My daily newspaper, The Hartford Courant, ran a weeklong feature this week on a subject close to where I live: trash. It featured articles on a trash-to-energy center, recycling, thrift shops (I wish they hadn’t done that…they let too many secrets out), and freeganism. I was dismayed to notice that out of all this, scant attention was paid to a beneficial, natural recycling practice: composting! Guess no one there reads Mother Earth News. If I’d only known they were gonna do this, I’dve kindly lent them a few of my own back issues to crib from.

 One particular article that could have benefited from a friendly introduction to this simple practice was an article by featured regular columnist Susan Campbell, who often writes touching articles advocating the humanity of the homeless. For this article, she described her relationship with her trash, in particular, that of a smelly, rotting orange in her kitchen. From trash to dump. Now, granted, she did make the admission that this was compost material. If, however, she were educated on the simplicity and relative lack of commitment it takes to start and maintain a compost pile, perhaps that orange would have actually landed into a nice compost pile somewhere and meld with its biological brethren and become what is known to gardeners as humus, or “black gold”.

It’s a simple process that requires two important ingredients: carbons (hay, wood chips, uncoated, shredded paper, shredded cardboard, leaves are ideal), and nitrogens (that’s where the orange comes in. Any fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, etc., work. Avoid dairy and meat.). These components are ideally layered, like lasagna, into a bin with ventilation. I use eco friendly wooden pallettes lashed together, but a structure constructed out of hardware cloth works as well, or a plastic trash can with holes drilled throughout. Of course, there are turning composters available at garden centers, but I’ve read mixed reviews on them and frankly consider them a waste of cash.

And, once arranged into alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen material, that can be the extent of the commitment. This is called a “cold pile”, which usually takes longer to break down. Now, if you want to really have some fun, you can heat this baby up and speed things along in the process (bring a kiddie along and it’s an educational experience for them). All you need is a hose and a pitchfork. Thoroughly soak your compost pile with the hose, especially toward the center. I always make a little indentation in the center before I start. Kind of like a basin, or a well. Don’t be stingy with the water. Once it’s suitably soaked, toss the sodden mass like salad with your pitchfork, turning and stirring well. Soon, you will notice mists of steam emanating from within. If you’re brave and touch its center, you will notice heat radiating. This means that the microorganisms, the bacteria, and the fungi are working hard. And soon, within perhaps a month or two, depending on the size of your pile, you will be gifted with rich, organic…dirt. Which can be spread in the garden, or lacking one, could be sprinkled onto the lawn, or fed to a tree around its base. Or given away. Whatever.

And that’s it. If you train, er, educate, the rest of the household on this, it becomes a matter of routine. C. was dubious at first. He’d call the compost pile “your new little toy” as I’d trudge over to my pile with fresh material and fire up the garden hose. He never really ventured out to the garden to take in the dramatic improvements in veggie yields or notice the beautiful dark, crumbly soil. And he pouted when I gave away that awful bag of chemical fertilizer he brought home early on. But in about a month or two into it, even he was sold on the environmental righteousness of it all. Or maybe it was the sweeter smelling kitchen.

As much as it amuses me to heat up my bin (yes, I am that easily amused), and for as much as it eases my environmental conscience, the real reason I compost is a surprising one: spiritual. No, I do not chant or kneel in prayer around my bin. But, after observing this process again and again (it still isn’t old to me), I’m comforted by the transformation of materials used up and beyond their prime into something rich, fortifying, and life sustaining. I’d like to think that after I’m done with this earth that the stuff that makes up my soul (my physical form will not be returning to the dark earth…uh-uh.), will go on somewhere beneficial too.

And so I’m off to fire  an email to the Courant’s reader rep. to both commend them for the wealth of recycling information, and to gently admonish them on the glaring compost omission.

Because the trash heap has not truly spoken until the compost steams.


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August 2006
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