Ways of seeing: Composting effort yields black gold

“How’s your garden doing?” It’s the perennial (as it were) Vermont Summer Question. But these days, when faced with it, I demur. “Well, you see … I’m not growing a garden this year.” I wait for the furrowed brow of confusion, or the brief frown of disapproval, quickly masked by sympathy. Or was that look schadenfreude — the delicious German term for happiness at the misfortune of others? Let’s face it, in Vermont, gardening gets downright competitive. Only in Vermont does the local newspaper sponsor a “Garden Game” and we all know that “game” is a euphemism. Toddlers and grandmas get down on their knees armed with rulers and measuring tapes as soon as August hits — which it has.
By now, I’ve perfected my cheery response to the garden question: “That’s right, no garden. This year, I’m growing compost!” This throws my interlocutors off their game not unlike the way my mother responds to queries about grandchildren: “Nope! I have grand-sheep.” It’s a conversation starter, especially in Boston.
Sheep, of course, are the common denominator here. The Great Compost Project of 2018 is a response to a decade’s worth of barnyard mucking — all into one giant backyard pile which, thank goodness, cooks down remarkably well on its own. But this year it was finally time to take responsibility and reap the benefits too. So I committed myself to breaking apart that looming, mountainous pile and creating multiple long rows that I could then inspect, turn and manage.
My goal was not only to reclaim our yard, but also to hasten the process of making that fine “black gold” that some people have to pay for. While this one-woman, one pitch-fork undertaking was not for the faint of heart, I took it on with a certain frisson of waste-management excitement. I suspected, rightly, that the process would bring significant material and spiritual rewards.
The early June phase of the Great Compost Project was all about memory. As I forked, pulled and occasionally hacked my way through the straw-based Half Dome of 10 years of sheep bedding, I found myself revisiting each of those years, including the lives of those sheep who are no longer with us.
Rachel loved to tickle us with her Border Leicester “Roman Nose” and the more we laughed, the more she would press that nose into our faces to keep the game a-going. Her sister, Leah, would use her long neck to bend tall saplings to the ground and munch young leaves with abandon. Imagine the sheep equivalent of stretching for the upper shelf to snag that elusive bag of Cape Cod potato chips. And then there was Lucky who was just a love. Snuggling was Lucky’s highest priority and once, when I sang her a lullaby, she fell asleep right next to me. Singing a sheep to sleep may ultimately stand as my finest accomplishment. As I steadily broke up the compost pile, I sifted through both straw and memories — layering the moist and the dry, nitrogen and carbon, sadness and joy.
While “memory” may have been the predominant term characterizing my June efforts, “moisture,” “madness” and “masochism” could all well apply to composting in a brutal heat wave. Try as I might to get some serious intellectual work done, with only a ceiling fan inside and an occasional breeze outside, it was just too darn hot to think. But what better compost cooking weather than hazy, hot and humid? So out with my pitchfork I went, wondering whether I would dare to try the oft-touted “you can roast an egg in your compost and eat it for breakfast!” experiment. So far, not.
Later in July, when I could actually think again, more philosophical musings emerged, for if any material substance simultaneously embodies and symbolizes the cycles of life and death, it is compost. To my mind, the idea of becoming compost after we die is a comforting (as well as ecologically sustainable) thought. Not surprisingly, Vermont has joined over 40 states in promoting green burial services that encourage the death-to-new-life process that compost-friendly burial practices provide (see greenburialvermont.org).
And now it is August and a new compost-related adventure has begun! These days, we find ourselves in the magnetic company of a large barred owl. Owl first made a silent appearance in a nearby cedar tree; then, more boldly, on a bench and, finally — just a few feet away — perched on a large post that I had stuck into the compost to help with aeration.
“What does this mean?” my spouse and I started asking ourselves in the wake of Owl’s emergence. Owls are known as protectors in some spiritual traditions; harbingers of transition in others. And, of course, owls are famous for being symbols of wisdom. We half-jokingly, half-seriously launched into reviewing the current state of our lives. Is change afoot? Are we rapidly getting older-but-not-wiser and in need of some serious help?
But the biological explanation may be far simpler than the results of our mystical soul-searching. My constant turnings of compost have brought all kinds of yummy critters to the surface including bugs, worms and voles. Indeed, our backyard has become a high-end restaurant for the genus Strix. While this may be great news for Owl, it is even better news for us. Never before have I had a chance to get so close to a barred owl, to whom I bow before stepping yet closer to admire her beauty.
Sweat and memory, pitchforks and philosophy, voles and owls. What gifts from a summer of no-gardening. “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” Thoreau asks in Walden. My answer, of course, is “Yes!”
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.

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