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LivingGardeningIn Praise of Compost

In Praise of Compost

by Jacob Berkowitz

I, like many, am craving spring’s return in order to garden. I love to get my hands back in friable soil, to hold tiny seeds and make straight, shallow rows in which to plant them. Yet, at this time of year, I also feel a deep sense of connection with Earth in its pungent, fertile decay: in compost.

With the return of warmer days and brighter sunlight, not-so-long-ago frozen compost piles come alive.

Compost is so much more than a municipal waste-diversion material. To compost is to commune with the most powerful force of the cosmos, the eternal cycle of dust to dust.

This might seem like a very distant thought if, like most Canadians, you’re an urban householder putting out a plastic bucket of densely packed veggie and fruit slops for curbside pickup. Then, maybe, there’s the sense of a good deed, of civic responsibility, of one small act for a healthier planet.

But if you are fortunate enough to have backyard space to keep that compost at home–if it can be your compost experience–the contents of that bucket transform from slops to soulful. To compost is to witness backyard rebirth.

Until the late 19th century, most people believed that new life emerged spontaneously from compost. There was little debate about the fundamental origins of life, of a beginning. In a predominantly agricultural society anyone could witness life happening anew all around them, from manure piles to food middens. Green shoots emerged unbidden. The life force was everywhere.

Now, in a more urban, scientific culture we seek to understand the chemical origins of life in a cosmic context. Rather than living in a world in which life itself is born again all the time, there is for many a sense of being on a singular island of life in a lonely universe. Yet the evidence that is emerging from our explorations is that Earth, like the sprout from a compost pile, is one flowering of a fertile cosmos.

I once asked a NASA scientist involved in the search for life on Mars how he defined life. “Love,” he said. That answer has returned to me over and over because its very generality is its power. From hydrogen and oxygen atoms bonding to form water, to our deep attraction to one another, it is this love force which drives the universe. We are joined by our desire to connect with one another, to experience the oneness we know in our beings, and crave to have reaffirmed.

And it is this oneness that I experience in composting, of participating in the process of dinner plate scrapings changed into soil which, when I spread it, will nourish our garden.

Renaissance still life painters often included a human skull amid piles of beautiful fruit, a reminder that death is always present even with seeming living perfection. It is a visual call to hold the intertwined fragility and strength of who and what we are. This, at times, unbearable lightness of being.

Gardening is the promise of the fruit ripening from the planted seed. To know the full cycle of life, we must walk the leftovers to the backyard compost bin and tend it. We are worm food bemoaned Hamlet. And more. A compost heap is a vast ecosystem of hundreds of different creatures, dining in turn on our leftovers, transforming them into black gold. Into the promise of tomorrow.

The compost bucket holds an end that transforms into a beginning. The compost bin a place for meeting the divine. There is hope in darkness. Decay and new life. Death and new life.




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