Friday, April 17, 2020

compost in the time of corona

Underneath the rotting vegetables, coffee grounds and grass clippings is rich soil that has been forming for years. Untwisting the ends of the hardware cloth, I reform the cylinder nearby into which I’ll transfer the contents. It is time to turn the compost. 

Decomposing organic matter is the aromatic harbinger of the growing season. This year, my task corresponds with the backyard neighbor’s blooming Nanking cherry, infusing the compost stink with sweetness. Spring 2020, however, Covid-19 weighs heaviest in the air.

Tears well as I work, listening to the news: those incarcerated, detained, caged have no chance of avoiding infection in crowded, unsanitary quarters; the disproportionate death toll on African Americans; the rise in domestic violence; the rise in livestreaming child sexual abuse; medical personnel in trash bags like lambs to slaughter. One person every 47 seconds dies of Covid-19.

Gardening anchors me, provides a physical outlet for my grief.

I scoop broken eggshells, slimy cucumbers, black banana peels with my pitchfork into what will be the bottom of the new compost pile. I transfer sheaves of paperboard and brown leaves, the wilted loops of squash and sweet potato vines, the plant carcasses from a black thumb neighbor, still in the shape of pots. The compost bin holds what we no longer need or want, what we’ve neglected, allowed to spoil.

It is full of our refuse.

Waist high, my bin is also full of insects, worms and sometimes mice. By the scatter around the bin, I suspect other critters visit the Compost Buffet. Round the clock and round the calendar, various beings thrive on what we consider waste. I convey them to their new home on my pitchfork as they wriggle and writhe, their discreet hidden lives suddenly exposed. In this way compost provides community—a mutualistic ecosystem where everyone needs are met.

Soon my backyard neighbors come outside to do their own work along a fence line we share. The next door neighbor steps out onto her back porch to say hello. A dear friend wrangles a large, persnickety stump out from where I want to add another vegetable bed. Mindful of keeping each other safe, we maintain distance. I am grateful to see them; in this moment, we are each well. Compost is community for me too since I share my bin with neighbors. Their scraps and trimmings participate in becoming. 

That’s what a compost bin is mainly full of: becoming.

I scoop Dan’s adventure in vegan flan and remnants of Pat’s haircut into the new pile. Thousands of decomposers shelter and feed here while the alchemy of time, weather and their refuse transform into soil.

Soil nurses the various seeds I gleefully buy when trees are still bare, nourishes the transplants I am determined to find room for like unexpected guests to the dinner table. Last year’s decomposing tomatoes become a crucible for this summer’s tomatoes. Soil is the soul of becoming.

Soil arises from the carcasses of what was, allowing what is to become what will be. I continue my work, inhaling the mixture of rot, Nanking Cherry and the specter of pandemic. 

Covid 19 is the result of humans encroaching on habitats and ecosystems to satisfy unreasonable wants through a callous, ignorant orientation toward our earth and its residents. As the pandemic spreads, inequitable, long crumbling institutions acutely reveal the devastating gaps in social safety nets through which people plummet, suffer and die.

To sustain capitalistic avarice and the systems that prop it up, would be like expecting black peels to provide bananas, wilted vines to produce fruit. They simply do not hold what we need. What was, must be discarded for the rot it is. 

I think of Arundhati Roy’s words:

The pandemic is a portal between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our dead ideas and our dead rivers. Or we can walk through lightly ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

"We" is a critical component of how we imagine another world. This liminal time confirms, once again, thriving or surviving don't happen through solitary effort. Similarly, I do not produce veggies on my own: my neighbors' refuse, decomposers, my friend's muscle, the gift of time, seasons, sunshine, rain, mulch from Missouri Organic, seeds, transplants and chicken manure from Kansas City Community Garden Center, gardening lessons from friends and neighbors all go into my garden beds to provide squash, garlic, potatoes, arugula, carrots and so on. We walk through this portal together or not at all. 

For a gardener, dead things have value. Through purposeful release in an intentional container, through microscopic parsing, through the alchemy of time and community, rotten things transmogrify. During this season of distancing and few distractions, may the thousands of us who have the privilege of time, income and true shelter, become decomposers. Let us shred the carcasses of hate, dead ideas, moldy institutions. Let us make rich soil from what was. Amidst the stink of rot and death, what sweet hope wants to bloom like my neighbor's Nanking cherry? We carry the seeds of what the world can be: a mutualistic ecosystem in which the needs of all beings are met.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense*

My February calendar picture is of two Gentoo penguin chicks. One bird seems to have its wing around the other. That one also looks squattier than the taller, thinner one. Is it self-conscious the way I was around my tall, thin friends as a youngster? The penguins look like they’re pursing their bills like my daughters and their friends pucker when taking selfies. Will they take a bazillion more to get it just right, before posting? Is the light hitting? It’s easy to see the penguins through a human lens, so accustomed are we to anthropomorphizing nonhuman beings. Remember pet rocks or the movie Zootopia

I realize I know nothing about penguins. I suppose they have the same needs: food, water, shelter, community but are we always self-referencing? I stare at the penguins and wonder if I can see penguin in myself. They are alien and have nothing to do with me. What's more, I don't want to connect to them. I have better ways to spend my time than to understand penguinness. My perception has not been trained to do this and my imagination fails. I can't get past my anthropomorphism. 

We are told the road to empathy is to see ourselves in the other. Yet we other the other so we don’t have to be empathic: Indigenous people are savages, black people are subhuman, women are inferior, transgender people are an abomination, and so on; insert prejudice here. This allows us to select who we will treat humanely. Has not every holocaust hinged on spurious distinctions between us and them?

As an Egyptian, I grew up with prejudice against sub-Saharan Africans as well as African Americans. I was admonished to straighten my hair and stay out of the sun so I wouldn't be mistaken for a black person. As I work to address this inherited bias, sometimes I am confronted with my knee jerk racism: 

They are alien and have nothing to do with me. I don't want to connect to them. I have better ways to spend my time than to understand blackness. My perception has not been trained to do this and my imagination fails. I can't get past my prejudice.

I wonder if a truer road to empathy might be to learn the other so that distinctions are honored.

There are 195 countries, each with myriad cultural pockets, over 6000 languages and nearly nine million species on our planet. Nature itself is systems filled with myriad beings synchronized with each other’s distinctions to survive. Dignifying others based on similarity fosters ignorance and foments an increasingly shallower pool of who or what we dignify. It’d be like extolling only blue when the planet is a giant crayon box. This vast and minute variation is a testament to the sacred creativity manifest in our common home.

If my regard of Gentoo penguins stopped at my anthropomorphism, what I projected onto them based on what I perceived as similar, could I know what they specifically need to avoid extinction? Only by becoming familiar with their uniqueness can I properly value and thus advocate for their wellbeing.

Before I turn the page to March, I look up the definition of leap day: Leap days are extra days added to the calendar to help synchronize it with Earth's orbit around the sun and the actual passing of seasons. 

If my regard for sub-Saharan Africans and African Americans remains entrenched within the othering lens of prejudice, how can I value and honor the cultural needs and practices of sub-Saharan Africans and African Americans? 

There are humanitarian crises at borders worldwide, millions in refugee camps as well as caged; and nonhuman beings, like the Gentoo penguins, are increasingly endangered. Empathizing with only who or what we regard as similar jeopardizes who and what we regard as dissimilar.

Leap day 2020 comes at a time when we need to catapult ourselves to a level of empathy that requires awareness of and response to distinct needs. We are in peril. Our collective survival requires us to leap into synchronicity with who and what we regard as other. We need each other. We don't have extra days to count on.