's Italians to support. Detroit has assets in its geographical position at the mouth of the upper Great Lakes that in a decade or two may be reclaimed and valued: How to envision new growth where others see blight, how to include the city in the region's prosperity and prepare for revival are the new mayor's tasks.

In homestead, classroom, business, society, let's argue the right side: Letting things go to ruin is the unnatural state; the simple arts of righting things are instinctual and should prevail.

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