A wet, warm weather front has blown up from the south. First fell pebbly granules of ice, before being replaced by a steady rain that melted the remaining snow cover into sheets of water on frozen ground. From the kitchen window, my pile looks a cold, sodden mess. The slick conditions keep me indoors on a Saturday morning, except for a trip to the side of the shed for an armful of firewood of the fast-dwindling stack.
A winter of record highs and record lows whipsaw my pile. It trundled along nicely through an unseasonably warm December, the mild temperatures allowing me to stoke it with infusions of both brown and green materials. It’s since been buried by several deep snow falls, deep-chilled by sub-zero temperatures, now soaked by a chilling rain. My pile takes what comes.
Some winters there’s hardly any snow cover in these parts, especially here along the shoreline of Long Island Sound. I’ve played golf at the local course in Februaries past. Old-timers hereabouts talk of the Sound freezing thick enough to walk across the water to Cockenoe Island, a small spit of land a half-mile offshore. I can’t imagine such a stretch of saltwater freezing in this day and age.
It may be due to the normal swings in cyclical weather patterns we are just now beginning to identify, if not fully understand. We may be playing out another plot line of human-induced climate change, that of more extreme weather.
Last winter my pile was hidden by snow for a solid two months; this season, not so much. Across the garden beds, slender green shoots of daffodils and crocuses poke up from the hard-crusted ground of frozen wood chip mulch, a full month ahead of schedule.
Before I gather an armful of firewood, I press my hand against the crust of leaves atop my pile. It’s as stiff as cardboard and resists like a firm mattress. The waxy coating of leaves have no doubt helped shed some of the snowmelt and rain and, frozen together in a layered matrix, surely have insulated the material below. I notice a shimmering of air rising from the front center of my pile; not vapor but a hint of heat. That’s a good sign.
Based on the latest long-range weather report, it will be an early spring. Most springs are these days:
“The National Weather Service released its “long lead seasonal outlook” that in a nutshell says above normal temperatures will continue through the end of May. The reason is the same one we’ve heard before: a strong El Nino that’s warmed water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that’s affecting storm systems, the jet stream and the storms that make their way to southwest Connecticut.
Above normal temperatures have been the norm for most of the year. Last year we saw the warmest Christmas Day day on record. Bridgeport and Danbury both hit 64 degrees, easily breaking the previous record of 59 degrees set in 1964. In fact, the 64 degrees that Bridgeport reached on Christmas Day was the warmest day of the month. On average, December’s average temperatures are 11.8 degrees above nornmal, according the the NWS.
On a global scale, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that in 2015 had the warmest temperatures since modern record keeping began in 1880. Globally-averaged temperatures in 2015 shattered the previous mark set in 2014 by 0.23 degrees Fahrenheit.”
As I wait for my pile to thaw, I leaf through the years of my compost journal and come across an entry from a February weekend five years ago. I recall the season fondly as the dog’s first winter. It was also a time when my pile was still a place of action and intrigue for my young son, then eight years old.
In the fall, Cole would jump off the log walls to disappear into a freshly assembled pile of leaves. One winter we created a snow ramp for him to slide a saucer down the face of the pile, and out along the bench of a picnic table. In spring, we’d gather his friends to dig up handfuls of squirming worms from the pile, to set on hooks for bluegill fishing in a nearby pond.
One summer we unearthed a garter snake, another time set free the jumping woodland mouse. My pile also made a fine backstop for plinking soda cans with a BB gun, and for stopping baseball throws that got by the old man.
As long as little boys are made of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails, my pile was our touchstone.
My pile is a scrapbook album. It is made of memories. Like these:
Feb. 18. It’ll be nearly 60 degrees today, after balmy weather yesterday of nearly 50. Snow still covers the lawn, but my pile is now topped only by patches of stiff meringue. I scrape across the top with the tines of the pitchfork, etching the snow like frosting on a kid’s birthday cake. The front, northern slope of the pile is still frozen and hard to the touch of the tines, but the top is melting rapidly.
With my son and puppy in tow, I retrieved the two bags of old kitchen slop from their hooks in the shed, plus a mostly full container from inside the house. The puppy scaled the pile from the front, and my son climbed up the left log wall, balancing with the old straight-tined pitchfork. I walked to the backside with the curved hay pitchfork and tunneled into the middle, heaping forkfuls of steaming leaf mold to the side.
Cole was the first to spot the surprise of flesh-colored worms after the first couple forkfuls. Earthworms are the Goldilocks of my pile, occupying a space that’s not too close to the frozen edges, nor too near the hottest spots of fermenting kitchen scraps. But in just the right spot, there will be hundreds of them. We’re delighted to see them, and even the puppy takes a sniff.
It’s a chore to extricate the pitchfork fulls from the pile. The matted leaves are compressed together, and my wrists are weak. I tunnel down just deep enough for Cole to pour the bags of kitchen slop in; going deeper would have required much more effort, and I could tell I was getting down to a layer that had frozen from below or was simply matted together to the point of impermeability.
Cole nicknamed the steaming hole ‘the volcano,’ and we peered down at the ghosts of meals past – edamame shells from early in the new year. A final glimpse of bright orange Del Monte tangerines in syrup that he’d only had one helping of before we’d forgotten about them in the back of the fridge.
The leftovers disappeared quickly, and I supervised Cole in twisting the pitchfork into the mix. With my curved pitchfork I speared clumps of dried leaves from the wire-fence back of the pile and the corners, where the whole leaves get tucked between the biggest logs and the wire. In they went on top of the ‘greens’ I told Cole about. We mix new green with old brown, and then back fill with the sodden mix of interior leaves coated with old coffee grounds.
I finished by piling up a foot tall-topping of old wet leaves above our filled-in hole. It’ll be a totem for me to track, to see how much it sinks in. The rest of the pile remains unto itself, undisturbed.
I can’t wait to give the pile a thorough tossing.
I feel the same way this year. I make plans to bolster my pile with several weeks’s worth of compostibles and other additions and to give it a good tossle.
The dog still takes an active interest in all things I do outdoors, but these days my teenage son views my pile in about the same way as he does a Facebook page – it’s now the old man’s domain.
Still, I use my pile when I can to bring relevance to his STEM homework. I steer conversations toward helping him develop an interest in ecology, hydrology. It’s his generation that will have to develop new green industries to mitigate the problems of rising sea levels, address the paucity of productive soil, the need for clean energy or fresh water or any of the other mounting problems that grown-ups of his time will have to face.
My son recognizes that my pile is in part a connection to our family roots as Midwestern farmers and ranchers. He will never experience the summers I did spending time exploring my grandfather’s Nebraska farm. But still, he’s got the compost pile in the backyard and has whiled away more than a few Connecticut winters plotting with the neighbor girls how they will grow up to live on a farm, if only of the Farmville variety.
All adds up to a curiosity if not real interest among my son and his young friends in getting back to the land in his generation’s homegrown way — keeping chickens in the backyard, harvesting co-op organic vegetables from a nearby locavore farm, driving a Prius. They may well be the next iteration of a hippie.
I have a year or two left at most with my son before he ages out of wanting to hang with his old man at all. We spend a winter evening plotting a trip out west to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park. This summer, I want him to see a North American glacier with his own eyes. I know the glaciers I trekked across as a young man have greatly diminished in the 30 years since I last saw them.
It saddens me that my son’s son will likely know of glaciers only through his father’s memories and the history books.