These days I am obsessed with poop. Poop and rot. Walking the narrow trail that traverses the autumn headlands, I pause to break apart the dry scat of raccoon and grey fox to see what they’ve been dining on. In the garden I know the stellar jays are robbing the raspberries by their loose splatter of red-seeded stool. And there’s no better way to warm up in the morning than by shoveling hot horse manure into our vintage Apache pickup.
In autumn we build compost with a vengeance. Long windrows of twisted sunflower stalks, smashed pumpkins, and blackened vines of fingerling potatoes are stacked under blankets of hot manure. In a few days the piles begin to smoke with decay on the fringe of the garden. Rot rules the windswept land.
In nature’s wheel of life, composting happens on the bottom of the cycle, where death’s processes are turned back into life. Every biologically sound garden is built on the rhythm of the compost pile. What I love best about rot is that whatever we discard becomes a rare treasure, an uncontested source of fertility for the earth.
Anything that was once alive can be composted. Decay picks every bone clean. It happens fast. One autumn some years ago a young doe snapped her neck trying to jump the nine-foot-high deer fence that encloses our garden at Green Gulch Farm. Katagiri Roshi was with us then, leading a sesshin. “Shouldn’t we put her out of her misery?” we asked him as we surrounded the wild-eyed doe. “Let’s just sit with her,” he answered. She died quickly, with a shudder of warm blood in her throat, encircled by patch-robed sitters. We laid her on the compost pile and covered her with dry stalks of bishop’s weed and dyer’s chamomile. On top of this we forked fresh horse manure and sealed the pile with a foot-deep bed of oat straw. In two months she was gone, broken down and incorporated into the life of the pile, digested by millions of microbes and absorbed by the white mycelia of countless fungi.
Our culture honors the art of arranging flowers—why not the craft of arranging garbage? You can do it. Shit happens, compost happens. Begin by separating your waste. Keep a covered bucket for your organic matter. Include kitchen scraps, old hair, coffee grounds and filter papers, used tea bags, moist paper towels and napkins . . . you can even add unmendable clothing (it all breaks down in the compost pile). If you have land, it is best to build a pile 3’ X 3′ X 3′; if you have no land, you can make anaerobic compost in a ten-gallon bucket and present your houseplants with fine fertilizer in six months.
For a free-standing compost pile, arrange your garbage like this: First, a thick layer of carbon materials like fallen leaves, old straw, or woody plant prunings. Next, cover these dry materials with nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps and fresh garden weeds. Add animal manure if you have it. Keep building your pile in layers. Decomposer microorganisms need carbon for energy and nitrogen to build protein for their bodies. So arrange your garbage and feed your decomposers. A handful of compost contains more microorganisms than there are people on earth.
These mornings it is cold in the garden. At dawn we discover seven feral cats sleeping on top of the compost pile. It’s warm up there. Temperatures upwards of 150°F are generated by decomposers rearranging our arranged garbage. The breakdown ball is in full swing. From the rankest dung heap at the edge of the garden, I catch a whiff of poetry, in this case Robert Aitken’s:
Little white maggots
In fermenting night soil
Steam with Buddhahood
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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