I just got back in from taking the kitchen scraps to the compost bin in the back yard. We’ve had the bin out there for a couple of months now. There’s no real compost yet, but that’s mainly because I started it so late in the year. Still, things are breaking down some, and I’m sure once spring hits and it starts to warm up we’ll see more decay. For now, the pile seems to have a few resident moths, and that’s about it.
People have this idea that compost bins are smelly, probably because garbage is smelly. However, it all depends on what you put in the bin. If you don’t put meat scraps, fats, and other such things in there, you’re fine. And of course, don’t put any animal waste in there–who wants that going ultimately into their garden? Unless you maintain one pile for edible plants, and one for decorative–but even then, animal waste will smell. So we limit the scraps to vegetable matter, paper towels (we always buy the ones made of recycled paper and bleached without chlorine), hair, and eggshells. There’s no smell, and other than a bit of mold nothing really scary in the decaying process.
This is my first compost bin, and I’m rather proud of it. I went and got one of these for thirty-five bucks–took me less than five minutes to assemble. However, I could just as easily have used a stack of four worn-out car tires held in place with posts. Or, if we didn’t have access to a yard, I could have taken two big plastic bins and made a cheap and easy worm bin–that’d be great to go with some indoor container gardening. (One way or another, next year, I WILL garden!)
Composting is a spiritual process for me. Sure, it’s Earthy, and involves things decaying. But mine is a nature religion, thanks. I know some pagans cringe when the term “nature religion” is applied to what they do. Fair enough–if your gods have been abstracted away from the natural forces that birthed them, then I’m not going to try to force you into a compost-bin-shaped-pigeonhole. But for me, Artemis isn’t just the abstract concept of the Hunt and the Moon and liberty–she’s also the reality of blood and death, and the moonlight trying to shine amidst blinding artificial light and air pollution. The totems aren’t just aspects of my psyche–they’re embodied in every living animal out there, from the moth in the compost bin to the kitties snoozing at my feet. And I seek greater awareness of the physical reality of my spirituality.
I am constantly amazed to see the transformation that occurs in the compost bin. The ends of carrots and celery, this past summer’s dead tomato vines, are all transformed from brightly-colored things to somewhat of a mush and mixture of browns and greys (and don’t forget the pale green mold). Maybe this isn’t lead into gold, but it’s an alchemy all on its own. Unfortunately, humanity seems to do its damnedest to interfere with that magical process. Yard Work As Viewed From Heaven may be a humor piece, but it has a message.
Take fertilizer, for example. Nature provides its own fertilizer. When something dies, it feeds the living. Taking dead trees out of the forest weakens the soil, the tree could provide numerous nutrients to small animals and plants and bacteria. Ultimately, the dead tree would enrich the soil. But instead the soil suffers, having fed the tree but not receiving the nutrients back through decay. And, to bring things closer to home for a lot of us, when we cut the grass and bag the clippings, we’re taking away the natural fertilizer in that grass. You know where that fertilizer is going? Into the landfill. And do you know what happens to grass in a landfill? Absolutely nothing. It doesn’t matter how biodegradable something is–if it goes into a landfill, it’s not breaking down. There’s nothing to break it down. I remember as a kid I watched a 20/20 episode where the reporter went to a landfill and excavated through several years’ of trash. He found a carrot that was almost perfect, other than being shrivelled and dirty.
Decay does take a certain mixture of factors. In my compost pile, for example, I need to balance the “greens” (carrot ends and celery leaves) with “browns” (dead leaves, paper towels). A lot of people make the mistake of not having enough browns, which makes the decay go slower. Additionally, I turn over the compost whenever I add more to the pile to help all the compost get air, which promotes decay as well. I don’t think that landfill is getting nearly enough air.
By composting, I’m returning some of what has been taken from the Earth and putting it back into the cycle, instead of the dead zone of a landfill. Rather than throwing away perfectly good, nearly free, fertilizer for the garden, I toss it into the compost bin and let it do its thing. It’s quicker than going to the store, and it keeps me locked into the cycles of Nature, instead of letting myself be drawn away from those cycles, pretending that they don’t actually affect me, numbed by the out of sight, out of mind of the landfill.
Much is made, in neopaganism, of the Wheel of the Year, and the mythology surrounding it. Sure, it’s important to pay attention to the Solar and Lunar cycles–but I think more is made of the symbolism and the abstract mythology surrounding those cycles, than the cycles themselves. It’s easy to get caught up in celebration in the living room with your coven or family or other group. But then, when everyone’s gone home, we can go back to our everyday lives, complaining about the weather and going to work far away from home and surviving trips to the crowded grocery store. The Sun God has been born, we know the sun will come back soon, and eventually we’ll switch back off of daylight savings time (and lose an hour of sleep).
Composting brings me into a cycle that hasn’t been so abstracted. There’s nothing glamorous about that pile of decaying matter in the bin. Nor are worms and moths particularly flashy. We have the Horned God, but we don’t have the Slimy God With Multitudinous Setae. Composting makes the processes of fertility very apparent to me in a way that the Sabbats and Esbats never did when I followed a more generic, Wiccan-inspired neopagan path. In that bin is death turning into the fuel for life. Next year, that compost can be mixed in with the Earth and feed tomato plants and mint and gods know what all else. It can feed the plants that become food for me. In that bin is nutrition cycling through one stage to the next. The compost is life.
This is why I’m so diligent about filling up the bucket of kitchen scraps. Every leftover scrap from making salad goes in there. Every paper towel that isn’t soaked in cleaning chemicals gets tossed in, and the hair from our brushes. Last night I poured the last of the milk on a bowl of cereal–unfortunately, the milk was spoiled (nothing says “Mmmmmmm!” like fluffy milk!). I drained the milk into the sink, and tossed the cereal into the bucket. Crumbs from the bottom of a bag of herb-flavored popcorn, every last bit of eggshell from breakfast–it all goes in there. Every bit of nutrition and energy that I can salvage gets poured back into that sacred cycle.
It’s not just a matter of waste not, want not, though that is a factor, too. It’s the fact that I have participated too much in breaking the alchemical cycle of decay, in taking the gifts of the Earth and locking them away in the landfill, away from where they could do any good. Some things can’t be composted–cardboard, for instance–but it can be recycled, and that in itself is a cycle that mirrors the natural cycle of decay.
As a species we’ve grown too detached from the cycles of Nature. We may still be ruled by them to an extent as mammals, but we tell ourselves we’re different. Composting reminds me that I am still very much a part of those sacred cycles, and that I have a very real connection to them even when I pretend otherwise. But I choose to engage in them again, to contribute to them and participate in them. I still haven’t figured out what I’ll do to celebrate the Equinoxes and Solstices, but I do feel comfort in at least one cyclical celebration–the humble, yet exceptionally important, joy of composting.