The Decompository at the Arnold Arboretum
By Max Liboiron.
Most Arboretums don’t put their dirt, waste, and decomposition on visitor maps. In July, via a workshop on Digital STS at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, we fixed that.  We created “The Decompository” for the Arboretum. The Decompository cataloged the entire, often dirty, frequently smelly, certainly decomposing urban ecology of the park so it could be made more apparent for visitors and researchers.
Among other items, the Decompository included a map:
- Miniature “logs” in Hemlock Grove indicate where children education coordinators asked grounds people to leave some logs to decompose, so children could understand what that meant. Many had not experienced natural decay before.
- The flower in the explorer’s garden indicates the site of a landscape littered with thousands of fallen and decaying flowers. This was part of our official tour.
- The debris in the east side of the Arboretum indicates where previous landfill was used to fill in swamps. A few buildings are also bulldozed into the ground at this location. This section of the Arboretum is not landscaped, but left to grow naturally.
- The dark mulch in the center of the map indicates the location of The Dump, where grass and tree clippings are piled to be chipped and weathered before being returned to the park as mulch and fertilizer.
- Yellow areas indicate where urban pets tend to urinate.
- Black dots indicate trash cans, often full of urban pet manure.
- Ubiquitous green dots indicate microorganisms decomposing organic material.
The decomp map is juxtaposed–dumped, really– onto the preexisting visitor map, and includes a scratch and sniff component. If you can’t make it to the Arboretum, or if the cold has slowed down or hidden your decomp destination, visitors can scratch a site on the map and smell a particular decomposing scent.
In fact, sensory experience played a large role in our decomp research. We relied heavily on our senses when gathering information about the nuances and geographies of decomposition. We smelled the mulch, and dug our arms into chip piles to feel the heat of decomposition. We had poison ivy scares and dirty fingernails. When opening a trash lid, our noses let us know whether there was dog feces long before our eyes could identify the tightly wrapped plastic bags. Shifting our gaze level with puddles, we noticed a rainbow sheen we might not have noticed standing up. Once we knew what the different ages of mulch looked and smelled like, we could identify its use all over the Arboretum. In the end, this sensory experience is what led us to use specimen cups in our presentation– we wanted people to see, smell and feel the varieties and subtleties of decomp.
In informal conversations with Arboretum staff, we found out that certain kinds of decomposition are given priority in research: there are existing maps of soil texture, types, and nutritional info, while a future research project may investigate Arboretum’s cosmopolitan microbiomes. Employees also discussed “pest” decomposition such as dogs urinating on gates. When we presented the project to workshop participants and Arboretum staff, there was a strong aversion by staff to the inclusion of urine in our “archive,” despite earlier comments by our tour guide Peter when he described the Arboretum as “real nature–a hodge podge of cosmopolitan nature!” Urban animal life, including dogs that are taken into the Arboretum, sometimes explicitly to empty their bladders, is a crucial part of this cosmopolitan urban assemblage. This raises a larger methodological problem faced by STS: How do we, as researchers, deal with something that is a premise in STS (the inclusion of systematically excluded actors) when it rankles against public discourse? Is it just an issue of translation and framing, or do we have to do work to change values and concepts as well?
The Decompository poses certain challenges to curatorial and archival practices. Preservation is often an underlying value (and practice) in curation, and certainly in archival work. What does including decomposition mean for these practices? Does it entail including decomposing items in the archive, or merely documenting the processes with clean, clear digital means? Is the olfactory comfort of visitors more valued than developing a “nuanced nose” for identifying different decomp?
By drawing attention to, and scrutinizing decomposition in the Arnold Arboretum we ask how knowledge production, objects of knowledge, and processes of decomposition align or trouble the clean preservationist ethos in which digital archives partake, both deliberately or indirectly by processes of inclusion/exclusion, and by privileging longevity and intentional gardening practices.
1. “We” include: Jelena Karanovic, Adjunct Assistant Professor, New York University, Shad Gross, Phd Student, Indiana University Bloomington, Hanna Rose Shell, Associate Professor at MIT, and myself, Max Liboiron.
2 thoughts on “The Decompository at the Arnold Arboretum”
It would be really cool if arboretums could combine the tidy landscape ethos with decomposition in a proud display – like Mark Dion’s “Neukom Vivarium” in Seattle – a feature that is beautiful, attractant, educational and actively decomposing.
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