It is time to turn the compost.
Underneath the rotting vegetables, coffee grounds and grass clippings, rich soil has been forming for years. I untwist the ends of the hardware cloth to reshape the cylinder anew next to where it used to stand. Once I have created a new cylinder, I will transfer the contents from the old compost pile into it.
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 singular 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.