Leave it to me

Why are we throwing away perfectly good stuff?

Crawdad Nelson is a language and organic-matter worker in Sacramento.

Sacramento may be the City of Trees, but it is also the city of shrubbery and lawns. Aesthetically pleasing as all this growth is, the not-so-secret byproduct of all the blossoms and manicured grass is heaps and piles of what seems not only to be a waste product, but, by the end of a sunny spring weekend, a positive hazard to navigation, not to mention parking.

Piles of grass, leaves, spoiled camellia blossoms and storm-damaged fruit grow and spread like a silent army of occupation.

When I drive, walk or ride a bike, I’m always inspecting the leaf piles for quality and style. In certain areas, each pile is topped with a tightly wrapped blue baggy full of doggie dough which some thoughtful person has seized, steaming, from a dog whose thoughts I can only wonder at. Piles in other areas nearly always contain exactly the desired ratio of clean grass clippings, which are essential to the composting process. In tough neighborhoods, there are rocks and broken glass in the piles, and I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot lawn rake.

Starting with what lands in my own yard, however, I make a serious effort to collect and use as much of this deciduous bounty as possible, for the simple reason that, with composting, it’s just about the best soil additive I can get, next to aged manure, and it costs nothing.

The only people who have ever spoken to me while I gathered leaves were a professional lawn worker, who wondered if I might want what he was producing that day; and some young immigrants on First Avenue who haven’t yet internalized local cultural norms—and they didn’t actually speak, just made friendly gestures.

Anyone touching what has been designated waste and left in the gutter is just as invisible as the leaves themselves. Similarly, we don’t mind having people root though the blue barrels for recyclables, because they obviously need the money and it’s just trash. But recognizing or acknowledging them requires recognizing or acknowledging that trash pickers are part of our luxurious lifestyle, just as shopping at Walmart promotes exploitation of workers.

In other words, it only becomes socially acceptable to pick up organic matter lying in the street after it has passed through the digestive system of a nice middle-class dog. This behavior could date to the Dark Ages, when gutters ran with slime and good people simply lived elsewhere, as a fundamental defense against contagion. But from my point of view it’s just wasteful, and it’s beyond ironic that the people who pay to have leaves removed will pay for compost and fertilizer to replace the organic matter they represent.

To contemplate the fate of all the sad, silent piles of elm leaves, pruned roses, rotted lemons and chopped wild onions I can’t get to leads to exactly the kind of sobering realization I’d just as soon not have: How often do we have to be taught that just throwing perfectly good stuff away is wrong?