Composting as a Spiritual Act

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.

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6 thoughts on “Composting as a Spiritual Act

  1. Hi,

    I’ve been reading the LJ feed for a few months now.

    I completely agree with what you have written. My partner and I have moved into our first house away from our parents and have spent the last nine months turning our grassy backyard into an edible forest. I know it’s winter because the vines and the mint start to die back, I know it’s spring time because our pumpkins and peas and rocket and spinach (and roses!) are flowering, and I currently know it’s summer because the spiders are too hot inside the hidey holes in our washing line, and are hanging out in the shade along the fence… oh, and we’re having to hang up old sheets to protect some of the new seedlings from the sun.

    We have a worm farm and it’s been a wonderful experience to fertilise the garden with the castings and the “worm juice”, and then to harvest the (huge) plants we have grown, and then to put the wastes from them back into the worm farm, and back into the cycle. I have never felt so connected with the turning of the year before, or have had such a strong understanding of the life-death-life cycle. We don’t use any pesticides, but we don’t have many bugs eating our plants because we have spiders that eat them, and then the birds come and eat the spiders.

    Sorry for my rambles, the practical and spiritual lessons I have learnt from my garden are endless and I get a bit excited about sharing!

    Keep up the good work Lupa, I love to read your blog!

    – Theokleia
    (watersusurrus on LJ)

  2. Compost = love. T and I compost everything but meat scraps and bones. Garden stuff, leaves and grass clippings and small sticks, food ‘waste’, it all goes in. We have (as of this year) a nice three-wood-bin setup. Next year I want to get one of the ‘green cone’ aerobic digesters that our solid waste management district is promoting so that we can get the meat scraps out of our waste stream too. (The cat waste, of course, does not go in the compost bins, but we use recycled paper litter instead of clay. I wonder if we could put the used litter in one of these digesters, since they do not generate ‘compost’ that then needs to be handled by someone…)

    Until recently, I thought of my gardening as spiritual practice, and the composting is part of that, but I hadn’t paid much conscious attention to the decomposition/rebirth-as-compost part of the whole process. I really appreciate your perspective and the attention you pay to the *whole* of a thing. ❤

  3. If you’re planning on using raised beds to garden you can build them now and just dump the compost in. Also, I’ve found that compost likes being watered in the summer. (But maybe you already know this and I’m just being redundant…)

    Horse manure (from horses/mules that have been fed right) can be used for edible plants as well as others. It makes them all very happy. 🙂

    Out of curiousity, do you put citrus stuff in your compost?

  4. Theokleia–Ramblings are fine! I’m glad I’m not the only one doing this sort of thing. I don’t have a whole garden yet, but I plan on at least container gardening next year. I’ll admit sometimes it’s tough for me not to squish spiders in the house–it’s that whole primal “I’m gonna get bit!” thing. But I do try to get them outside when possible, because there’s more for them to eat out there than in here.

    raven_albion–Oooh, I should look into a digester. That would help remove even more trash, and it would be more honorable for the bones and remains. I’ve thought about just burying them, but then the raccoons in the neighborhood would just dig them up. And I think a lot of people forget the breakdown part of the cycle. I didn’t even really think about it til I read Starhawk’s “The Earth Path”, where she spent some time talking about that aspect of the cycle, and made it very clear how we’re hurting the soil by taking away the nutrients.

    stormwolfen–I’ll probably be doing container gardening next year–the manure would be a good supplement, though, in case the compost isn’t ready or there isn’t enough of it. And yes, I throw everything in there, including orange peels. Haven’t had a problem so far, though again I’m only going on two months with this particular pile/bin.

  5. As usual Lupa, you hit the nail on the head. Composting is such an important part of understanding the cycles of life, death and rebirth.

    With permission, I’d like to start sharing the links to your articles with my local pagan group – there’s a good number on there who would find your information as interesting as I do.

    And part of me wishes, quite strongly, that this was a ‘public’ tradition – Therianism is such a large part of who I am, and Shamanism *IS* my trad – even if I’m ‘making it up as I go along’ (in so much as my ideas are my own, not necessarily taught to me).

    now if I could just find a good name for being a crystal using therian shaman, I’d be all set 🙂

  6. Miriel–This is all in the open, feel free to share it around 🙂 As for your own path, if there are things that you find inspiring here, go ahead and draw on them. As for therioshamanism being a “public” path, it may happen in the future, it may not. It’s too early to tell at this point.

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