Perhaps prompted by my recent reading of Caitlin Flanagan's critique of compost ("compost heaps in the backyard: moldering heaps of garbage, rich with worms and loamy rot...hideous caches of broken eggshells and wet coffee grounds squirreled away on kitchen counters" p. 143, To Hell with All That), I've been thinking about our compost. The black container out behind the fence is at the height of decomposition right now. It is full of rotting banana peels, watermelon mush, fuzzy green strawberries, and a couple of buckets of grass and dirt from our painstakingly edged sidewalks. It is seething with fruit flies, earwigs, pillbugs, and many other invertebrates, which I always hope don't erupt out of the top at my face when I pull the lid off to dump more wet coffee grounds and broken eggshells.
I think our compost's main benefit is how it allows my husband and I to feel a little less guilty about wasting food. When I put strawberry stems and green onion leaves and potato peels into my hideous kitchen counter cache (actually a large rubbermaid container), I get a slight "I'm so frugal" organic gardening buzz. When my husband sliced open a honeydew melon last weekend - one that we'd let sit on the counter for too many hot days - and we found it was too slimy to eat, my first thought was that at least it would contribute to next year's tomatoes and zinnias. At $3.29 (unlike Caitlin, I'm acutely aware of what most of the things on my counter and in my refrigerator cost), a honeydew melon makes pricey compost material, but at least I'm not adding to the putrescibles* that my garbage collectors have to haul.
Michael Pollan has a wonderful chapter entitled "Compost and Its Moral Imperatives" in Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, which is one of the most enjoyable gardening books I've ever read (and I've read a lot of them, I should blog about them sometime). Pollan really nails it when he talks about "the successful compost pile" as a sign of "horticultural grace", inferring virtue on its thrifty, ecologically conscious practitioners. But he doesn't also note how the composter redeems you a bit when your vegetable cooking plans exceed reality and you have to clean out the crisper drawer.
Don't get me wrong - I do appreciate the black loamy humus (partially composed of rotten hummus! ha) that we spread on our garden areas, though it is no longer true, as Eleanor Perényi said a few decades ago, that "You can't buy compost." But real (virtuous American) gardeners certainly don't buy compost.
Walt Whitman even wrote an ode to compost over 150 years ago. It's not too often you see naked body licking paired with "blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain" and "distemper'd corpses":
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv'd...
Behold this compost! behold it well!
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which
is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.
- Walt Whitman, This Compost (read the whole poem here).
*see my review of Garbage Land (or better yet, read Elizabeth Royte's book yourself) for more on putrescibles and composting