After drinking my morning coffee I stepped into my wooden clogs to empty our kitchen compost bucket. The piles are in the back corner or our yard, hidden behind our old garage which holds our bikes, our tripping canoe, shovels, paddles and too much more. Under some very scraggly cedars I found a last remnant of snow, an icy mound that won’t last long. The snow that had grown on top of the compost heaps – 3 pens that I sawed and hammered together from the lumber of an old wooden deck – was already gone, unearthing the frozen remnants of our winter diet. The orange peels will take more than a summer to decompose, but the warmth and spring rain should make quick work of old celery stalks and kale.
In a few weeks I will step into the pens in my rubber boots to turn the rotting mess; to add last year’s fallen leaves; to mix in the pine needles and the ashes that I’ve imported from the cottage. I know there is a science to good composting, to accelerating, to optimizing its burning rate, to keeping animals out, but I will confess that I don’t really care that much about speed: I am ok with slow decomposition, though I am curious about what happens behind my back.
One day I might invest in one of those fancy motion sensitive cameras that capture wildlife. I’d like to know and see what animals feed here in the night. I do know about the racoons, know that they love to lick out the egg shells I used to add: I only stopped when I found the broken shards on my doorstep. We can always count on a hoard of squirrels to feed their babies in the spring, sustained a skunk last summer, and in winter, found the fine paw prints of rabbits. For years, we wondered if they belonged to Finn, our wayward dwarf rabbit, the one who chewed through, and then escaped his outdoor wire cage. For some time he hopped onto our backyard deck, wistfully looked up at our kitchen window, perhaps wondering if, hoping that, we’d welcome him back.
Composting has always been a bit of a surprise, an experiment: I never quite know what will slowly, and sometimes suddenly grow out of the bins’ corners, though I have seen tomato seeds germinate and reach towards the light; have looked into the purple of potato eyes and found their green arms roam and quit the dark and damp, leave their soft wrinkled bodies. One time oyster mushrooms grew between the wooden slats.
All this decomposing and recomposing has me thinking about something David Whyte said in his book Consolations, his exploration of 52 words that I can’t seem to put down. “We are all compost for worlds we cannot yet imagine.” My garden and I take part in an endless rearrangement, a composition: the cells of my body will, later this summer, eat tomatoes that have fed on my morning’s coffee grounds. I will, one day, in some future world, pick herbs that found nourishment in rotten carrot peels; touch flowers whose names I do not yet know.
And I am a composition of all the good wishes and warnings, insightful and thoughtless, helpful and spiteful comments, all the conversations I have ever had, and not just the ones I remember and took to heart, but all the ones I have forgotten, dismissed, ignored, rejected, ridiculed. For example, in grade 7 I was sent to the principal’s office with a warning that my rolling eyes would one day roll right out of my empty skull. And a few weeks later I learned, after shocking a different teacher, that I should always check a word I’d heard, with my constant companion, my English-German dictionary, before repeating it in the classroom. Another time, a beloved teacher earnestly called me out on a belief that I had uttered, a falsehood I had inherited and trusted. I can still feel the rising blush to my face, its sting, the mark it left. I learned that I should be more discerning, more careful about what I believe and then repeat; back away from stories I cannot yet understand, have not yet examined, for their truth. Because it is the repeating of these stories, my contribution to the chain, the rotting mess, that earns me a part in a world that I cannot yet imagine.
I have been thinking about Madame Defarge, that tireless villain in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, essential high school reading almost 40 years ago. She was a nasty character, the ringleader who judged and then stitched, into her knitting, the names of the revolution’s enemies. And I see her sitting there, in a dark corner of the tavern, listening, gathering evidence, using yarn to measure the life of a man, then cut it short and toss it to the Guillotine. An extreme example, to be sure, but you get the gist: what we remember and then repeat can have uncalculated, and calculated effects. I cringe when I think about all the hogwash, the eye rolling nonsense, the gossip that I’ve contributed to the noise of this world, the effect I’ve had on a cosmos I cannot yet imagine.
Right Speech is a Buddhist principle for ethical living, a gift of peace we give to others and to ourselves. Essentially, Right Speech encourages us to abstain from gossip and lies, to refrain from sewing divisiveness. It asks us to examine the worth, the quality, as well as the intent of the words we speak, suggests that we pause long enough to explore our motivations and weigh their merit. In that moment, in that wrestle, we are given a choice: to speak or to bite, or hold our tongue. But hey, sometimes harsh words are called for, worth their while: sweetness and light don’t stop bullies or garbage from swallowing the countryside, for example.
But I digress, how the heck did I get here from the midden, that rotting heap in my yard? I do love my compost, though of course, the best part is what emerges at the bottom, what is left after I’ve lifted and shifted, rotated from one bin to the other, the rotten, the slimy, as well as the stubborn still recognizable matter, twice a year, once in spring and once in fall. Way down lies, what gardeners call black gold, beautiful soft rich soil. There really is so little, hardly worth the effort, but I will carry my small gift to dress and feed hungry shrubs and plants: the bugbanes, the ferns, anemones, my grandmother’s little almond tree, and whatever else calls out to me.