Not in my backyard has become the trend in waste disposal facilities of our day. We are not proud of our garbage or we think it’s so nasty we don’t want to be anywhere near it. Out of sight, out of mind–like some neurotic little animal that buries everything in sight, we are pursuing a course of gradeschool magic tricks, acting like the garbage really does disappear when we pile it up and cover it with dirt.
It has not always been this way. Recently we visited the Anasazi ruins at Wupatki, in Arizona. The ruins are remarkable for many reasons, but what I found most interesting about these rocky castles in the desert, and the reason we trekked out to see them, was their pile of garbage.
Garbage piles, when they are old and not disgusting anymore but treasure troves of archeological data, are named anew as middens. A midden is an “old dump for domestic waste.”
I’m not an archeologist and the Forest Rangers at the Wupatki National Monument frowned at me when I attempted to excavate a portion of the Wupatki midden, so I cannot give you a play by play of what they threw out there over the hundreds of years they inhabited the settlement. However, even from afar, this stands out: it was definitely in their backyard.
There are several reasons why someone would dump their garbage right next to their house: 1. You don’t have anywhere else to dump it. 2. You aren’t physically capable of dumping your garbage elsewhere. 3. You are really lazy and can’t be troubled to take it anywhere else. 4. You like your garbage. What follows is my analysis of these theories.
1. You don’t have anywhere else to dump it. This theory is absurd. Standing in the ruins of Wupatki, a great expanse of nothing stretches out in every direction for as far as you can see. If they wanted, they could have dumped on a plain or in a canyon or on a mountain or even into the crater of a nearby volcano. They weren’t dumping in their backyard for lack of other options.
2. You aren’t physically capable. It is a fact that the Anasazi who built the Wupatki ruins did make really tiny doors as entrances to their dwellings. These tiny doors might lead you to think that they were dinky little oompa loompa kind of people. Apparently enough idiots think this that the visitor center at Wupatki felt the need to make a sign that explains that the Anasazi were not oompa loompas. They managed to build a castle in the middle of the desert; they probably could have launched their garbage into space had they wanted.
3. You are really lazy. Almost as ridiculous as the oompa loompa theory, is the cliche of the lazy Indian. At the Wupatki ruin they have a ball court where they played a game that involved goals and balls and killing each other. If they played games like that, I don’t think they were lazy.
4. You like your garbage. This is what I’m really interested in: it seems to me that the relationship to garbage was different for the Anasazi. Maybe garbage was not something that they needed to vanish, not something they wanted to go away. Seeing their garbage pile along side their houses made me think that garbage does not always have to have the sound of stink and nastiness in our ears. Perhaps even, it would be healthier for us to have a little more garbage hanging around.
Now, it’s entirely possible that there is some stupid scientist or professor out there who is going to say something that makes my whole theory collapse like the oompa loompa and lazy Indian theories, but until they make themselves known, I think this is really the best explanation we’ve got.
So, I like to imagine the Anasazi gossip of yesteryear as follows: Have you seen the size of Wupatki’s trash heap? and, I wish my midden was as shapely as Wupatki’s! and, They really know how to pile their garbage over there at Wupatki!