Living with messiness

reindeer 1
A totally gratuitous and irrelevant reindeer photo

“It’s chasing an illusion to think that any organization — be it a family unit or a corporation — can be completely rid of disorder on any consistent basis,” said Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, N.H., whose work involves helping people tolerate the inherent disorder in their lives. “And if it could, should it be? Total organization is a futile attempt to deny and control the unpredictability of life.” […]

Irwin Kula is a rabbi based in Manhattan and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” which was published by Hyperion in September. “Order can be profane and life-diminishing,” he said the other day. “It’s a flippant remark, but if you’ve never had a messy kitchen, you’ve probably never had a home-cooked meal. Real life is very messy, but we need to have models about how that messiness works.”

I’m sure this story from the NY Times, Saying Yes to Mess, has already been blogged to death. I only want to add one important perspective the story barely mentions, aside from noting that messiness is natural: the environment. Learning to live with some degree of messiness is not just a lifestyle issue. All too often, the atavistic impulse to clean things up leads people to use dangerous household chemicals, such as bleach, or worse yet, to apply herbicides such as ChemLawn to their yards.

Lawns are great if you have kids — but so are trees, for climbing and building treehouses in. And while large, well-trimmed lawns may appeal to your sense of cleanliness and order, keep in mind that they are also biological deserts. This is not a trivial issue for wildlife and biodiversity. Estimates of the total acreage of residential lawn in the United States range from 14 to 26 million acres. By contrast, the largest Wilderness complex in the Lower 48 — the Frank Church-River of No Return and Gospel-Hump Wildernesses in Idaho — is only 2.5 million acres.

Fortunately, the National Wildlife Federation offers plenty of guidance with their Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification program. Older residential areas, with maturing trees and lots of shrubs, though no substitute for natural forests or grasslands, can still provide valuable habitat for many songbirds and other critters. If you’re already doing everything right, a yard sign from the NWF might help you broach the subject with your neighbors. See also the common-sense advice from the Pesticide-Free Lawns campaign.

Ironically, self-styled nature lovers are sometimes among the worst offenders, “cleaning up” their half-acre suburban woodlots to make them “look nice,” and in the process, removing all the most valuable wildlife niches: weedy stream banks, standing dead trees, fallen logs and branches, even fallen leaves. I understand the aesthetic appeal of open spaces, but doesn’t a nice, Zen meditation hall-like room work best with a naturalistic landscape right beyond the windows? If you really can’t control the urge to keep nature in its place (and as a control freak, shouldn’t that bother you?) build a greenhouse, or start an organic raised-bed vegetable garden — in your front yard.
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Let’s face it, I don’t blog about conservation issues very often. If you like this kind of post, be sure to bookmark my friend Alan’s Conservation News blog.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

7 Comments


  1. Totally gratuitous? Rabbi Kula’s remarks and the reindeer photo combined to remind me of this from the Bible’s book of Proverbs: “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.”

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  2. Love the Reindeer.

    Feel better about our apartment.

    Merry, merry.

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  3. You have reindeer in your area!? I thought I was looking at Lapland, heh. Good points on conservation! Guess what our lawn is – moss! Have yourself a merry Christmas, Dave.

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  4. Thanks for the comments, y’all. Joyeux Noël ‘n ‘at.

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  5. As the author of the front yard garden (built on gravel parking area by the way) to which you link, you’ll be glad to know that my back yard retains much of its wildness. Some cleanup was needed as we are in a high-risk fire area but there is plenty of standing and fallen dead wood. The predominant vegetation on this half of our three-quarter acre is Douglas fir with a grassy understory dominated by pinegrass. Add to this a band of smaller deciduous tress and wild berry bushes and it has become a major attraction for local birds, with 59 species recorded.

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  6. That’s excellent! Thanks for stopping by. I was happy to find your piece in the course of looking for that NY Times article you linked to — kind of made it more real.

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