The bloody, urine-soaked, poop-filled history of compost
Or: a collection of compost mentions that I keep in an always-open Google Doc, accompanied by a request for memes.
I’ve gotten into the habit of gathering compost mentions from anywhere I come across them— memes, tweets, history books, news stories, old agricultural manuals, weird used books full of earthy hills (“art”). In this way, I’ve become a bit of an unwitting compost historian or, I don’t know, collage artist, since there’s nothing particularly linear or coherent about my collection. (I’m resisting saying it’s a “compost” of compost mentions.)
Here’s a favorite:
The book “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth” by William Bryant Logan, contains an anecdote from 1973 about Clark Gregory and his permanent compost wanderjahr:
“For twenty years now, he has wandered America, preaching the gospel of compost. He tells cities to separate their trash and compost the organic fraction, he tells governors to install compost heaps on the grounds of their mansions…
Aren’t there things that just have to be thrown away, I ask.
There is no such place as ‘away’, he replies.”
Where there is compost, there is no waste—only opportunity, a circle instead of line.
Every culture has used compost in some form, a few more delightfully grotesque than others. All beautiful. Ancient Hindu texts reference composting, as do records from early American indigenous cultures from around the same time. In China, a composting method involving oilcake amended with crop residue was recorded by Chen Fu around the year 1149. A couple of weeks ago, browsing through a bookstore in upstate New York, I found a manual of American agriculture first published in 1857. Chapters one through three were devoted to soil, manure, and “organic manures,” i.e. compost. Everybody, all over the world, is discovering compost again and again.
The earliest written record of compost is on a set of clay tablets from the Akkadian Empire, which existed in the Mesopotamian Valley one thousand years before Moses was born. Ancient Greeks composted. In the “Oeconomicus,” a Socratic dialogue concerned with household management and agriculture, the Greek warrior and philosopher Xenophon advised farmers to gather weeds and allow them to rot in water in order to create green manures for the improvement of their fields. Plutarch, another Greek philosopher, observed somewhat more darkly that the rotting of human bodies, after war, was productive for growing food:
They say that the soil, after the bodies had rotted and the winter rains had fallen, was so fertilised and saturated with the putrefied matter which sank into it, that it produced an unusual crop the next season.
Early Hebrew scripture references manure being mixed with street sweepings and organic refuse, part of a “dunghill” that was kept at the edge of the city. Sounds like compost to me. The Talmud describes how “They lay dung to moisten and enrich the soil; dig about the roots of trees; pluck up the seckers; take off the leaves; sprinkle ashes; and smoke under the trees to kill vermin." Again: compost. Cleopatra, in 50 B.C., is reported to have made worms sacred after observing their composting abilities. She enacted laws to make their removal from Egypt a crime punishable by death.
George Washington has been referred to as “America’s first composter,” but he definitely was not. Per Jim Loewen: “Composting first appears in the historical record of what is now the United States in 1621, when Squanto showed the ‘Pilgrims’ how to put a fish in each corn hill, so the maize and squash would thrive.” He goes on to describe how different pieces of indigenous language outlined the use and meaning of compost for native peoples: “Narragansetts called the fish ‘munnawhatteaûgs,’ which means ‘fertilizer’ or ‘that which enriches the land',’ a word the English corrupted into ‘menhaden.’ The Abenakis of Maine called them ‘pauhagens,’ which also means ‘fertilizer,’ a name the English shortened to ‘pogies.’“
Later, John Adams was so enthusiastic about compost that his frequent mentions of the stuff were actually struck from his diaries before their initial publication. They survived, though, and appeared in later editions:
“In one of my common Walks, along the Edgeware Road, there ar fine Meadows belonging to a noted cow keeper. These Plotts are plentifully manured. There are on the Side of the Way, several heaps of manure, an hundred Loads perhaps in each heap. I have carefully examined them and find them composed of Straw and dung from the Stables and Streets of London, mud, Clay or Marl, dug out of the Ditch along the Hedge and Turf, Sward cutt up, with Spades, hoes and hovels in the Road. This may be good manure, but it is not equal to mine.”
Modern-day America has memes; posts that are often sent to me between three and fifty-six million times a week. Sometimes they consciously evoke compost, but more often they vaguely allude. Each time I see them, I pretend it’s the first time. “Ha ha ha,” I’ll respond. Or: “Omg.” Mostly I just love that my friends want to send me compost memes. Each of them goes into the collection.
Recently, a friend wrote to me about “witches” in medieval France who built homes with compost roofs, which both kept them warm and protected them. I tried in vain to search for more information on these fertile covens, but Google turned up blank after blank. Eventually, he wrote to his friend (an “anarchist,” he said), and asked for her to repeat the story. Los evangiles des ecreignes, I think, she wrote back. But I’m camping and will have to look more when I’m home. I searched the phrase on Google, and translated the results: “Tea women of the people, who never yielded.”
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