Why you shouldn't gatekeep compost.
Happy New Year, FaceTiming with a friend's pile, and other updates
***I’m sorry it’s been so long, I’ve been caught up moving.
This is the first time I’ve moved when I have actual stuff. The last 15 years have had a lot of guest bedrooms and one-backpack-only sublets in various cities where I’ve been for work or for wandering, and it wasn’t until the last two years or so that I actually ended up somewhere with roots—and furniture. I had no idea how long it took to move! Nor how exhausting it could be, even if at the end of things you get a lovely new home with a proper yard and some fruit trees.
(Sadly, my compost did not come with me.)
This will come as no surprise, but compost tends to get a little gatekeeper-y. It seems that men, specifically, are often angered by my not-obviously-technical, “learn-as-you-go” approach, and they like to tell me what I am doing is wrong. (Or, as one Instagram commenter memorably put it: “smells a little off .”) There are good reasons, of course, for certain composts to be held to high standards. If you’re a farmer, your compost represents a direct responsibility to somebody’s dinner. If you have neighbors with sensitive noses, it’s a basic courtesy to keep a well-tended, and thus odor-free, pile. But let us not forget that “compost” includes an enormous amount of possible needs and outcomes; that each pile has a remarkable ability to absorb potential errors and to express its own preferences to the observant and thoughtful caretaker, and that you can and should build your own relationship to your own heap, in order to develop your own passionate and illuminating commitment. I just don’t think you can get that when limiting yourself to following rules from a book.
So pish-posh to the gatekeepers.
My favorite composters have always been reluctant to identify as such. They’re more interested in learning and observing, being open to the lessons of their particular pile, and I find them to be appropriately lacking in hubris regarding their interventions in key ecological processes. When I met fellow decayer Didi over the phone some months back, they struck me as just such a person, and I asked them if they’d be willing to let me talk to them about compost over FaceTime. I ended up loving our conversation so much. “This is a process that has been happening forever without human intervention,” they told me. “Don’t take it too seriously, and don’t make it about yourself. What is happening inside of your compost is ancient. It is a universe.”
Read the interview in full, below.
Location: Putnam County, New York
What’s it like where you live?
I live with my family. Sister, brother-in-law, and nephews. On about 2.5 acres atop a ridge near the Hudson River. The terrain around the house is rocky and wooded. A lot of the property slopes away from the house- something we have to work around a lot. We experience all seasons and all weather here. We’ve got the hot, swampy summer nights. We get buckets of snow, rain, and hail. We do tend to run a bit more humid than other areas, probably due to our close proximity to the Hudson River. The property was pretty much covered in invasive plants when my family moved in. The previous owners of the house had sprayed a lot of pesticides and herbicides, so the soil that is here is not something we want to use for planting. We have woodland around our house, but not too much ground cover. We do have a lot of trees, which means most of the property is in partial shade.
How did you get started composting?
I don’t really see myself as a composter. I’m just someone who built a corral and throws scraps in there. My mother and grandparents always composted in some form or another, so I’ve always had a familiarity with the concept. This is the first time I’ve been an active participant in building and maintaining a compost.
How long has *this* compost been around?
Day one was sometime in August of 2022. It evolved into the form that it is now about a month later. My sister picked a spot, laid down some scrap wood as a footprint, and immediately started dumping scraps onto it.
How did you come up with this particular structure? It's definitely unique and quite beautiful.
It just sort of happened. The initial intention was to create some sort of barrier to dissuade our dogs and the local wildlife from eating everything in the compost, although they’re welcome to some of it, of course (I’m of the mind that we share our space with the animals and the insects). I knew that I didn’t want to spend money on the project, meaning no trips to the hardware store for supplies. So what do we have lying around? Well, we have a lot of sticks. We have a lot of rocks. So that’s what I used. I didn’t tie or nail anything down- tension became my third “material”, in a sense. I needed to work with the physics that the structure would allow at any given time, and the result was a sculpture that, in a way, molded itself. Yeah, I knew I wanted a general size and shape, and that I wanted the walls to be a certain height. I knew that it should be open-air and have at least two sections. But that’s about it in terms of design planning.
I learned pretty quickly that the more I tried to force things one way or another, to what I thought it “should” look like, the structure fought back. Materials broke, walls fell down. If I added here and there, though, and took my time to observe as I went along, then the structure would tell me what it needed. It feels like a living thing now, almost sentient. Settled into itself. Some of the looser parts have come out over time. I’m sure there will be some structural maintenance needed at some point, so it’s very possible that the form will continue to evolve.
What kind of stuff do you put in it and how often?
We are a family of vegetarians, and 90% of our food is cooked at home. As you can imagine, that means a lot of food scraps go into the pile. Rinds, peels, cores, stems. Things like that. Throughout the course of one day, we will take multiple trips out to empty the container we keep on the counter. We are constantly interacting with the compost. We also put out any spoiled food or organic items like old floral bouquets and decorative pumpkins. Pet hair, after brushing out our pomeranian. If we’re doing any work with our plants, trimming dead leaves and things like that, those go into the pile. Sometimes we have to be careful, though. If there’s a question that something might be toxic, like a floral bouquet that has dyes in it, we won’t put that in. We rarely use paper towels, but those will go into the compost so long as they were used with biodegradable material.
My personal philosophy is that I see the compost as a body itself. Anything that I feel good about putting into my body (within reason, right?), I feel good about putting in the compost. And anything that would come out of my body (again, within reason) is okay composting too.
What's your process for maintaining it?
We’re not necessarily aiming to have efficient soil production. The main function of our pile is to break down our organic day-to-day waste somewhere that is not a trash can. As far as maintenance, then, we don’t do much. We turn it with a pitchfork occasionally, we sprinkle some dried leaves on it. But, essentially, we let it do its thing. This is a process that has been happening forever without human intervention. It doesn’t need to be overthought.
What are some things that went WRONG and how did you figure them out and then fix them?
I guess I could say that, certainly in the beginning, I put too much importance on little details. It took me a little time to trust in the bigger picture. Trying to force the structure to be a certain way, to use building techniques that weren’t working.
Probably my biggest upset has to do with an opossum that took up in a tree nearby. She would come every night to have her meal of apple cores and leftover pasta. Eventually, the walls became too high and she couldn’t get in anymore. That made me spiral a bit. I felt like I was stealing food from this hungry ‘possum, and was feeling stressed out and ruminating over how to solve the issue. I was thinking to myself: “Do I build a ramp for her to get in and out?? Maybe a ladder system?” I spent a few days inside, overthinking everything, while the ‘possum was spending her time working a hole in the wall, just high enough that the dogs couldn’t get in, but low enough that she could gain access. All that fretting over how I’m going to have to use my big brain to save the day, and nature just worked it out. A humbling moment.
All in all, I think It’s hard for me to say I did anything “wrong.” You just do the thing. If it needs changes, let go of any ego holding you back and make the changes. Perhaps understanding that a little sooner would have been better, but I’m happy with the journey so far.
Any advice for new composters out there?
Don’t take it too seriously, and don’t make it about yourself. What is happening inside of your compost is ancient. It is a universe. It is more resilient than our human need to sanitize its image. It is more consistent than a desire to simultaneously take credit for the process and disregard aspects deemed distasteful by some social cultures. We can learn a lot from dirt. Study it, watch it evolve, talk about it with your friends and family. Notice how it changes, see if the surrounding environment responds to its presence. Chill out. Have fun with it. Be wacky with it, and be at peace about it. Trust in the rot. Revel in its glory.
Want to have your own composting process featured? Reply to this email and let me know. :)
Isn’t that how you learn-by experimenting, observing and changing? When I started my first compost pile, sure I did a little research first but when it came right down to it I learned by doing. Every pile is different because everything situation (air, heat, water, scraps….) is different. All I know is it worked, I had fun doing it, my plants thrived and I knew it was a good thing to recycle in this way. Btw, loved the interview.