December 23, 2012

The anti-social '90s: Compost piles

When people feel more like secluding themselves from the rest of their neighborhood, they think primarily about the kinds of spaces and structures that they'll be inhabiting on a daily basis. The built environment therefore shows some of the most striking changes over time, as societies cycle through more outgoing and more cocooning phases.

Earlier I looked at the rise of privacy fences over the past 20 years, and still have yet to keep my promise to cover the same trend during the mid-century. It was there; I just haven't felt like writing it all up yet.

Another example came from a source that wasn't even trying to brainstorm all the various ways that we started cocooning more over the past 20 years. Last night I caught an episode of That's So '90s on the DIY network, and it covered all sorts of trends and fads from that decade. One was the proliferation of compost piles -- basically a large, smelly heap of yard waste, food scraps, and critter shit.


They showed clips from '90s-era home & garden TV shows advising how to set it up, and they all placed them along a fence, i.e. next to your property line. Hey, what better way to drive away your neighbors than to pile foul odors right up against their supposed backyard sanctuary? Whenever we started ours in the mid-'90s, I remember placing it along a fence, and I think the neighbors on the other side had theirs there too. Shoot, our compost piles socialized with each other more than we did!

Converting a small chunk of your backyard into a garbage dump also had the side effect of keeping you out of your own backyard. You holed up indoors not only to avoid the nearby compost piles, but your own as well. If everybody just pitched in to make the whole block smell like grunge, then we could all enjoy the feeling of never wanting to hang out in our backyards. Talk about neighbors helping neighbors.

Returning to a point I brought up in the post on perfume, we tend not to remember smells too well. A good number of books have been written detailing what different periods looked like, sounded like, and felt like. Taste and especially smell don't leave such strong memories, so reconstructing their histories is much harder to do. But when evoked, these memories -- or even vivid descriptions to someone who wasn't there -- can be powerful. Someone wrote that in the 1970s, New York City smelled like piss and sex. Well, in the 1990s, suburban backyards smelled like shit and mold.

Why are they not as prevalent now as during the '90s? Some trends of that decade represented an overshooting of anti-socialness. It was the acrimonious initial phase of the divorce of every individual from their community. After the split had been completely effected, we didn't need to act so hostile -- by now, it's understood that we don't want anything to do with each other. So although we are more fragmented now than in the '90s, we're at least more amicable than we were then, although obviously far less so than during the '60s through the '80s.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:08 PM

    Compost heaps attract rodents. I'm pleased that they've gone out of style.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My family still composts. But our canisters (they have lids rather than being open) are right up against the side of our house. We don't have any fences.

    ReplyDelete
  3. theo the kraut3:45 AM

    Compost heaps are still popular in Germany, one of our many green fads. Yet I understand that they mustn't be smelly when properly managed, particularly controlling what goes in (in what state) and what not. Unlike farms with their dung heaps most urban backyards tend not to have large populations of livestock, if any. Extremists may add their own poop,* of course, but most won't. But yeah, I guess backyards ain't what they used to be.

    * I just read that the Japanese did this in olden times after proper fermentation in barrels--you didn't want to shoot anything in that barrel...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous3:04 PM

    People who compost, I have not experienced being relatively less social. Or wanting to keep people out of their garden. And they spend more time gardening, not less. It seems like kind of a weird autistic psychology which would ascribe that motivation to people who want to grow better plants in a more natural way.

    I think perhaps it is just that pottering around in a garden nurturing plants (rather than boozing it up in bar or something or going hiking or what have you) is a cocooning hobby?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous9:18 PM

    " (rather than boozing it up in bar or something or going hiking or what have you) is a cocooning hobby?"

    It depends on the context - if it leads to you talking with and socializing with other people over a mutual hobby, its not cocooning.

    "Boozing in the bar" isn't necessarily outgoing, either. Nowadays bards are dimly lit, little personal space, with shitty, offensive music blaring in the background. people play weird bar games rather than have spontaneous conversation.

    -Curtis

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous9:21 PM

    "People who compost, I have not experienced being relatively less social. Or wanting to keep people out of their garden. And they spend more time gardening, not less. It seems like kind of a weird autistic psychology which would ascribe that motivation to people who want to grow better plants in a more natural way."

    Well, I think a lot of people who do it are just trying to grow a better garden and are following rules they read in some book. But the point is that the ritual will end up making people less outgoing, regardless of their initial motivations for embarking on it.

    -Curtis

    ReplyDelete
  7. My dad kept a compost pile for a long time, but it was mainly for grass clippings and the occasional vegetable waste (and sometimes orange rinds). So it wasn't particularly smelly like the compost piles you describe. It smelled something like damp hay. I'm not sure any of the neighbors had them.

    By the way, you're wrong about smells and memory. It may be hard for you to remember what a particular smell was like, but if you smell something which you have associated with a strong memory, you won't be able to not bring back that memory.

    ReplyDelete

You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."