Today is Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, I realize, after seeing a coworker with a smudge of gray ash on her forehead this morning.
I’m not Catholic, so I have to look up the fact that this day marks the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of Lent, on which many Christians receive a mark of ashes on the forehead as a token of penitence and mortality.
I take the afternoon off as a sick day, citing the winter bug going round the office — and snagging a bag full of office-paper shreds on my way out the door, personal penitence for playing hooky so I can go home to check up on my pile.
The predicted snow did come and go early this week, leaving a few inches more of powdery, not hardly enough to shovel off the driveway. I see my pile has also shrugged off the latest covering, etching craggy vent holes across the top, which roughly correspond to where I buried the last insertion of coffee grounds and kitchen waste. There’s not much I can do for my pile at this point.
Well, some. After etching a pee into the drift of snow along the back of my pile, I duck inside the shed to retrieve the hanging bag of frozen kitchen scraps; I add a fresh bucket from the kitchen and put it back in cold storage, along with the shredded paper.
Next, I clean the fireplace and then sprinkle the few scoopfuls of fine gray ash and bits of crumbly black charcoal across the top of my pile, which again sags between the log walls, beaten down by the leaden weight of winter.
Wood ash is in abundant supply this long winter, and the dusty detritus of cozy fires inside is the only recent addition to my pile. Ash and charcoal bits contain lots of desirable trace nutrients and they balance the acidic bent of the leaves and grass. What’s more, virtually all of the carbonized remains are from the maple tree that I had taken down this past fall, not 20 feet away from my pile. I’ve spent the fall and early winter splitting the logs from that tree into cordwood for the fireplace.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life,” goes an Anglican burial prayer.
All ground is renewed by the ashes of what grows on it and above it, and adding ash from the maple that once spread its branches over my pile and its roots underneath it closes a very local feedback loop in the cycle of life that is my backyard.
“The forest soil needs dead trees, or the slash and ‘waste’ from logging, to feed it,” writes Bernd Heinrich in Life Everlasting (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). “By decomposing dead plant and animal matter, soil microbes release organically bound nitrogen and phosphorous in forms that the plants can use for growth,” adds Heinrich, who describes soil as “a complex, species-rich ecosystem that in some ways acts like an organism itself.”
“Aside from the complex chemistry, however, soil with organic matter folded into it has a texture that binds water, making it continuously available for the trees’ growth. The carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles all meet in the soil, intersecting on dead trees, which give forest life. Soil plays a central role in the productivity of forests, and hence it gives farmland derived from forests their fertility.”
So there is a certain symmetry to the sprinkling some of the final remains of the maple tree upon the compost heap that long nurtured it. Just as its leaves have contributed to the soil that surrounds it, so, too, will the ashes of its limbs and trunk. Besides, I like the look of charcoal gray on white, the poetic juxtaposition of spent fire on frozen water.
“Plants, animals, insects, and people are all inextricably linked in a complex web of interrelationships with air, water, soil, minerals and other natural resources playing vital roles. Compost, too plays an important role. There is a cycle, a continuity to life,” I read in The Rodale Book of Composting (Rodale Press, 1992), the bible on the subject.
“All of the environmental problems we face are rooted in a failure to appreciate the life cycle and to keep it intact….Composting is one way to work within the life cycle in the furthering of our welfare.
“Compost is more than a fertilizer, more than a soil conditioner. It is a symbol of continuing life….The compost heap in your garden is an intentional replication of the natural process of birth and death that occurs almost everywhere in nature….It is ironic that composting, the oldest and most universally practiced form of soil treatment in the world, should today be claiming so many converts. Perhaps this is nature’s Restoration–a reaffirmation that people do, indeed, live best when they live in harmony with nature.
“Because the compost heap is symbolic of nature’s best efforts to build soil, and because compost is the most efficient and practical soil builder, it has become the heart of the organic method of farming and gardening. Composting is the single most important task of the organic gardener or farmer because the health of the soil depends on the composting treatment it receives, and success in gardening and farming depends on the health of the soil.”
In hopes of resurrecting my pile, or at least nurturing its inner life toward the eternal promise of spring, I grab the hay pitchfork from its roost in the shed. First I scrape the tines up through the thick crusted snow on the north-facing front. Circumnavigating the log walls and sagging back fence between them, I thrust and parry my way through the congealed snow, collapsing the meltwater caverns and stabbing into the cold hard crust of leaves. It’s like punching through a sooty snow globe.
I work my way round my pile with the pitchfork and soon its top covering is a corduroy of granulated chunks of sooty snow. It’s about four inches thick, less than the untrammeled snow field of a backyard that surrounds it.
After a series of snow events over the past six weeks, a day of rain is now on the horizon. I’m hoping that by scrambling the snow and ash cover atop my pile, it will be snow-free sooner than the rest of the yard.
To spur things further along, I grab the rebar, hop atop the ice-capped log walls and thrust the rod down through the chopped-up snow and frozen leaves until it tings against the rock-hard ground underneath.
The end of the piece of ribbed iron is warm to the touch. My pile is primed for a resurrection that will come as much from within as with the warming sun.