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Sooner or later, all organic matter will decompose. Luckily enough, from death and decay comes new life, ...
2020-04-06 09:00:00

The Power of Decay
How to Compost

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
The Power of Decay
The Power of Decay

Everything that lives on Earth is subject to decay. All your ancestors decayed, and the same fate awaits you. And me. My cat and this copy of “Przekrój”, too. But don’t be sad and don’t fret. Organic material, when it is allowed to do so, becomes a new life. Thanks to composting.

Read in 9 minutes

Composting is the process of turning the old into the new, the dead into the living, the useless into the nutritional. The word ‘compost’ comes from the Latin componere, meaning ‘to put together’. This is the simplest way by which matter returns to a living form, recharged and renewed. Nothing more than composting.

Electricity from under the cow’s tail

Composting is a natural process. Mother Nature knows how to compost, how to turn fallen autumn leaves into food for the plants that are to appear the following spring. If uninterrupted, it does it brilliantly. In traditional agriculture, people observed nature and treated their food and animal waste in a similar way. When I was a child, no rubbish lorry pulled up outside my granny’s house in Biczyce Dolne, because there was no need. Paper was burned in the stove and there was a manure heap behind the house. All peelings, rotten cabbage leaves and other leftovers first went to the animals. Granny had two cows, (one named Malina, or ‘Raspberry’; the other name I don’t remember), as well as some pigs (which we sometimes had to chase as they escaped from the yard) and rabbits. If the scraps weren’t eaten by the animals, they went off to the manure heap. The fertilizer was used on the next crops; the cycle of nature turned from the frozen earth, through the young barley to the apple trees, heavy with fruit, in the orchards on Banach slope.

Radha Batia is a beautiful and dignified Hindu lady, who wears her sari like a queen. She is the owner of Roseate House and Resorts in Delhi. In December 2017, I attended the opening of the Tasting India Symposium at Rajokri Farms (an organic garden located in the city that supplies her hotel with fresh fruit and veg). After lunch, she took me aside and walked me to the rear of the building to show me the cow pats drying in the sun. In India, cow manure is called gobar. In the hot climate, cow dung dries quickly and doesn’t give off its characteristic pong. It is odourless and rich in minerals, and therefore ideal for fertilizing the fields. Burning cow dung on a massive scale is a source of electricity in India. Even in Mrs Radha’s luxury residence.

The damp depths of the soul

Not only organic material can be composted. Ideas, thoughts and feelings also ferment. From those abandoned, deeply-buried ideas, spring new lives and new qualities. 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 went to the underworld, learning things there that deepened their characters. 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 and its behaviours. They belong instead to the dark underside of the world, which becomes personally available to you through the ordeal of nighttime awakenings […] you grasp something of the realm of shades. […] Enduring their attacks takes character.” Out of the old and destroyed is born something new and beautiful; the cycle of nature, cycle of the soul, cycle of life, and cycle of death. Fertilize your character and you will harvest the fruits of wisdom.

The pleasant smell of fresh earth

Compost applied in the garden enriches the soil with humus and makes it airy and plump. It is not only a rich source of organic material, but also the cheapest material 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 one yourself, for example from old palettes or wooden planks (we make a structure without a base, building only the sides). It should be dug into the ground in a shady place so that it cannot dry out too fast, and be filled with successive layers of green waste. The first layer can be covered with a layer of high-quality garden soil. Subsequent layers are added on top, such as grass clippings, straw, weeds, leaves and small branches, fruit peel, egg shells, plant-based kitchen waste, and even ash from the fireplace (provided we are burning wood). We should not use meat, fish, diseased plants, bones or processed food.

If we want to speed up the composting process, we can add a layer of fertile soil. The whole thing can be covered with hessian, which will ensure the right heat and humidity are maintained. During a drought, one can water a compost heap, but it must be done carefully, because if it is overwatered, it may start to rot. This can be judged by its smell; if it becomes unpleasant, add layers that absorb damp, for example, balls of paper or broken up egg boxes. Every so often, the compost must be turned to ensure it is properly aerated. After about five to six months, we have the finished product. You can tell if the compost is mature by its dark brown colour, even structure (without fragments of plant), and the pleasant smell of fresh earth.

Composting sorceress

Warsaw has a number of municipal compost heaps, for example in the Motyka i Słońce garden in Jazdów, where you can bring your own household waste. On the website is a map of all the places in Poland where you can compost communally (currently, there are only 10). Poland is very behind recycling-wise; only 32% of our communal waste is recycled.

In New York, the city authorities oblige residents to compost. If you don’t segregate your rubbish, you are fined. It is compulsory to dispose of food waste in brown containers.

I learnt how to compost in Brooklyn from Dr Annie Hauck, who comes from a family that has been composting in New York for four generations. For over 100 years, they haven’t wasted a single apple peel; they compost everything. Annie, who holds the title of Master Composter, describes herself as a composting sorceress and can solve any problem that anyone might have with it. She runs educational classes at Brooklyn Mompost, an organization that is engaged in city gardening, bee-keeping, composting and all types of support for people in their journeys back to nature. Annie took me to the Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm garden – a field on a roof – where Mompost has a plot and a huge composting drum. The drum must be turned to let the air get to the waste inside, churn it up and encourage it to activate. Afterwards it is spread on the soil. Annie says that she doesn’t want to give her invaluable compost back to the city, since it can be used for her own gardening.

Suck leaves, farm earthworms

In his Phoenixville TEDx talk, “Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong”, Mike McGrath argues that in the city one should start composting in the autumn. According to him “if anything is going to save us, it’ll be trees”, because they are natural solar batteries, and their leaves are full of nutritional value, on top of which they fall straight at our feet. He encourages us to ditch leaf blowers in favour of suckers, reversing the air flow, thanks to which we pick up and shred the leaves, which makes the best material for composting. McGrath says that if you see a bag of leaves (people still stubbornly keep removing them), you can take it, because leaves don’t belong to anyone and you don’t have to tire yourself out collecting them. In his opinion, one should only compost leaves, because kitchen waste is poor in nitrogen (apart from brewed coffee grounds).

The best thing for waste is worms (for example, Californian earthworms). They eat the organic remains and expel them in the form of coprolites, which are a very valuable fertilizer; vermicompost, also known as bio humus. At the same time, they improve the quality of the fertilizer that we get from the compost heap and also accelerate the composting process. Annie Hauck laughs that these worms find our leftovers all by themselves – we don’t have to buy them or farm them.

You are fodder

One element of the Zoepolis: Design for Plants and Animals exhibition shown recently at the BWA in Wrocław was Alicja Patanowska’s Compost Bin. This is an aquarium in which you could see the layers of slowly decaying beings and things; a way of thinking about 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 the concept of ‘Zoopolis’ (created by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicki), which considers giving animals citizenship and moving away from the human-centric perspective. In the title of the exhibition, ‘Zoo’ is replaced by ‘Zoe’, Greek for ‘essential life’; the vitality which is common to all living beings. Patanowska’s work references directly the idea of zoe, which manifests itself in the movement and flow of energy. It doesn’t speak of death, but of life, because the death and decay of one body is the start of another being. Life does not end, but reconfigures, as is literally illustrated by how animals and micro-organisms use the corpses of other living things.

Patanowska goes further and asks: “What will happen when a human body, as with the bodies of animals and plants, is subjected to the process of composting? Is it possible that instead of ritual burial, one will be able to reconnect it with the cycle of nature, where everything is connected, penetrates, takes mutually from each other, entwines and nothing is wasted?” The work is accompanied by Piotr Wroniecki’s satellite photos that show the fertility of soil which is directly caused by the presence of decaying human bodies. The fertility of such soil radically increases; the earth practically glows from phosphorus and other nutritional substances.

The day after another talk about composting (by Skype this time), during which Annie Hauck took her laptop outside the house and showed me the New York compost bins – hers and her neighbours – through her computer camera, she wrote to me: “I’ve 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, during my speech, calling on my daughter Alana Grace as a witness, I said: ‘When I die, I want to be composted.’” Me too!


Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska

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Monika Kucia

is a journalist and culinary superintendent at Monika likes to bring words, flavours and people together. She helps foreigners learn about Poland from the tastiest side. She also creates culinary spectacles in which she encourages participants to eat leftovers, breathe in the smells of the basement, and sprinkle food with golden dust.