When I finally got around to the stack of unopened mail that’s been piling up on the counter today, I uncovered not one, but two letters of warning from city code enforcement saying that one of my neighbors had called the cops on us and that our property was in violation of being a “public nuisance.” We were ordered to remove all “rubbish, garbage, litter, furniture, electronics, recyclables, piles of dead or overgrown vegetation, automotive parts, building materials, etc.” from the property within 7 days or face legal action.
If you’ve ever visited my neighborhood, you might find this surprising, given that just about every house on both sides of the street near us has what I might call a festive, perpetual yard sale of projects, junk, and inbred scrappy dogs yapping through chain link fences. My first reaction wasn’t indignation (that came later). It was hurt. I felt sad thinking that one of my neighbors had broken what I thought was the neighborhood code—deal with your own shit, stay out of other peoples’ business, and if you have something to say, talk to the person instead of tattling on them. I’ve for years worked for people on landscaping jobs who live in a relentless prison of subdivision covenants and whitewashed Pleasantville-ites that limit what they can do and plant in their own yards, and I’ve always appreciated my neighborhood’s live-and-let-live vibe. This came as a real blow.
The aftertaste of neighborliness still lingers on the country’s palate, even as it’s retreated into its two-car-garage, flat-screen-TV isolation. It’s been so suddenly lost that we can still remember, if only subconsciously, what it was like to chat on front porches, borrow a cup of sugar, pitch in around harvest time. The idea that we’ve lost, in only a generation or so, the ability to talk with our neighbors about something that ‘s bothering us is paramount to tragedy. If we can’t find common ground with the person next door, how are we ever going to get along in an increasingly globalized world? Do we really want to turn over our own autonomy to the powers that be and eschew the nuance of individual interaction for cookie-cutter regulations?
I headed outside to survey the contents of my front yard through the eyes of the betrayer.
Alongside a frankly paradisical masterpiece of blooming flowers, seed crops, and vegetables was a small pile of items in the driveway that I could only guess were the source of the complaint. Two 5 gallon buckets, some poly pipe for doing irrigation repairs, equipment for Brent’s biodiesel making project, the wooden sides for the back of my truck, some used greenhouse plastic, and the folded legs from two sets of pop up canopies whose tops had bit the dust in the weather.
This is where I started to get angry. We live in a country whose sole purpose seems to be to convince us to buy and consume more stuff. We’re told we need it to “create jobs”, for survival as well as social standing, and we line up in droves to get the next new ticket to success and happiness. Once we get it home, though, we’re not supposed to let it clutter up our precious yards, which should be nothing but sterile monocultures of chem-lawns and meatballed shrubs corralled by concrete edging.
And heaven forbid we are one of those souls who can’t stand to see potentially useful items sent to the dump. Almost every item in my driveway was the castoff of someone else’s failed plans, and instead of throwing it into the cesspool of rotting trash threatening to slide down onto the city and leach into the groundwater, I opted to bring it home, to a piece of land I’ve been paying for, and store it until it finds another useful purpose.
I’m not a hoarder, per se, nor a prepper who thinks the end times are coming and we’d better stockpile every last item we can before the trucks stop running. But I will say that I don’t have the religious faith in “The Store” that I’ve observed in many of my fellow Americans. It doesn’t deserve my worship, for two reasons. One, because an economy based on sucking fossil fuels from the earth and turning it into cheap crap that’s designed to break down and be thrown in the dump within 6 months of manufacture doesn’t seem like it has the kind of sea legs on it that entice me to throw myself onto the boat. And two, the crap in the store is there because of the exploitation of resources, natural and human, and has created infinitely more waste and devastation in its processing than I could ever hope to stockpile in my driveway. Besides, I find it insulting that, in order to be “good neighbors and citizens” we should dutifully throw away everything the second it falls out of use for a moment, and then return to “The Almighty Store” like good little boys and girls and buy a new one.
I come from a long line of resourceful men and women who’ve taken the castoffs of society and with their own hands given them a second beautiful, functional life. My Grandpa and my Dad can build a building from the ground up with reclaimed materials. Brent can repair anything and is willing to make whatever he can’t repair. The self-sufficient bootstrapper holds a place of honor in our culture, but heaven forbid he store his materials in his yard for awhile before getting down to it.
At the bottom of all of it, I think, is a fear of wildness. We want everyone to have the manicured lawn, the concrete curbing, because it lulls us into a false sense of security in a terrifying world. Boisterous gardens, scrappy dogs, and piles of crap in neighbors’ driveways remind us that we don’t control everything around us. And it’s not just a one-way street. I shudder when I see a flag-waving neighbor spraying Roundup or polishing his gigantic new car, fearing for what will become of my beloved planet with this insanity all around me. But the point is that we find common ground when we talk to each other, and from those genuine points of connection, we can navigate the trickier differences in opinion. Isolation won’t keep us safe, it will keep us isolated and afraid, especially when we live in fear that our neighbors are spying and calling the cops on us!
So throw open the doors and invite the neighbors inside. We’re better together than apart. And for Pete’s sake, Talk To Me before calling the cops!