24 October, 2016

Elegy for a compost pile

It’s been a long time since i’ve felt such a stirring to write for writing’s own sake, fingers pining for the keyboard and remembering what retreat and sanctuary i found in the act of writing. Too long without taking a reflective hour to memorialize the passing day. 

In the latest round of garden expansion, i had excavated the beginnings of a new bed. My housemate Gary joked that it looked like i was preparing to bury someone or something, and i had every intention of burying some horse manure there, one of these days, when the horse manure connection was available and friends could help with their truck. Then living order asserted itself as what seemed to the lazy mind entropy and disorder. A task not in my awareness four days ago was, looking back on the day, the one real, necessary thing i accomplished beyond the daily chores - and that’s the sort of day that begs reflection.

A compost pile is more than just a cache of vegetable scraps, egg shells, and the right balance of carbon and nitrogen residues to achieve efficient decomposition. It’s a sourdough, a partnership with microbes as delicate and resilient as a kefir culture, a mother of vinegar, or a good scoby. Compost is metaphysical, an apotheosis of that natural alchemy constantly transforming death into new life. It is alive, for it contains millions of organisms. 

When three years ago i signed the contract with this little chunk of earth, i purchased among other minor outbuildings a small stake-sided bin. Whatever feral microfauna the home’s prior owners had managed to lure into their service lay in a rather dried out pile. Over seasons as compost receptacles came and went, a little of the old compost went into each new pile. 

Autumn 2016. My little microbial cattle were grazing quite happily in the remains of an old Tucson barbecue - a brick structure along the back fence, handy to the garden, that handily held two batches of compost side by side. Overly vegetative tomatillos - they grew like weeds, but never set fruit - got tossed in, along with the Anaheim pepper on its last legs. Then the nights got cooler, and the compost started to sputter. 

One day while watering, what i thought was a beneficial wasp alit on the watering can. Little did i know this was actually a black soldier fly, a common yet not oft seen and largely unsung ally in decomposition. The slender black adult, which i later learned was Hermetia illucens, was the first sign the pile had cooled too far. Adding some vegetable scraps i found the writhing mass of larvae that helped - though icking me out a bit at first - clarify the insect visitor’s identity. Consulting the internet took my stress level down a notch. I could accept that this very squirmy batch of larvae are allies, and while i still needed to do something with the pile, that task’s urgency could be downgraded. The fact the compost had cooled enough for macro-grazers had yet to sink in completely. Then one day, proverbially haying the microbial cattle, i lifted the paving stones set atop the pile to see a very quick scuttle. Not a slow fly-larval writhe, but the unmistakable movement style of a cockroach. “Scores” might be an appropriate scale on which to estimate the pile’s roach population. 

On the heels of several months of occasional indoor roach visitors, this discovery of massive proliferation lent a certain urgency to the “deal with compost pile” task. How to vanquish a roach nest - without poison and without landfilling the compost? I was stymied until i remembered my parents’ time-tested method of dealing with garden pests: drown them. 

A few roaches ran for a nearby woodpile (the lizards’ favorite hang-out spot), but most made the journey by shovel into the blue rubbermaid tote where they met a watery death. Unfortunately, drowning the roaches meant drowning the compost pile and all its other denizens. The H. illucens larvae, a few massive white grubs, isopods, ravenous staphylinid beetle larvae - i couldn’t begin to identify the organisms i could see, not to mention the ones i couldn’t - and most of the aerobic microbe populations perished with the roaches. The morning after this act of destruction i had a new resource: a vat of compost tea that didn’t yet stink to high heaven. (Anyone who has dealt with waterlogged compost may well know the aroma of anaerobic decomposition.)
The sloppy, waterlogged remains of the drowned compost pile were laid to rest in the sepulcher intended for horse manure in a sort of substitutionary fertility rite, ligneous central stalks of the disappointing tomatillos and a few still wriggling H. illucens and all. In the world of compost nothing, in the end, is lost. The whole garden got a shot of the tea - some sixteen gallons worth - before i worked the solids into the garden. That fertility, hopefully, will be the secret to finally growing Romanesco cauliflower.

Unless we get all Leeuwenhoek with the microscope regularly, those of us who dabble in micro-ranching never see our flocks. Composting is in many ways an act of faith - though i can’t see the microbes, their populations are present, shifting in response to the pile’s microclimate and other ecological factors, and actively reshaping its internal ecology.

It’s easy to neglect an invisible resource.