Volume 21, Number 4

A Garbologist Shares His Thoughts

More often than you’d think,
A vanished culture leaves no artifacts
To show that it was ever there,
Except the things its people threw away.
Some buried oyster shells
Or shards of broken pottery
Are all that many early nations left.
Their handicrafts and rude attempts at art
Have vanished with the names they gave themselves.

We do our best to puzzle out the origins of Man
From this enduring trash,
And scrutinize each bit of it we find.
One scrap of deerhide generates
A dozen weeks of scholarly debate.
A midden turned up on a building site
Creates an academic cottage industry.

Each history of species has an end.
When, finally, this Earth is made untenanted—
Colliding bodies; climate change; disease;
The human urge that contradicts the passion to create—
Our species’ history may be compiled, at length,
By curious intelligences of another kind.
They’ll have no weather-crumbled Taj Mahal,
No blasted Trevi Fountain to appraise.
A fluted bottle, narrow in the waist,
Whose carbonated contents were a secret even then,
Will represent the glory of our vanished race.

—Robert Laughlin