The dead compost is alive. It is hungry, eager to devour whatever I toss into it, like a baby bird, open mouthed and insistent. Its voracious appetite craves, unrelenting. Quiet as the night but active as noon, you can sense the life working through the death, the consumption under the surface, hiding, as if it knows it is ugly.
Organic matter reminds us of something we would rather not consider, how death transforms us, how one thing becomes another. We don’t like to think of ourselves as spent- kitchen scraps and yard waste, a feast for worms and fungi. Instead, we cling to the notion that it is better to preserve our bodies for as long as possible after we no longer use them, better to poison the giving land than to gift it with what is left of us once our soul leaves our body on its way to wherever it is going. The sad folly of ego, a misguided pilgrim, robs us of nature’s grander beauty.
I was afraid of my compost for the longest time, as if it had needs I would never know how to fulfill, as if I would fail at something so natural that God would kick me out of my own Garden of Eden. But, I reasoned, that shouldn’t matter. What was the worst that could happen? I would fail at rot? My trusty shovel finds earth and I start, constructing my compost area in three sections: initiation, transformation, and silo.
The rite of passage that is initiation, a symbolic death that precedes rebirth, demands that we shed our identity like a snake sheds her skin. Only by doing so can we become something new, something else. A necessary dissolving begins. Here, the slippery, cut cucumber skins, beheaded herb stems, slimy eggshells, gritty coffee grinds, and browning banana peels form a mound of the freshly dead in a mass grave. I cover it, like a pall, with desiccated maple leaves from last year’s fallow, a mercy. And I don’t stop there. Each day, I feed death more, an offering. Every few days, I tender more leaves, a donation. From time to time, I shovel the pile over on itself to aerate it, disturbing the peace. When I do this, I see the worms.
When I was a child, a song went around that the bullies spat at me while we waited for the school bus. They placed earthworms on my lunch bag. I stood paralyzed, revulsion rising in my throat. The only lyric I remember, this: the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they chew your guts, and they spit them out. I laughed to show I wasn’t afraid, laughed and laughed, and hoped my laughter would drown out their voices with my own.
I think of those boys now as I move the mix, humming that tune to the rhythm of my shovel digging, lifting, and pitching the decomposing scraps into the second divide. I am a Witch stirring her cauldron. Instead of eye of newt and toe of frog? Worms. So many worms. The stuff is literally crawling with them. Earthworms, red wrigglers, centipedes, grubs. Slick, shiny worms who quickly wriggle back under, away from the assault of air, the peril of light.
How they know to come here is a mystery. They don’t have noses, so it couldn’t have been the smell. They don’t have eyes, so they couldn’t have seen the pile and come squirming along. But they do have mouths and here they are, doing what they do best- eat. They eat and eat their way through the pile, eat and eat their way around one another, consuming organic matter through their worm-mouths, churning it inside their spineless worm-bodies, transforming it into what gardener’s call ‘black gold’; dark, rich, fertile soil. They eat what we would never and poop out loam teeming with colonies of beneficial microbes. The scraps go in and the soil comes out.
At the bus stop, it was the sight of the worms that terrified me. But once I was old enough to understand the truth of those lyrics, that it wasn’t just a song that school children chanted to taunt me and put me off my lunch, that it is exactly what happens to our bodies after we die and are buried, only now we can add fly larvae called maggots to the guest list of who will be there at the feast of us, I decided no, thank you. Cremation for me, please. Up in a blaze of clean fire. Quick and done. Think of me as pot ash. Spread me like grass seed.
Now, after working the compost, after years in my garden with nature demonstrating how she wastes nothing, after fortifying my garden beds with worm castings – precious black gold – season after season, after growing beautiful and delicious food, after continually tossing their remnants back into the compost pile, I ask myself: why disrupt this natural cycle and withhold my post-death useless body? Why shouldn’t I be food for these humble laborers doing their natural and necessary thing? Their quiet but monumental task of change? After all, I am harvesting and enjoying what they helped create, why wouldn’t I return the favor, contribute to nature this way, when she gives me everything while I am here?
I can’t come up with a good answer, so I changed my mind. I must make arrangements to be composted. Good thing I live in Seattle, the city at the forefront of this wise and ecologically sound practice.
The most labor-intensive portion of my compost pile comes last. Now I toss the completed contents from the middle onto the mesh wire cover I have designed to fit snuggly over what will become the silo, the place where the finished product patiently waits. I sheathe my hands in garden gloves and push the soil back and forth along the screen, sifting it through, breaking clods. This is painstaking work; heavy shoveling, bending over the make-shift sieve. Because I don’t want to harm the hardworking worms on the harsh wire, I do this gently. I lift as many of my hungry friends as I can and toss them lightly back into the first pile to start feeding again. Some escape my fingers and writhe down through the mesh to land in the heap of soil below, in all its fine, fresh beauty, smelling of sweet earth and springtime promise.
The grisly work of decay is instead an act of simple creation. I feel triumphant filling my wheelbarrow with this creation. I feel like God placing it around the garden. The sight and scent of the rich, brown earth makes my mouth water. We are- all of us, really- just food for the spirit of things.
photo credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash