Worshiping at the alter of the compost pile
by Leon Satterfield
It comes on me again while I'm down on my knees, my head bowed, digging out a hole for another tomato plant and taking almost too much pleasure in the velvety feel of the dirt I'm fondling. I'm worshipping, I find myself thinking, at the altar of my compost pile. That means I've fallen into my Walt Whitman syndrome again.
"Behold this compost!" I exult in a frenzy of direct quotation, "behold it well!"
A squirrel running along the top of the garden fence stops and looks interested, so it's time for me to go inside. I meet my wife in the kitchen, my fingers rich with garden, sweat dripping off my nose.
"I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from," I inform her, "the scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer!"
"Good grief," she says, "you've fallen into your Walt Whitman syndrome again, haven't you? You've been playing in that compost too long."
I think she means too long on this particular day, but maybe she means too long in more cosmic terms. I've been composting my garden for 21 years now and I've grown extravagantly fond of my dirt. When I fall into my Walt Whitman syndrome, I imagine that the dirt returns my affection, that there's a current of spiritual electricity between the two of us. It grows out of the annual routine I religiously follow:
In November after the leaves have fallen, I put them inside my snow-fence enclosure and water them down. During the next twelve months I add potato peels, grass clippings, carrot scrapings, dog droppings, the leftover broccoli we forgot about in the back of the refrigerator until it was covered with moldany manner of nastiness at all so long as it's organic. Then in the following November, I rototill the year-old compost into the garden. By spring it has magically disappeared and the dirt has become moist and rich-smelling and, as we say in the composting game, friable as all get out. It whimpers for seed.
That's when Walt Whitman starts making sense to me. That's when I sound my own barbaric yawps as I dig in my glorious May dirt.
Sure, I know: by the end of August, a sterner reality will set in. That same dirt will be compacted to the hardness of concrete, weeds will be everywhere, cucumber plants will drop dead overnight just as they're about to earn their keep, the bottoms of the Big Boys will go rotten and melt into the ground they rest on because once again they'll have escaped their tomato cages. And I'll be up to my aromatic armpits in zucchini.
But none of that matters. The real payoff in my garden isn't the beans and tomatoes and peppers that fill my stomach; it's the nectar and ambrosia that intoxicate my soul.
I've been influenced in all this by my Uncle Roy in California who took his Kansas need to grow vegetables with him when he went west. He composts everything he can get his hands on, spreads it on his garden, and improves the diets of the lotus-eaters out there by forcefeeding them his good homegrown vegetables.
"Poison-free okra! Hey!" he shouts at them, implying that Safeway's okra is hellbent on shriveling them up like a DDTed mosquito. "No herbicides on this eggplant! Listen!" he yells, as though Piggly Wiggly's eggplant is daily doused with Agent Orange.
So I've inherited a gene that predisposes me to believe that if compost won't fix it, it doesn't need fixed. That means the bugs eat as many of our beans as we do, that what we call our lawn is mostly dandelions and Creeping Charlie, with here and there a clump of Kentucky bluegrass wondering what it's doing in such company.
But really committed composters say that doesn't matter either. We walk around whistling in close harmony with what we're pleased to imagine is the music of the spheres. The goofiest of us may even see the earth as Walt Whitman did, a vast and lovely compost pile that brings beauty out of ugliness, life out of death. I look at the day lilies conspiring to bloom as they rise out of the backyard grave of our previous dog, St. Sherman, and I understand Walt's sense that something magic is happening.
"What chemistry!" he shouts, sounding a little like Uncle Roy, that "grows such sweet things out of such corruptions," that "distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor," that "gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last."
That may be a funny way to talk about grass clippings and dog droppings and moldy broccoli, but old Walt knew that when you worship at the altar of a compost pile on a sunny May morning, you take your Transcendence where you find it.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.
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