I’m holding in my hand the most delicate vessel. It is exactingly made and of a lovely bulbous shape. Its thin walls curve outward then back, suggesting a perfect pear. The front side has a small aperture in it. Could this be an elegant drinking cup? Or a special wren house? Its pale ochre-colored surface, stippled with gray and livened with a bumpy texture, would make a decorative piece for the mantel. Although its walls appear fragile, it also possesses qualities of wood. When tapped, the hollow container produces a pleasant, musical sound. Maybe this found treasure is a folk instrument?
So, OK. The mystery object is not some venerable heirloom being puzzled over and evaluated on Antiques Road Show; it’s not even of human construction. This alluring ornament is the empty shell of a gourd from the compost pile, the remnant of vegetation transformation.
Ah, compost—dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Without all that decomposing we’d have no soil, no food, no us. When you have a compost pile, it gives “getting back to your roots” a whole new meaning.
During the first part of May, when it was either raining or about to rain, I carried yet another brimming basket of veg trimmings out to our compost area. On that misty morning, I saw it was high time to turn under or pull out all the new green plants sprouting out of our two compost heaps. After I’d done that, I tossed my new detritus into the heap and grabbed the old garden rake, ready to bank up some of the newer materials against the old to speed up the breakdown. I squelched right on into the grapefruit rinds, potato peels, onion tops, and coffee grounds, happy to witness naked nature converting one kind of life into another—with a good deal of help from a zillion microorganisms, the bugs, and the worms.
On that fragrant spring morning, tromping around on the squishy ground, my book-loving self transported me immediately to Florida and I was there a century ago with Janie and Teacake down “in de muck” of the Everglades—I could practically smell the rich, loamy land. In Zora Neale Hurston’s great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God these two lovers, along with hundreds of fellow seasonal workers, travel to plant crops in the dark soil of the pre-drained Everglades, familiarly know as “de muck.” Janie is plain overwhelmed by those fertile fields —and also by her man Teacake. Along with the other poor transients, they plant beans and for awhile it’s the really good life…
Daydreaming, I grab a bunch of desiccating stuff with the rake tines intending to shift it. Whoa! My attention snaps back to the here and now. There under “de muck” beneath my feet, I’ve uncovered thousands of wriggling red worms and night crawlers, all tangled, all busy digesting our food scraps. At that moment I realized that my eyes were watching God--and I raked the material back over the worm orgy. Let them do for now what they’re born to do. I’ll move the compost when the weather gets drier and they’re down deeper.
Anyone can make compost. Sure you can be fancy and make “brown tea” and interlayer portions of green and brown materials. You can go to the Athens Stables and get horse manure. You can track the temperature of your pile. Or, you can just create a little area, say under a tree in the corner of your yard, and throw veg trimmings, grass clippings, and leaves in. You can heap it on a hillside. Despite rumor, an outside compost pile doesn’t smell. Churn it around now and again with a rake or a shovel, and magically, over time, you’ll get good black humus.
As a composter, you’re doing favors for your soil and for the environment whether you grow flowers and vegetables or not. As “Just Eat It,” the first film in the Wabash College Library and League of Women Voters’ Green Film Series this summer, reminded us, we North Americans waste 40% of the food we buy; and, 97% of that ends up in landfills where it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Each year we produce $218 billion dollars worth of food that’s not eaten. Digest that for a moment: what an irony.
Moving from the planet’s health to yours: having compost makes you more likely to use fresh food since you have a healthy place to dispose of vegetable matter. Even without a yard, you can have a compost spinner in your garage or a specially designed compost bucket under your sink. Have a look on line. In Seattle, the city itself collects compost and provides bins to citizens. We’ll get there eventually, but right now you can start improving soil at home.
When you come down to the Farmers’ Market on Saturday, ask a farmer-grower about how she or he uses compost. Local vegetables taste better not only because they’re fresh and not shipped long distances, but also because they’re grown in healthy soil and so have a more robust and varied nutrient profile. Only a 5% increase in organic materials quadruples soil’s water holding capacity.
If all the beautiful fresh salad ingredients, flowers, trees, pastured meat, free-range poultry meat, and eggs don’t lure you, how about some freshly-popped kettle corn? We have a new vendor who sells bags of the excellent (and addicting) stuff. I’ve yet to get a bag home for anyone else to share.
Helen Hudson is a former Icelandic scholar, professor and teacher. Her educational career took her to Colorado, Washington, Wisconsin and Indiana — all away from her Iowa birthplace and upbringing. An addiction to her passion for food and sustainable living, she works with passenger mail and is involved with community organizations in Crawfordsville where she lives.