Every October when leaves fall, my neighbors complain. But I rejoice. I welcome dead maple leaves and tuck their crumbly remains underneath my shrubs to decompose and feed the soil. I believe in decay.
I started gardening to seek relief from my children when they were young. In the garden, my plants never argued. They always did my bidding. It’s easy to love flowers and leaves for their beauty, variety, and fragrance. It’s also easy to feel power over them. I could move plants around or even kill them on a whim, if I didn’t like their looks, or their type, or where they had settled.
But as my gardening skills grew, I gave up some of my power to behold the power of nature – not its power of growth, but of decay. In death, plants all end up the same – the same brown color, the same brittle texture. That’s when they join the compost and their next incarnation begins.
In 1975 I got a copy of Rodale’s Organic Gardening, a book packed with miraculous stories about gardeners who had grown gigantic vegetables and mammoth flowers without chemicals. Their gardens out-grew those of their neighbors, and their produce was healthier by far. I saw in these stories a blueprint for saving the world.
Eager to join the ranks of these gardening heroes, I started a compost pile. I threw the remains of plants into a heap behind a tree in the corner of my yard. I hired my children to find worms that had been forced out of the ground after the rain, and marshaled their squirmy selves to feed on the decomposing pile. I added vegetable scraps from the kitchen. Then I waited as the pile moved through stages of decomposition.
In my impatience, I briefly mistook leaf mold for compost. But then it happened! I’ll never forget when I first beheld the real thing. It was like finding warm, earthy gold. The dead plants had magically transformed into luscious compost, where their life-force was condensed into mineral molecules stronger than any chemical.
Now while most gardeners grow plants, I grow soil. My soil is smooth and soft, like powdery dark chocolate, in an area where the earth is naturally a heavy, orange clay. Throughout the summer, even in the baking heat, I can dig in this soil with my bare hands – no need to use metal tools like my neighbors do to pry open the cracked earth. Such soil gives refuge to insects and food to birds, allowing the perfect balance of nature to police itself with my help but not my intrusion. One heap at a time, compost can produce enough crops to feed the planet. It’s the answer to erosion.
Decay makes potent soil like this possible. Decay can save the world. Because I believe in decay, I believe I should be its steward, to give it space, to nurture it so that it can perform its tasks and make way for new life.
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