This I Believe
I watched my mother carry evil-smelling peelings, egg shells, old tea bags and such, to the netherworld at the bottom of our garden, while growing up in Great Britain.
The compost pile lived in a concrete-block bunker tucked behind the old World War II bomb shelter and the little greenhouse filled with tomato plants tied neatly to stakes and wires. In the North of England, where we lived, it was almost futile to grow tomatoes because the low angle of the sun, even in summer, was insufficient to ripen such exotic fruits as tomatoes.
Our neighbor was more pragmatic with a large vegetable patch on the telephone company land behind our street. His garden was filled with practical crucifers like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. The old gent had a compost pile too and I noticed that he wheeled barrows of it out to his plot and spread it around the veggies.
My Mum would carry out the black stuff I later knew as humus, or finished compost, and lovingly dress the soil around her adored rose bushes, significant members of our postage-stamp-sized English garden.
Normally very proper, genteel and rather shy, my mother would rush out to the street, bucket and shovel in hand, whenever the “rag-and-bone man” passed by with his horse-drawn dray. The steaming, brown and strangely musky-smelling, not unpleasant fresh manures went on the compost pile.
I neither knew, nor cared, about compost but I must have learned about it by osmosis because in the 1970’s, when I was a student of agriculture at the University of Connecticut, something clicked. Studying soil science and horticulture in formal courses, I also read outside of class about organic and Biodynamic Farming. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Bill Mollisson’s “Permaculture” catapulted me into the organic movement and away from the agribusiness being taught at the conservative Land Grant college.
Making compost, or “black-gold”, as I called it, became a sort of religion. A Zen-like enlightenment of the “chop wood, carry water” variety underlies the daily-ness of compost-making. There is a beauty of connecting with the cycling of nutrients through life, death, and re-birth that accompanies building soil, sowing a seed, reaping harvest, and raking leaves into the compost pile along with weeds and plant debris and kitchen scraps, to cycle it all back into the soil.
Even more than pleasure as a mindful daily chore, compost rings of truth in another way. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – we come from the same elements as leaves and egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags. Organized in repetitive molecules ordered around by chromosomes – carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, potash and all the others find their ways into us, and eagles, snails and newts. Those elements find their ways into lady slippers, oaks, lichens and mushrooms. Then they cycle out into humus and back into some other life form, on and on, with no end.
Yes, I believe in compost.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.