Everything that lives on Earth is subject to decomposition. All of our ancestors did, and so will you—and me. My cat and every print issue of “Przekrój,” too. Don’t be sad and don’t fret, however. Organic material, when allowed, will have new life, due to composting.
Composting is the process of turning old into new, dead into living, useless into nutritional. The word “compost” derives from the Latin componere, meaning “to put together.” This is the simplest principle of matter returning to its living form, recharged and renewed. There’s nothing better, but to compost.
Electricity From Under a Cow’s Tail
Composting is an organic process. Nature knows how to activate it, turning fallen autumn leaves into nutrients for the plants to rise next spring. If uninterrupted, it happens brilliantly. In traditional agriculture, people observed nature and treated food and animal waste in a similar way. When I was a kid, no garbage truck pulled up outside my granny’s house—it wasn’t necessary. Paper was burned in a kiln and there was a manure heap out back. All peelings, rotten cabbage leaves, and other leftovers fed the animals first. Granny had two cows—one named Malina that stands for “Raspberry;” and the name of the other I don’t remember. She also had rabbits and a pig that sometimes escaped the farm and had to be chased around. Scraps they didn’t eat were brought to the manure heap. Fertilizer was used for future crops; the cycle of nature turned from frozen soil, through the young barley to the apple-heavy trees in the orchards on a slope called Banach.
Radha Bhatia is a beautiful and distinguished Hindu woman, who wears her sari like a queen. She is the owner of the Roseate Hotels & Resorts in Delhi. In December 2017, I attended the opening of the Tasting India Symposium at Rajokri Farms—an organic garden in the city that supplies her hotel with fresh fruit and vegetables. After lunch, she walked me to the rear of the building to show me cow pats drying in the sun. In India, cow manure is called gobar. Drying quickly in hot climates, it doesn’t give off its characteristic funk. It’s odorless and rich in minerals, therefore ideal for fertilizing the fields. Burning cow dung on a massive scale is a source of electricity in India. Even in Bhatia’s luxury estate.
Damp Depths of the Soul
It is not only organic material that’s compostable. Ideas, thoughts, and feelings also get buried and undergo fermentation to later sprout into new life and quality. In his book The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life, James Hillman writes about the benefits of diving into the damp depths of the soul. Odysseus, Ulysses, Persephone, Dionysus, and Orpheus all descended to the underworld, gaining knowledge that made them profound. As Hillman writes:
Fatalistic anxieties, recriminations, and vengeful afterthoughts that come in the night, come from the night. They derive neither from your brain and its processes nor from your personality or its behaviors. They belong instead to the dark, impersonal underside of the world, which becomes personally available to you through the ordeal of nighttime awakenings […] you grasp something of the hellish reality of the realm of shades. […] Enduring their attacks takes character.
Out of the old and destroyed, the new and beautiful will be born; the cycle of nature, the soul, and that of life and death. Nourish your character and you will harvest the fruits of wisdom.
The Pleasant Smell of Fresh Soil
Compost applied in the garden enriches the soil with humus making it airy and plump. It’s not only a rich source of organic matter, but also the cheapest and a natural way of feeding the soil. Furthermore, it eliminates the risk of over-fertilizing or poisoning the environment.
You can buy a ready-made compost bin or make a DIY version from old pallets or wooden planks—making a structure without a base, enclosing only the sides. It should be dug into a shaded piece of ground so it doesn’t dry out too fast, and can be filled with successive layers of green waste. The first layer can be topped with a quality garden soil. Cover the following layers with grass clippings, straw, weeds, leaves, and twigs, fruit scraps, egg shells, plant-based kitchen waste, and even bonfire ash, but only if burning wood. Meat, fish, sick plants, bones, or processed foods should be kept out.
In order to speed up the process, coat everything with fertilizer. The whole thing can be covered with a jute bag, which will ensure accurate heat and humidity. During dry seasons the compost heap can be watered carefully, because if overflooded it may start to rot. The smell gives it away—when it becomes unpleasant, overlay it with moisture-absorbent materials, such as balls of paper or broken up egg boxes. Every so often, the compost must be turnt for proper aeration. The outcome will be ready to use in about five to six months. Mature compost is identified by its dark brown color, even texture without fragments of plants, and the pleasant smell of fresh soil.
I received my composting lesson in Brooklyn from Dr. Annie Hauck-Lawson, who comes from a family that has been practicing composting in New York for four generations. For over one hundred years, they haven’t wasted a single apple peel—they compost nearly everything. Annie, who holds the title of Master Composter, describes herself as a composting sorceress who can solve any problem related to the organic recycling process. She runs educational classes at Brooklyn Mompost, an organization involved in urban gardening, bee-keeping, composting, and various types of support in helping people on their journey back to green living. Annie took me to the Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm garden where Mompost has a plot and a huge composting drum. It must be turned to circulate oxygen, stimulating and activating the waste that later gets covered with more soil. Annie says she doesn’t want to give her precious compost to the city, since it can feed her own crops.
Suck Up Leaves, Farm Earthworms
In his Phoenixville TEDx talk, Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong, Mike McGrath argues that in cities composting should start in the fall. He claims, “If anything will save us, it’s trees.” The original solar panels, their leaves are full of nutritional value, on top of which they fall straight at our feet. He encourages that leaf blowers be turned into vacuums, reversing the airflow, collecting and shredding the shed foliage, which makes the best composting material. McGrath says that if you see a bag of leaves—which continue to be stubbornly removed by people—you can take it, because they don’t belong to anyone and this way you don’t have to bother collecting them. In his opinion, only leaves should be composted, because kitchen waste is low in nitrogen— except for brewed coffee grounds.
The best thing for waste is worms, such as red Californian earthworms. They eat the organic remains and excrete them in the form of coprolites, which are a valuable fertilizer—vermicompost, also known as biohumus. At the same time, they improve the quality of the fertilizer we get from the compost heap and also accelerate the process. Hauck-Lawson laughs that these worms find our leftovers on their own—we don’t have to buy or farm them.
You Are the Fodder
As part of the exhibition Zoepolis. Design for Plants and Animals presented in 2017 at BWA Wrocław, artist Alicja Patanowska presented a compost aquarium in which she layered slowly decaying life forms; an outlet for rethinking the materiality of the corpse. Departing from the concept of ritual burial, the artist overcomes the human fear of death.
The title Zoepolis was taken from Canadian political-philosopher couple Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka and their concept of “Zoopolis,” which considers giving animals citizenship and moving away from the anthropocentric perspective. In the exhibition title however, “Zoo” is replaced with“Zoe,” or ζωή—Greek for “life”; the vitality that is shared by all living beings. Patanowska’s work relates precisely to the idea of “zoe” or “life as it is,” which manifests itself in the movement and flow of energy. Thus, it doesn’t speak of death, but of life, because the dying and decay of one body is the beginning of another existence. Life does not end, but transforms, as is literally illustrated by how animals and microorganisms use the corpses of other creatures.
Patanowska goes further to ask:
What will happen when a human body, as the bodies of animals and plants, is subjected to the process of composting? Is it possible that instead of ritual burial, it be reincorporated with the cycle of nature, where everything connects, permeates, takes mutually from each other, entwines and nothing is wasted?
The work is accompanied by Piotr Wroniecki’s satellite photos showing the fertility of soil, directly linked to the presence of decomposing human bodies. The productivity of such soil radically increases; with the ground glowing from phosphorus and other nutrients.
One day after another talk about composting (via Skype this time), Hauck-Lawson took her laptop outside the house, and through the camera showed me New York compost bins—her own and the neighbors. Then she wrote: “I just remembered something—in 2011, during the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society, in my speech, calling on my daughter Alana Grace as a witness, I said: ‘When I die, I want to be composted.’” As do I.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska
This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on November 17, 2022.
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