This I Believe

Alan - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Entered on March 4, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: science

I Believe in the Unalloyed Goodness of Decomposition

I believe in the unalloyed goodness of decomposition. I refer, of course, to the conversion of leaves, manure and a thousand other varieties of organic matter—some nasty and some inoffensive—to rich, fragrant compost, a harbinger of exuberant greenery. But while I fully appreciate the end product, it is the decomposition process itself that most excites my admiration.

I took a class in soil microbiology in the fall of 1976, and found myself exposed to a realm of complexity and beauty. I started composting before the semester was out, and have been at it ever since, in the city and in the country. I have spent hundreds of peaceful, contented hours puttering around my compost pile: adding to it, sifting the small chunks from the large, and from time to time poking a hole into it to admire the progress.

One thing that makes composting so satisfying is that it is impossible to do wrong. It may be done slowly, or with the right ingredients and methods it may be done quickly, but it cannot be done badly. Unlike almost all other human activities, no skill is required, or even attention. At the most fundamental level, all that is needed is to heap the raw material and stick a sprinkler on top. However it is done, the result is the same. This inability to fail is very soothing to the psyche.

Many people like to attribute the supernatural to something that fills them with wonder. I can do that, too. I call my deity “Mold”, after his most prominent manifestation.

Mold is an easy-going god. He has only one commandment: “Don’t send it to the landfill.” And Mold has a god-like temperament. Not for him any human weaknesses like anger or jealousy. If out of laziness or the press of time I put some compostible material in the trash, Mold does not punish me. He merely withholds his love. Rather than thirty annual heaping wheelbarrow loads of goodness, I may only get twenty-five. But if I repent and get back with the program, Mold again exerts his power, without reservation.

Sadly, Mold is an unappreciated deity. When people see something rotting, they say “Eeeww, gross!” What they should say is “Observe the god at work.” Our funerary customs are a wholesale repudiation of Mold. Many of our bodies are cremated, wasting energy and creating air pollution. Other corpses are pumped full of toxic preservatives, although for what logical reason I cannot imagine. I read that many graveyards now require not only that bodies be buried in coffins, but that the coffins themselves be placed in concrete vaults. Whether this is to prevent formaldehyde from leaching into the groundwater, or to interpose an additional symbolic wall between us and reality, I don’t know.

But none of that for me. Just wrap my body in an old sheet, and lay me to rest somewhere out on the range. There I will placidly meet not my Maker, but my Decomposer: the gentlest of spirits.