My Pile: New Vintage

I take the afternoon off, a Friday of the middle of October, to burn up a half-day of paid time off and enjoy another in a string of fine, warm autumn days by adding the first blush of fall leaves to my pile.

The first tree to give up its leaves is always a swamp maple that rises from the corner of the yard beside the road and leans thickly over the neighbor’s front yard, its roots exposed across the patch of hard, compacted dirt they use to park their cars. The neighbors have already raked the leaves into a tidy pile along the bed of wood chip mulch that separates our yards, a ready-made batch for me to gather onto the old white bedsheet I use to drag the leaves over my pile.

The first load of fall leaves waiting to be added to the beginnings of my pile -- cause for celebration!

The first load of fall leaves waiting to be added to the beginnings of my pile — cause for celebration!

The fluffy load of crimson and gold easily covers the flattened mound of seaweed and mashed up stems of salt marsh grass I’ve gathered from the beach over the past couple of weeks and spread across the fall harvest of spent stalks and vines from the garden and grass clippings from the lawn, newly revived by the cool sunny days of autumn and the crop of fresh compost I lavished upon it last month. I top the rotting mashup of green with a smattering of shredded white paper I brought home from the office and tuck the clippings around the thick sunflower stalk I planted in the middle of my pile. I add an armful of cuttings from the perennial garden, the spent stalks will help keep my growing pile airy until they are crushed into submission by rot and the press of leaves.

I gaze across the backyard. The lawn, a vibrant green, still grows lushly, and only a shady patch under the big sycamore that lords over the front corner of the yard is flecked with fallen leaves, though not enough to bother yet with raking.

Most of the trees in my backyard are still largely green, their roots comforted by the deep topsoil and thick beds of rich mulch, and peak fall color is just now making its way from the northerly parts of New England. Two scraggly maples on either side of the driveway, their root systems impinged by asphalt, are usually next to drop their leaves, most of which fall on the street. The passing traffic breezes the leaves into long windrows along the side of the road, and it takes just a few minutes to rake them up into small collections. Much of the leaves have been pulverized by cars, turning it into flattened arboreal road kill for my pile.

There are just enough leaves to gather to give my pile enough cover for its next deposit: The green plastic garbage can stuffed with the kitchen scraps, compost and sheaves of sycamore bark and paper I started filling in late August, as I began preparing to spread the season’s finished compost throughout the garden and lawn. After topping to the brim of the flip-up handles, the brewing compost within has now settled to about two thirds full, the shredded paper frosting on top now stained the color of tea.

It, along with a second metal can I borrowed from the neighbor last month, is a veritable IED of compost in the making. I drag the plastic can around the side log wall and set it in front of my pile. It’s too heavy to pick up and dump the compost outright, so I stick a pitchfork into the midst and spread steaming forkfuls across the newly deposited leaves. The pounds and pounds of kitchen scraps and last year’s compost sink through the freshly deposited leaves. After a hot month of percolating in a mostly sealed container, the mix is hardly identifiable, though I do spot a couple of corn cobs from a late-summer cookout.

The proto compost I've been brewing in a garbage can for the past month will get my my pile off to a fast start.

The proto compost I’ve been brewing in a garbage can for the past month will get my my pile off to a fast start.

The leaves gathered from along the street are waiting to be tumbled over this mix, and just after I empty the sheetful of crushed leaves, I’m visited by my neighbors, who come bearing a most appropriate gift.

It’s Craig from across the street, who married into a large Sicilian family, with his father-in-law, who makes wine each fall. This year he bought 250 pounds of red grapes, and today he brings over a chilled bottle of his first batch. I head inside to grab wine glasses. Craig has told me his father-in-law has been asking him why my lawn is still so green.

Craig is telling him how I spread the compost across the lawn as I set the glasses on a log beside my pile. The cork from the liter bottle comes out with a pop. I pour a tasting for each of us to salute the harvest of the autumn season. The sparkling ruby red wine is fresh and alive, and strong.

“It needs to breathe,” says Craig says.

“It will mature,” adds Sal, the winemaker in his thick Sicilian accent.

I taste, we clink glasses, and I look over to my pile and nod in happy agreement.

A glass of freshly made wine to toast my pile, which will take much longer to sample.

A glass of freshly made wine to toast my pile, which will take much longer to sample.

My Pile: Color Commentary

The sun is the guiding light of my backyard and what grows where and when within it. This being southern New England at about 40 degrees latitude — same as Madrid, Naples and Beijing — the sun’s transit across the local sky rises and lowers dramatically through the year, tracking to nearly straight overhead at mid-summer before skimming just above the horizon on a short day in darkest winter.

The sun rules all, and provides all. It gives my yard ample amounts of sun and shade, doling each out through the daylight hours in an ever-changing projection that begins each day with the sun rising over the houses and canopy trees across the street to the east, tracing a path behind the tall line of evergreens that shadow the southern, back border of my property, hovering brightly in the open patch of sky to the southwest before setting behind the oak-lined ridge of glacial-scoured granite ledge that backstops the houses across the street to the west.

The palette of autumn is deepening, with dabs of rust and red and magenta and all hues of yellow and gold and orange spreading pointillist across the summer’s canvas of green. Most of this fall color is still airborne, the collective leaves clinging to their branches they sprung from. The cusp of autumn is the time of year to marvel at the season’s growth of plants and bloom of flower and fruit, a still life of nature that is anything but still.

I have a good idea of how plants grow and why they are green – in a word, because of a magical elixir called chlorophyll – but off the top of my head couldn’t explain why or how their leaves change color. It turns out the experts are still somewhat mystified as well.

“For years, scientists have worked to understand the changes that happen to trees and shrubs in the autumn. Although we don’t know all the details, we do know enough to explain the basics and help you to enjoy more fully Nature’s multicolored autumn farewell, I read on the U.S. Forest Service’s website. (I figure if anyone knows about trees, it’s the agency that manages nearly 200 million acres of them.)

“Three factors influence autumn leaf color: leaf pigments, length of night, and weather, but not quite in the way we think. The timing of color change and leaf fall are primarily regulated by the calendar, that is, the increasing length of night. None of the other environmental influences — temperature, rainfall, food supply, and so on — are as unvarying as the steadily increasing length of night during autumn. As days grow shorter, and nights grow longer and cooler, biochemical processes in the leaf begin to paint the landscape with Nature’s autumn palette.

A color palette needs pigments, and there are three types that are involved in autumn color.

 
  • Chlorophyll, which gives leaves their basic green color. It is necessary for photosynthesis, the chemical reaction that enables plants to use sunlight to manufacture sugars for their food. Trees in the temperate zones store these sugars for their winter dormant period.
  • Carotenoids, which produce yellow, orange, and brown colors in such things as corn, carrots, and daffodils, as well as rutabagas, buttercups, and bananas.
  • Anthocyanins, which give color to such familiar things as cranberries, red apples, concord grapes, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and plums. They are water soluble and appear in the watery liquid of leaf cells.

Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the chloroplasts of leaf cells throughout the growing season. Most anthocyanins are produced in the autumn, in response to bright light and excess plant sugars within leaf cells.

During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As night length increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and show their colors.

A branch of dogwood, its leaves deepening in color and its berries ripening a bright red.

A branch of dogwood, its leaves deepening in color and its berries ripening a bright red.

The amount and brilliance of the colors that develop in any particular autumn season are related to weather conditions that occur before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is dwindling. Temperature and moisture are the main influences.

A succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp but not freezing nights seems to bring about the most spectacular color displays. During these days, lots of sugars are produced in the leaf but the cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. These conditions–lots of sugar and lots of light–spur production of the brilliant anthocyanin pigments, which tint reds, purples, and crimson. Because carotenoids are always present in leaves, the yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant from year to year.

peak-fall-color-mapThe amount of moisture in the soil also affects autumn colors. Like the weather, soil moisture varies greatly from year to year. The countless combinations of these two highly variable factors assure that no two autumns can be exactly alike. A late spring, or a severe summer drought, can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks. A warm period during fall will also lower the intensity of autumn colors. A warm wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights should produce the most brilliant autumn colors.

In early autumn, in response to the shortening days and declining intensity of sunlight, leaves begin the processes leading up to their fall. The veins that carry fluids into and out of the leaf gradually close off as a layer of cells forms at the base of each leaf. These clogged veins trap sugars in the leaf and promote production of anthocyanins. Once this separation layer is complete and the connecting tissues are sealed off, the leaf is ready to fall.”

And fall they will. And once these technicolor packets of carbon and minerals are swept up and gathered, my pile becomes a kaleidoscope of ever-changing texture and color. Each load of leaves changes its complexion; the electric yellow of the poplar is swamped by a crush of wine-dark japanese maple; some oak is scarlet and green, other leaves are more ruby red. Some leaves haven’t gotten the memo, and remain stubbornly green, and decide to rot before they rust. My pile sucks the verdant green from load after load of fresh grass clippings. They molt to dusky yellow before melting away as ashen scatterings of grey. Yet more color pours into my pile with  every bucket of kitchen slop, bag of shredded paper and bin of seaweed and straw.

The cold rains and hard frosts of fall and winter wash away the last flickers of the vainglorious autumn hues. Like a spilled tray of watercolor paints, the distinctly primary rainbow of pigments that begins as my pile will soon spread into a mush of brown, as dull and uniform in color as it is distinctly rich with decay.

For a brief moment in time my pile turns a pristine, crystalline white. The blanket of snow that melts into my pile each winter is like caramelizing sugar in a cauldron of hot brown butter. As it cooks down on through the warming months of spring, my pile turns from the color of base clay into a deep, rich coffee brown. That’s the color of compost, I suppose. But of my pile? It’s made of every color under the sun.

 

 

My Pile: Ruminations

Busy as I keep tending to my pile, garden and yard, there are always plenty of moments when I just sit, to rest and reflect.

There are any number of places in the backyard for taking a seat to ponder my pile, the flat lawn and  bushy gardens, and the rising trees that ring the house and property. My property is basically a square piece of flat land that slopes gently front to back, with a small box of a house set in the middle. Surrounding a moat of grass lawn that rings the house and flatstone patio is a  perimeter of mulched garden beds, thickly planted with perennial flowers and shrubs. Rising above them is an array of trees, mostly hardwood but some evergreen, ranging in size from 20 feet tall to more than 80.

A wider canopy of green on the horizon of the neighboring landscape frames the wide swath of sky above.  I view this stretch of open space as my property as well, the air rights that allow me to claim passing clouds, lingering sunsets, circling hawks and fluttering bats as my own.

In the gloaming of a deep summer evening, I sit and watch the flashing legions of fire flies that rise through the twilight, a light show rising into the ether. Sometimes it’s the chase of a visiting hummingbird flitting among the flower heads that keeps me still. If I sit quietly enough, a cautious dove will alight on the flagstone patio to coo over the tiny black seeds dropped in profusion by the gangly cleome that border the vegetable garden.  Not too long ago, I was startled by a red tailed hawk that swooped low over my backyard, a squirming squirrel clutched in its talons.

Though a scene of some industry, there are plenty of perches to take a pause on between backyard chores.

Though a scene of some industry, in my backyard there are plenty of perches to take a pause on between chores.

Other times I heed the sudden downdraft of a chill, ill wind on a muggy summer day, a head’s up  that I have only minutes to take in the branches swaying haphazardly in the gusty breeze, the flashes of lightning approaching from over the distant hill before fat drops of a dousing thunderstorm begin to plop down upon the ground, and bang off roof and driveway. Today I watch as braces of robins skydive into the dogwood to pluck the bright-red berries from bended branches.

I see and use my yard, like most gardeners do, as an outdoor living space, a series of interconnected rooms decorated with plants and hardscapes. Although I have a number of nice chairs on the back porch and patio, a comfy, cushioned wrought-iron lounge chair or two, and even a good sturdy picnic bench in the shade of the backyard, I most often take a perch on a stump or stone. I don’t know why, but I suspect these places make me feel more connected to the yard I keep in the most organic, down-to-earth way. Generally having a pair of clippers tucked in the back pocket of my cargo shorts or jeans or being otherwise grubby may have something to do with it as well.

Two squat logs that begin the twin wood walls that embrace my pile are frequent rest stops. So, too, are the largest rocks that anchor the borders of the flower and fern gardens in three corners of my yard. Each are about as high as a small footstool; I know how sturdy these small boulders are because I dug them out of the ground and rolled them into place. Depending on the day and time and task, any of them make a good perch spend a moment taking it all in. As the years go by and both the garden and I mature, these pauses grow longer, and more frequent.

The view I often find myself taking in is from the fat round chunk of maple, 20 inches tall and nearly as thick, that sits upright along the stockade fence that runs behind my pile. The log has a rotted knot hole big enough to stick my fist in. It’s no good for splitting into firewood but serves as another good rest spot to ruminate upon my pile and beyond it the lawn and garden it rises from and nurtures.

After all, ruminating is what my pile is all about.  From the Latin ruminat – “chewed over” or “to chew repeatedly for an extended period,” as in what cows do to cud, since the 16th century the word has also meant “to turn over in the mind” or “to reflect on over and over again, casually or slowly.”

What I reflect on today is an exotic new contribution that awaits being added to my pile. I’m looking at a bucket packed full of pellet-size poop from a small herd of llamas and alpacas that reside at a nearby nature center. They’re part of a collection of animals of a working demonstration farm. I’d stopped by to find out more about the organic vegetable garden they keep and to inquire about a Master Composter class they offer.

One thing leads to another, and that thing is the heavy bucket of llama “beans” that now sits before me. I find out more on a website kept by Blue Rock Station, a farm in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Ohio:

“Llama manure is… simply put… terrific stuff for your plants.  The llama “beans” as they are often called (as they resemble coffee beans, or rabbit poo, or whatever other “bean like” thing you care to imagine) break down slowly, releasing their nutrients into your plants. Other advantages include:

  • almost no smell (ideal for indoor plants)
  • extremely rich in Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium
  • will not “burn” your plants

The smooth green nuggets remind me most of vitamin capsules, only not filled with oily gel but dry. In fact, a member of a compost forum, permies.com, suggests soaking the llama beans to spur their decomposition, so I am happy to let the bucket sit for a week or so while I wait for the leaves to fall en masse. Showers are on the way, and I’ll keep the bucket uncovered to let the coming rain soak in. The llama manure doesn’t smell much more than the sniff of a horse stall.

 

A bucket of newly procured llama poop from a local nature center sits on deck beside my pile, waiting to be added to the rush of fall leaves.

I thought I’d be busy by this time with raking leaves and adding them wholesale to my pile. Looking through my compost journal, I know in years’ past by now sometimes I’ve already gathered heaps of fallen leaves, even spread wood chips across the culled flower beds. The cud for my pile is still clinging to the trees, the leaves still largely as green as the lush grass of autumn growing thick in my yard. Though I plan to mow the yard again this weekend, I have few other pressing chores, so for now I wait and watch and, yes, ruminate.

 

My Pile: Bounty of the Sea

On the first day of October I load the dog into the car, along with a tennis ball, two empty plastic tubs and a three-pronged hand rake.

Today marks the seasonal re-opening of the town’s beaches to dogs, from now on through March. So to the sea we go.

The dog likes nothing more than to chase a tennis ball across the soft wet sand into the shallow planes of saltwater at low tide. He stops to sniff out all the mysterious scents of the seashore and on occasion to bury his catch in a hole dug along the tidal flat.

I stop at the strandline to fill the buckets with seaweed to ferry home to my pile.

The timing is doubly good: After weeks of dry weather, a coming storm system is set to bring rain to the parched region. Bolstered by a harvest moon, the flood tides have washed up a deep, ragged etching of seaweed and other bounty of the sea.

After giving the dog his run along the beach, I fill the first bucket with a pungent mix of drying seaweed and broken stalks of seagrass. The sand-flecked scrapings are suffused with sea shells, the carapaces and claws of crabs and stray flight feathers, mostly the gray and white quills of seagulls. It weighs about 40 pounds, I figure as it bangs against my hip on the way back to the car. It is ripe enough that I know I will drive home with the windows wide open, the dog’s safety be damned.

Such a batch of seaweed and organic flotsam is a prized addition to my pile, especially at this time of year. I will spread it across the base, which has begun this season first with a rough and tangly layer of spent flower stems and uprooted vines and plants from the garden. I’ve since added a heaping of fresh-cut grass clippings, thick with the rich detritus from when I mowed over the compost cast across the yard.

My goal is to give my pile a rich, green base of highly biodegradable greens before I begin to raise it up out of the ground with load after load of gathered brown leaves. A compost heap too bottom-heavy with leaves risks becoming a dead zone. The leaves compress and entomb themselves, sealed off from air, water and other agents of change, among them me and my pitchfork.

Set on a veritable platter of rich, airy green material, the autumn leaves, I hope, will begin to decompose from below, and the resulting heat and biological activity will filter upward as I continue to layer my pile with fresh additions of all manner of rottable organic material on through the fall and winter months.

My pile's 'sea floor' -- a rich, briny mix of seaweed and seagrass, infused with sea shells, crab claws and cast-off feathers of seagulls.

My pile’s ‘sea floor’ — a rich, briny mix of seaweed and seagrass, infused with sea shells, crab claws and cast-off feathers of seagulls.

The longer I live by the shore of the Long Island Sound, the more I come to respect its riches. And the more I realize that the Sound I know is a shadow of what it once was.

Its productivity was once legend.

In the foreward to Tom Andersen’s “This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes “how Henry Hudson’s lieutenant Robert Juett described rivers choked with salmon (probably striped bass) and mullet … New Yorkers ate more oysters from the Sound than any other meat, including the East River oyster, now extinct, whose eleven-inch shell housed seven pounds of succulent flesh.

“Two hundred years after contact, the European invasion had little impact on the estuary’s extraordinary productivity. In the Eighteenth Century, enough lobsters still washed ashore each night from natural die-offs to fertilize the coastal farms of Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.”

Andersen quotes from a journal account by Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University in the early nineteenth century, on the efforts of Long Islanders to improve their agriculture: [T]he inhabitants … have set themselves to collect manure wherever it could be obtained. Not content with what they could make and find on their own farms and shores, they have sent their vessels up the Hudson and loaded them with the residium of potash manufactories; gleaned the streets of New York; and have imported various kinds of manure from New Haven, New London, and even from Hartford. In addition to all this, they have swept the Sound, and covered their fields with the immense shoals of whitefish with which in the beginning of summers its waters replenished. No manure is so cheap as this where the fish abound; no is so rich; and few are so lasting. Is effects on vegetation are prodigious. Lands which heretofore have scarcely yielded ten bushels of wheat by acre are said, when dressed with whitefish, to have yielded forty. The number caught is almost incredible. It is here said … that one hundred and fifty thousand have been taken in a single draft.”

Over the next century, the Sound’s natural resources were methodically plundered; first beaver and other riverine mammals for their pelts, then deer and larger prey, then seals, then whales, then passenger pigeons and turkeys, once so numerous and unguileful that hunters, Andersen writes, would park a wagon under a tree where turkeys roosted and shoot them all but take only those that dropped directly into the buckboard.

“By the 1920s, the terrapin, duck and lobster populations were in decline, and periodic algal blooms clouded the waters, once gin-clear. F. Scott Fitzgerald christened his contemporary Long Island Sound ‘that great wet barnyard,’ acknowledging its modern function as the primary waste receptacle for the enormous human population now crowding its shores.”

Since then, especially after a disastrous algae bloom in the late 1980s, the Sound has struggled to recover even the barest scraps of its once seemingly endless bounty.

“Long Island Sound’s flounder catch dropped from 40 million pounds in 1982 to one million pounds in 1987. The oyster catch sank from 3 million bushels annually to 15,000,” Andersen reports in his 2002 book, adding, “Most significantly, the Sound has become the Northeast’s sewer. Each day 1 billion gallons of treated sewage pour into the Sound, supplemented by another 18 million gallons of raw sewage…. The result is that Long Island Sound is undergoing an ecological crisis that threatens to turn it into a dead sea.”

Andersen paints a vivid picture of the Sound’s low point, the summer of 1987. An unprecedentedly large algae bloom led to a collapse of oxygen levels. “Hypoxia in the Sound’s center trough spread up and out toward the shoals, linking up with hypoxia in the harbors. Pockets of healthy water that could have provided refuge for fish and lobsters vanished. Blackfish breached the surface, gasping pitifully for air.

“In the newsroom of the New Rochelle newspaper I worked for, I took a call from a man who said he had been fishing at New Rochelle’s Hudson Park the evening before. He heard a curious noise in the dusk and, looking down to the rocks below the sea wall, saw lobsters crawling out of the water.”

Since those dark days, the Sound has recovered, somewhat. Though the lobster – once so plentiful that inmates in New England prisons rioted at being served an endless supply – will never return to the now cleaner but ever-warmer waters, the summer of 2015 saw the first sightings of whales in the Sound in generations; porpoises and seals are also making appearances, lured from the ocean waters off Cape Cod by growing numbers of baitfish, mostly the oil-rich menhaden. Oyster farms are a growth industry, recreational fishing is robust and tightly regulated; beach closings are less common.

“There’s all this life that wasn’t there before,” charter boat captain John McMurray tells environmental reporter Richard Schiffman in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Not Just Another Stinky Fish.”

That stinky fish is “menhaden, also known as bunker, or pogies,” Schiffman continues. To the fishermen he spoke to, “there are encouraging signs that the menhaden population along the Atlantic Coast is healthy after decades of intensive commercial exploitation.

“The name menhaden is a corruption of “munnawhatteaug,” which means fertilizer in Algonquian. Native Americans taught the pilgrims to plant them with their corn, enabling colonists to coax a crop from rocky New England soils, according to Bruce Franklin, author of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.” Manhaden was used as a lubricant, replacing whale oil after the Civil War; today the most of the catch (the largest by weight in the East Coast fishery) is rendered into heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid fish oil, as well as used to produce fertilizers and high-protein feeds for livestock, reports Schiffman.

Fodder for the game fish sought by sport fisherman, menhaden play an even more fundamental role in preserving the health of the Long Island Sound; swimming in schools of hundreds of thousands. “Mouths agape as them feed, menhaden are living vacuum cleaners sucking up algae blooms that deplete inshore waters of oxygen and create biological deserts in the sea. A single adult menhaden can clean four to seven gallons of water in a minute.”

Just 15,000 years old, and formed by glaciers that scoured the land to the north and left it piled up in ridges to form Long Island, the Sound is a current event, at least in geologic time.

It is also one of the globe’s the most dynamic waterscapes, and may be able to recover further, if we let it. Flushed twice daily by the tides, it features “a greater range of seasonal temperatures than that of any other body of water in the world,” says Tom Andersen, with temperature as low as 32 degrees in winter and as high as 76 in August.

The dog days of summer aside, the dog swims year-round, whether it’s to paddle through the 70-degree surf on the first day of October or a plunge into the icy water of February. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, in terms of the bounty that once lapped upon the shores he trods.

And though its riches now pale in comparison to generations past, the Sound provides me and my pile with more than I can use. I wonder if other backyard gardeners or lcoal farmers reap the sea’s harvest like I do, or if the surplus seaweed raked from the region’s public beaches to keep beachgoers happy is recycled in any productive way.

The best fertilizer in the world,” says Bull in the Irish film The Field. Seems a shame to let all that seaweed rot on the beach when it could be put to use renovating nearby landscapes that have been degraded over the years by the careless hand of man just as much as the provident local sea.

I’m hopeful. As another close watcher of the Sound once wrote, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My pile typically begins each fall with a "sea floor" of seaweed, shells and crab carapaces culled from the strandline of the nearby beach.

My pile typically begins each fall with a “sea floor” of seaweed, shells and crab carapaces culled from the strandline of the nearby beach.

My Pile: Good Bones

The first weekend day of fall begins like yet another morning from the summer just past – warm, dry and sunny.

Though the weather may be stuck in a holding pattern –a pleasant one at that – there are chores to be done in the backyard, garden and compost pile.

The dog likes nothing better than the sight of me on the back porch lacing up my work shoes. I feel the same way.

My main Saturday chore is to mow the lawn. After aerating and overseeding three weeks ago, I’ve since watered plenty in the absence of any significant amount of rain. The grass has grown long and tangly, and at last a storm is forecast to head up the Atlantic Seaboard by mid-week.

While I wait for the morning dew to dry, I busy myself finishing up some procrastinated gardening chores, which in my Connecticut backyard means moving rocks. Over the course of season of aerating, weeding, transplanting and pruning, I’ve unearthed a load of new stones to repurpose and also exposed some needed hardscape repairs.

First I reset and enlarge the rock pathway along the side of my house that leads to the water hose and garbage can. Nothing against gardeners who busy themselves with annual plantings, but I tend to focus on the “bones” of my property. Like any gardener or otherwise domesticated housekeeper, taking out the trash or watering the plants is a most utilitarian area, which deserves upkeep and the occasional facelift. Now’s the time to do it before the leaves fall, my pile fills up and the ground freezes rock-solid.

Having already cleared the approach of encroaching pachysandra, I haul a few pieces of flat scheist from the stack of unearthed rubble rock I keep in a corner of the yard. I figure the flat, grainy stone chunks cleaved off eons ago from the glacial-scrubbed ridge that stretches behind the homes across the street. Or they may be from loose fill trucked in in the early 1950s to build up this marshy lowland onion field into a building lot on an old valley road. Whatever their provenance, they have a new setting as I plant them in a mix of sand, compost and topsoil. I’ll now have a clear and easy path to take when I haul out the garbage on a dark winter’s night.

Compost helps fill in around the stone steps leading to the water hose and garbage can, as well as the track the dog has made through the pachysandra.

Compost helps fill in around the stone steps leading to the water hose and garbage can, as well as the track the dog has made through the pachysandra.

Another garden task, one that I hope will pay dividends over the long haul: Along one side of my property is a swath of privet bushes, long grown tall as small trees. I’ve kept them largely untended as a screen to my side neighbor’s house, which is just a few feet beyond the fence that divides our properties. An introduces species of an semi-evergreen shrub found throughout Asia, privet has long become an American landscape fixture, defining Southhamption estate and suburban backyard alike. I admire how it has set down such deep American roots.

Each summer the privets’ fast-growing limbs hang heavy with white flowers, which in turn produce heavy boughs of purple berries late in the winter that the early-arriving robins gorge on while they’re waiting for the yard to thaw and give rise to the earthworms they seek most of all. The berries the birds don’t pick ultimately drop down into the thick bed of rotting wood chips and compost mulch.

Just as well; I read that with certain types of privet, the berries are mildly toxic to humans, though the Chinese have long used privet bark and leaves in herbal medicine as cures for everything from chapped lips to chronic bowl problems. The fast-growing branches I prune each year make privet a great green security fence; the flexible, reedy twigs are also used as cords for lashing in other cultures, which is why I don’t turn the branchy clippings into my pile but instead haul them off to the local yard-refuse center for recycling.

In any event, each year I get a crop of vigorous weedlings of the profilgate privet, which I pluck out of the ground with a dandelion digger and transplant along the back side of my property.

Soon after moving in a decade ago, I had a wooden stockade fence set in place along the rough, shady line of trees and bushes that separate the edge of my backyard and the neighbor’s house, just two or three paces beyond. Knowing that the wooden fence will last only a few more years before rotting away in the damp shade, at its base I’ve begun to create what I hope will be a new, living screen of privet.

It’s the sort of silly little backyard project that I think most avid gardeners will recognize: A good-faith effort to make use of a garden material in abundant supply – in my case, spindly little privet sproutings – in hopes that over the years the effort will pay off in a useful  garden fixture – a dense screen of living green.

Over the past few seasons, I’ve dug up as many small privet plants as I can find that have sprouted in the mulch of the perennial flower garden, to transplant the bare-root striplings alongside their earlier kin in the deep bed of wood chips I’ve long piled up against the fenceline. I water the spindly little invasives into bare spots up and down the budding hedgerow. Privet being as hardy as it is unappetizing to deer, I know most will take root and survive –but whether they grow thick enough to become a living replacement for the rotting stockade fence will probably be for the next homeowner to decide.

The puny privet hedge taking root in the wood-chip mulch and shade along the stockade fence that bounds the backyard and my pile.

And that’s the thing about tending a suburban property. Yes, I own the house and its grounds, or at least share ownership with the mortgage lender. But I am fully aware that I am only a temporary caretaker, at least in the timeframe that nature keeps.

My backyard, and at the heart of it, my compost pile, is a hobby farm of very modest proportions – not much more than a third of an acre. I’ve designed and keep up the yard according to my wants and whims, to be a playground and refuge for me and my son, a robust habitat for native flora and fauna, a family footprint of carbon and other essentials that is sustainable and livable.

My goal is to give my yard the best bones I can, for the larger and greater sense, I’m just a short-term tenant of my property, which I intend to leave in better shape than I found it. Another homeowner could, and probably will, change the property as much as I have – the stones I set in place are steps that are fleeting even for me. I can only hope that the hardwoods that I’ve nurtured, the oak and beech and hickory, will grow tall enough before I leave to be lasting replacements for the swamp maples and other trash trees I inherited.

The backyard I tend is a long way from achieving any sort of Permaculture status, but what my pile has contributed to it over the past decade, the tonnage of new compost, rich in carbon and nutrients it’s added, will pay dividends for decades.

Setting stone pathways, pruning bushes, raking leaves and mowing the lawn may seem like jobs to outsource and then cut a check for. The price of being a homeowner, I guess.

But not me. I can’t wait to haul the mower out of the shed. Even better, when I pull the grass catcher from its hinge, to remove the duct tape I’d used a month ago to seal it, I find the slanted bag half full.

Inside are the dusty remains of my mowing in the compost over the lawn a week ago. I can’t think of a better addition to my nascent pile than a batch of highly sifted mature compost and dried grass clippings. I empty the bag atop the tangled limbs of tomatoes and spent stalks of herbs and flowers, shoring up the stout sunflower stem that rises from the very base of my brand-new pile.

I tear off the ragged strips of duct tape from the mower’s open end, set the blade up a notch and fire up the Toro. I start under the sycamore tree, which has already dropped a dappling of leaves, and quickly fill the grass catcher. I pour the mix of chopped leaves and fresh blades of grass over my pile.

I'm starting my pile off with a base of chopped up grass clippings and leaves.

I’m starting my pile off with a base of chopped up grass clippings and leaves.

In all, I add three more catchers’ worth of fricasseed leaves and grass to the base of my pile, and leave as least as much to the yard. The verdant patches of green make great, pocket-sized playing fields for my son and dog, the neighbors and me. But the thick grass lawn also yields its own surplus crop of nutrient-rich material that I am happy to harvest. You don’t have to own a 40-ft. wide combine to feel like a farmer. Sometimes a 2-ft. wide Toro will do.

It’s a good start to my pile, and to the fall.

My Pile: Starting Over

On the last weekend day of summer, a bright, sunny Sunday, I head outside to prepare my pile and backyard for the coming bounty of the fall harvest season.

I stop first in the vegetable garden, tucked between the back patio and corner nook of the house. Bound by two corners of the house and two sidings of 6 by 6 inch wood beams, along which I’ve strung a short wire fence, the vegetable garden is ringed by a two-foot wide border garden of flowers and bisected on the inside by a cross-shaped walk of beach brick. I’ve added so much compost to the vegetable garden that it is now bursting at the seams. The brick pathway and stepping stones within the garden, as well as the flagstone walkway along the outside, are now much lower than the raised bed of garden soil.

Building up the soil is one of the chief aims of the backyard composter, and this season it appears I’ve raised the vegetable garden so that it is now a platter served up for the deer, who, sadly, seem to have beaten me to the last tomatoes of the season. Whether they lean in over the short wire fence or hop it outright I don’t know, but the deer have neatly pruned the once-sprawling tomato plants, chomped the cilantro and nipped the remaining cukes. They seem to have no taste for collard greens, fennel or dill. The basil, now bolting, has grown too bitter for both them and me. Time to harvest the gains and add the season’s leftovers to my pile.

First, I pluck a ripening Big Boy tomato from inside its cylindrical wire cage. It’s neatly marked with a four-square pattern of bite marks, just the size of the narrow, overbite incisors on the deer skull I found on a walk in some nearby woods last year and brought home to show my son. The skull now rests in a flower box planted with pansies outside the kitchen-sink window, a Georgia O’Keefe still life I like to ponder when washing the dishes.

You'd think the deer wouldn't find the garden through the cleome flowers; at right are the flagstone steps sinking into the turf.

You’d think the deer wouldn’t find the garden through the cleome flowers; at right are the flagstone steps sinking into the turf.

I’ve scraped my pile to bare ground, save for a small pyramid of compost scraps off to the side. The log wall boundaries and improved fencing are now in place. Time to begin anew.

I pull the tomato vines and other past-due vegetable plantss and herbs out of the ground and haul several armfuls over to my pile, adding to it after a stroll around the garden beds to dead-head the most-tattered of the perennial flowers. They’ve grown tall and straggly through the summer, and now hang heavy with their seed heads. The stoutest I leave standing; the golden finches love to pluck the echinacea seeds from their perches on waving stems, and the dove flock to the coreopsis and cleome, which cast their spring-loaded seed pods across the ground. They grow nearly as tall as the sunflower, and their woody stems will make good, fibrous airways for my pile as well.

Each season the press of leaves squeezes air out of the heap of organic gleanings that is my pile; I’m hoping this early harvest of tangly stalks and stems and dirt-encrusted roots will serve as an airy foundation, a box spring of coils to the soft mattress of leaves to come.

I stroll back over to the vegetable garden and grip the wrist-thick stalk of a sunflower plant that had sprouted among the beach bricks I use along the walkway. Last weekend, I harvested the foot-wide bloom, which was heavy with ripened seeds. Each year my son and the girls next door harvest the seeds for a favorite “snack-tivity” – we wash and then soak the seeds in salt brine and roast them in a pan. If they don’t end up looking and tasting exactly like the sunflower seeds you get in a plastic pouch at the store, at least the kids enjoy the idea of fun food coming from the Jack and the Beanstalk plant in the garden.

Tugging the six-foot-tall stem this way and that, I wrest the sunflower plant from the ground. The root ball is the size of a melon, and even after flicking away the stray pieces of brick and dirt, the plant weighs a good 10 or 15 pounds. It amazes me how much a plant can grow in a single season.

I trundle the stout sunflower over to my pile and set it in the middle of the rest of the prunings. It will be the tent pole that stakes the heart of my pile. As the stalk decays, it will also serve as the conduit for air and moisture, from top to bottom. Around the base of the sunflower stalk I nestled more leggy stems of the fennel that has grown wild in the back corner of the vegetable garden. The hollow stems and fleshy branches gone to seed give my pile the smell of licorice.

Grown thick and stout (and mostly hollow) through the summer, this sunflower stalk will make a good 'tent pole' for my pile.

Grown thick and stout (and mostly hollow) through the summer, this sunflower stalk will make a good ‘tent pole’ for my pile. I later surround it with leggy stems of fennel, and fresh grass clippings from a neighbor.

The long, hot, dry end to summer has not been kind to the grass I sowed two weeks ago, though with stints of watering, the lawn overall has grown in nicely in all but the sunniest spots. Here and there a mushroom sprouts from the grass, which I take as a sign the compost I heaped upon it has spread its own fecundity down into the turf.

The grass will continue to grow on into November, and I’ll run the mower across the yard several times to mulch the autumn leaves and grass clippings to add to my pile. For the last mow of the season, I always try to leave a thick layer of chopped-up leaves and grass on the ground to break down over the long winter. By then, my pile will be overstuffed, as there’s always more than enough leaves and other brown material to go around.

Even with the moderate drought and hot dry days, the trees cling to their still-green leaves. As the nights grow cooler and daylight dwindles they will soon get the signal to put on their annual show of color, and then the annual gathering of leaves will begin.

In the meantime, I have more backyard chores to attend to, among them repairing the hole in my brick garden walk left by the sunflower plant torn from its clutch along the garden’s beach brick path. I’ve also been meaning to improve upon a set of flagstone steps I’d laid down several years ago along the outside perimeter of the vegetable garden, extending into the grass from the patio, four stepping stones in all.

Most evenings I stroll along this flower bed to strip the stems of cleome of their banana-shaped seed pods, to cast the seeds upon the flagstone patio for the mourning doves to flock to at sunrise. Each morning when I take the dog outside, we flush a flight of doves from the patio. Dove are very flabbable, and their wings beat noisily as they rise to take perch on the crown of the roof and nearby pine.

These tall, gangly flowers now lean far over the grass and the sunken flagstone steps. I decide to embark on a landscaping project to extend the patio along the flower bed and raising it to the same level. Next season, the seeds will fall upon this new stretch of patio for the dove to pluck at, and I’ll have fixed the sunken step problem. Even better, having deposited several loads of fresh compost on my neighbor’s newly renovated landscaping a couple weeks ago, I know he has a supply of flagstone that I can repurpose.

First I scrape away the sod along the flower bed, using some of it to fill a sunken spot of turf in the front yard. The rest I toss, turf-side down, onto my nascent pile. The sod, rich with worms and organic life, will make a fine base for the coming season’s heap of leaves.

To build up the base for the flagstone, I add several buckets of small stones I’d plucked from the yard this past spring, then spread a thin layer of remnant compost to the foundation. The compost is more ceremonial than anything, as it will compress into what I imagine as a conduit for earthworms traveling from the yard under the new flagstone walk to the garden. The stones I’m happy to find a collective purpose for other than to leave piled into a mound in the corner of the yard.

I enjoy how my pile and backyard functions as a closed-loop ecosystem — a stone is pulled from the ground, its vacated space filled with compost from my pile; the stone replaces spare turf to be recycled as compost, which will then fill new holes in the ground. I also enjoy enriching this backyard ecosystem from further afield (and office), especially when it means a trip to the seashore.

As fresh compost makes a poor base for a new flagstone walkway and would be a waste to put under the pavers in the beach-brick path within the garden, I head to the beach to fill a couple of large buckets with borrowed sand.

I pick the town’s smallest and rockiest public access, along a tidal creek. Besides its contributions of sand and seaweed for my pile and backyard, the local beach, called Burying Hill, also churns up a steady supply of polished beach brick.

Tumbled by the surf and sand into streamlined pieces of all shapes and sizes, the washed-up artifacts of fired clay make fine filler for the garden walkway. I like how the ocher hues contrast with the dirt. The bricks soak up water like a sponge yet drain like gravel. In the spring they absorb the warming sun; on frosty fall mornings the bricks are rimmed with a coating of ice from moisture sweated out overnight. They will last forever, more or less. Plus, they’re free for the taking – though I do have some guilt for excerising salvage rights over a more altruistic “leave things be.”

The look and feel and utility of beach brick makes it a prized find at the local beach.

The look and feel and utility of beach brick makes it a prized find at the local beach.

My favorite find is a pale yellow-orange variety flecked with bits of shell and straw. Surely these pieces date from the pre-Industrial, colonial era, when brick was formed of hand-dug clay and any old beach sand, then padded with salt marsh grass.

Who knows how long or far each piece has been tumbled by each tide, how whole it was before being ground down to a pebble, or from what man-made thing it came from. Some of the brick I find is charred on one side — the chimney from an old settler’s cabin? Is it from some seaside patio of a swanky estate that got sucked into the sea? Or is it just detritus from a load of fill dumped at the water’s edge back when we valued our beaches differently?

Sand from the beach provides solid footing for the “dove-walk” extension of my patio along the flower beds that line the vegetable garden.

But I digress. And that’s the thing that beachcombing shares with gardening and composting — it invites stray thoughts as I fill a bucket of sand or seaweed or canvas bag slung over the shoulder with a load of brick.

I return home with two plastic buckets heavy with beach sand and a new supply of beach brick, which I add to fill up the hole in the garden walkway made by the sunflower that had taken root there this past spring.

I want to plant a fall crop of lettuce, arugula and kale in the beds now cleared of the tomato plants and strawberries. Heaped with a fresh supply of compost, they need turning. The spadefuls of dirt spill over into the beach brick. That might suit the sunflower seed that takes purchase there next spring, but not my tidy gardener’s eye.

The solution is to tease out the concrete pavers that gird the brick walkway and reset them several inches higher. I use trowel-fulls of beach sand to nudge up the pavers, and add a few shovelfuls of compost underneath the stepping stones to keep them level with plumped-up garden soil. The higher border will not only allow me to keep adding top-dressings of compost to the vegetable garden but also create space to add newfound bricks along the walkway. What started out some years ago as a garden walkway with a single layer of beach brick is now six inches deep with round, ocher bricks.

I tamp down the rest of the sand along the newly etched “dove walk” and spend a happy hour arranging the jig-saw puzzle of repurposed flagstone into place. That’s the neat thing about tending my pile and backyard garden. Though the changing seasons and small projects mark moments of change, progress is always along a path that’s moving forward, growing, evolving.

 

 

 

My Pile: Cutting the Cord

Each fall, I gather a new mass of stored carbon in the backyard. No, not my pile, though it is also assembled from similarly recycled organic bits begged and borrowed and roughly matches the compost heap in both weight and effort. It’s wood for my fireplace.

From a purely environmental standpoint, it’s hard for me to justify burning through a cord or so of firewood each winter. Even the best firewood is relatively inefficient as a heat source, and all that smoke going up the chimney is far from benign. In fact, let me be clear on that last point:

“The smoke from wood burning is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles (also called particle pollution, particulate matter, or PM),” I read on the EPA website. “These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldhyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).”

“Smoke may smell good, but it’s not good for you. Both short- and long-term exposures to particle pollution from wood smoke have been linked to a variety of health effects. Short-term exposures to particles (hours or days) can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Long-term exposures (months or years) have been associated with problems such as reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis—and even premature death. Some studies also suggest that long-term PM 2.5 exposures may be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.”

Talk about throwing cold water on a warm and cozy winter’s fire… Even an article on woodheat.org, a website devoted to promoting wood heat, includes some major caveats: 

“Despite its considerable advantages, fuelwood is not a good solution for all households to the problems of high home heating costs and global warming. Fuelwood is not a suitable energy source in all locations, such as densely-populated urban areas, because its air emissions tend to be higher than other options, and the air is already burdened with pollution from industry and transportation. A winter’s supply of wood takes up a lot of space, and the price of firewood in urban areas is normally too high to achieve savings. Successful heating with wood also requires a level of physical fitness and the learning of a special set of skills. Clearly, wood heating is not for everyone,” I read in “The Argument In Favor Of Wood Heating.”

Still, there’s a case to be made for what environmental writer Marc Gunther  cites as “by far the most popular form of renewable energy used at home.”

“It’s a low-cost and low-carbon way to heat homes. It’s a ‘green’ technology that appeals to poor and working class people. And, because gathering and distributing wood is labor intensive,  it generates economic activity,” Gunther argues in “A Renewable Energy Technology that Gets No Respect.”

I moved into my two-bedroom cottage-style home a decade ago with my son, then 5. The main room had a small, narrow fireplace rimmed with ornate, cast-iron trim. It looked like it was designed to burn coal, and I considered it more of a decorative element than heat source. No doubt it hadn’t been used in decades, and in fact when I soon had to repair the Rube Goldberg fuel-oil furnace tucked into the closet-like crawl space tucked behind the chimney, I found that the furnace had been routed to vent exhaust up the flue.

It was only years later, after the furnace finally crapped out and I replaced it and the similarly ancient water heater with a much more efficient on-demand system, powered by natural gas, that I called in a chimney sweep to assess whether the fireplace could be used. My son had grown old enough for me to relax as a worry-wart dad, and I was pining to add some warmth and rustic charm to our living room. Besides, back-to-back stormy seasons, including Superstorm Sandy, had produced both a windfall of trees and a nagging fear of a loss of power over some cold, dark nights.

With a new cap and damper plus a plugged vent hole and sturdy new screen, my fireplace was back in business. The narrow but deep firebox with its cast-iron surround drew wonderfully and gave off blasts of heat that radiated across the living room. The long neglected fireplace has since become the true heart and hearth of our home.

Environmental qualms aside, the locavore in me likes the idea of burning wood gathered from nearby. There may be some cost savings, in terms of keeping the thermostat down, which appeals to my thrifty yankee spirit. The sensualist seeks the burn on the back of my legs, the pop and crackle in the air and the dance of flickering flames. I like everything about a fire, from constructing it just so to stoking and tending it through the night.

A fire is something special to gather around and keep company with; a magical presence in the room. A home fire sustains a gardener’s tinkering spirit the winter long. “To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world,” said Charles Dudley Warner. (A close friend of Mark Twain, Warner also had a way with words; he’s the fellow who also said “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” andPolitics makes strange bedfellows.” To have listened in on a fireside chat between those two!)

This affinity to fire may help explain why I smoked cigarettes for many years. It’s an addiction, I guess.

A cozy fire in the well used and loved fireplace.

Over the past five years, I haven’t had to pay for firewood, unless you count the cost of having several fallen or damaged maples taken down and chopped up by those I hire to scale trees with ropes and belts and chainsaws. Owning a chain saw is a manly aspiration I’ve always found reason not to fulfill.

Still, I very much like the idea of using every bit of a tree that has grown in my backyard, from adding its leaves and seeds to my pile, to spreading its chipped up limbs as mulch to the garden beds, to burning its sawed up and split logs in the fireplace. The wood ash that remains is sprinkled across the lawn and garden beds and my pile. The stumps, well, I just have to live with those until they rot back into the ground, like the bones of a bison fully consumed by a band of Plains Indians.

I’ve carted home cast-off logs of oak left by the utility crews working up and down the street. I’ve also helped myself to several loads of lumber from neighbors who have had treework done and have no need for firewood. In these parts, firewood is free for the taking, if you know where to source it and have the means to schlepp it home. My fireplace is more narrow than most, so I have to cherry pick logs of no more than 18 inches long, shorter than what most commercial firewood suppliers make.

Over the summer, I’ve assembled a stack of wood that stretches across the back of the tool shed and as high as I can sling them. Burning two or three fires a week, I figure I consume a little more than a cord of wood a season, starting around the first frost of the year in mid to late October and lasting until the final frost, sometime in late April, or when I run out of logs, which happened this past spring, a few chilly nights too soon.

I’ve long been intrigued by the word “cord,” used to define the size of a stack of firewood. Like peck or rod or even foot, it harkons back to an age about which we now have only a passing familiarity. Cord is generally meant to define a “racked and well stowed” wood pile that is four feet wide, four feet deep and eight feet long. It’s based on the use of a string or rope to define it. Whose string exactly is long lost to history, but I rather like how this man-made unit has stood the test of time. If you want a more precise measurement, figure on a volume of 128 cubic feet, says Wikipedia, or for a comparison, it’s calculated that a cord of seasoned oak, with its 22.1 million British thermal units (BTUs), has the heating equivalent of 159 gallons of fuel oil.

Now is the time to cleave these whole logs into slivered pieces and to stack them in sturdy rows against the shed and beside my pile. It’s a process, an exercise that’s near a sport, that I thoroughly enjoy. And though it took me a good long while before I could get myself to hand off the big-boy axe to my teenage son, chopping wood has also become a family enterprise. Together, we make a good team, taking turns with the maul, splitting wedge and axe to turn a whole log into fractionalized pieces in a few, well-measured strokes. This good ol-fashioned manual labor strikes my son as thoroughly exotic. It’s also a contest between old man and young buck; you can almost see the testosterone cursing up from the steel bit and wood handle into his sinewy young arms. I like being a father who has taught his son how to chop wood. Better yet, he still has all is toes.

I also like splitting the work. As Henry Ford said, “Cut your own wood and it warms you twice.”

Splitting and stacking firewood for the winter while my pile the drop of autumn leaves.

In addition to learning how best to chop wood — figuring out the grain and the knots and gauging the force of the blow needed — there’s some woods wisdom to be gleaned from carving up a log. These past few seasons, ash has been in abundant supply, courtesy of the emerald ash borer. An ash log is light and straight-grained and splits like a dream; there’s a reason it’s long been favored by baseball sluggers and why I give the ash to my son. I can talk baseball while he splits wood like a hall-of-famer.

“Although ash may produce slightly lower BTU’s than oak or sugar maple, it’s a popular firewood choice for many people,” I read on firewood-for-life.com. “Ash is known for splitting very easy and having a low moisture content. This allows the tree to be safely used immediately after harvesting.”

Beech is a breeze to split, and burns bright and fast. The largest log I hauled home was a stout log of beech, two feet in diameter, which cleaved off into more than 40 pieces of firewood; two full evening’s worth. Birch is also nicely spittable, and we can tell when we’ve got a piece of black birch by the Wrigley spearmint gum aroma of its bark. I have a hard time telling my oaks apart, but when we split a piece of white oak, the grain looks just like the kitchen floor of a new McMansion.

Cutting wood benefits my pile, indirectly. When chopping a scavenged log, most of the time the bark cleaves from the wood. Some I use for kindling, but much of it I lay down as flat sections behind my pile, which backs up against what amounts to a drainage ditch for the low back end of the property.

The bark makes a sturdy, if temporary, flooring for me to stand on when I work my pile. The curved outer hide is a no-slip surface for my work shoes. The domed paneling laid end to end allows for the run-off to pass underneath, and as it rots in place I imagine the row upon row of small vaulted ceilings gives comfort to all manner of creatures. I tread softly upon them, for fear of squishing a rare native salamander or newt.

The stack of firewood is my pile’s doppelganger. They’re both pit stops for assembled loads of energy-rich carbon cycling through the circuit of life. One is on the fast track and will soon go up in smoke. Poof. Crash and burn.

My pile is taking the long way around the carbon cycle, a trip with a more lasting reward. Its stores of carbon and other turbocharged organic amendments and minerals are first going to ground, where they will dissipate over time before making their way back skyward, rising toward the sun, whether as a blade of grass, burp of an earthworm or, once more, first as a soaring tree then, burning bright, a crackling fire. After all, “ashes to ashes” covers a lot of ground.