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28 April, 2011

Decomposite Sketch

Remember wanted posters with sketches of criminals, composites drawn from multiple observations filtered by memory? The Unabomber in a hooded sweatshirt and aviator sunglasses, his face telling you that he was a young middle-age white guy, if not much more. One day soon (or a few years ago, if you live in a major western city), there will be cameras everywhere, and no work for the person who sat and listened to witnesses describe hair, jawlines, noses, and scars. The idea of a composite will live on, as computers merge the traffic camera shot of a pedestrian with the Quickie Mart shot of his face and the cell-photo of the crime in progress.

Composites allow their makers and users to triangulate, to approach from various angles, to interpolate and make a sensible whole. A composited composition like the movie Ran can even let the audience appreciate, maybe negotiate. Most of the time, though, composites are presented as a single true thing, more easily approached than the incomplete components, more readily read than the manifold individual accounts.

Archaeologists deal in decomposite sketches. Something once whole, broken and mostly decayed, informed maybe by a faded historic account or tenuous analogy to something alive. Culture fragmented then mended, extrapolated from the durable leavings of people long gone. Black greasy dirt telling tales of people who cooked and ate, walked about barefoot, their waste and dander of their life becoming soil. Hiding in that matrix, clues: tiny frags of volcanic rock brought from elsewhere and used to oblivion (almost), chemical traces where once were plants and meat, motes of charcoal preserving cellular structure from which ancient forests may be regrown in the mind's eye.

From the soil, artifacts, and ecofacts, we draw our decomposite sketches. With any luck, we may be able to conjure forth a good story of a people long since gone or changed. In a good site, the decay is not so complete that all the nutrients feeding this process have been leached away. In a good site, decomposition has left us archaeological compost, from which sprout theories and culture histories.

Likewise with gardening, I am a decompositer. Plants that are whole and even thriving, but which offer no food, aroma, materials, or beauty--they get whacked. Chopped up and composted to feed something better. Same for prunings and dead annuals and the windfall of leaves, flowers, catkins and cones that drop to my soil--all the disarticulated organics sacrificed to the earth deity.

Why the relentless chopping, burning, carnage? Because more than anything else, I grow soil. What grew before must be decomposed to make what grows next come forth, whole and expanding.

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