My Pile: True Grit

It’s Palm Sunday, and the first day of spring. On through the week, the news media have been predicting a Nor’easter to arrive by tonight.

The forecasts, as they usually do, started with dire predictions of a foot or more of heavy, wet spring snow, prompting a run on milk, bottled water and batteries at the local stores. The latest computer models show the weather system staying offshore as it tracks northward up the gulf stream, with only a chance of an inch or two of snow starting later today. I told my son to finish his homework; he hasn’t a prayer of a snow day on Monday.

But with the prospect of snow and the distant storm already producing high surf on the nearby Sound, I have already laid in provisions for my pile, combed from the beach yesterday: A plastic half barrel of seaweed, mashed by the waves and heavy with wet sand.

It now sits beside my pile, along with two half-filled buckets of food scraps and a leftover black plastic bag of the sycamore fluff mulched up from the lawn a week ago. And hanging from a hook in the tool shed is a gift from a neighbor who walks his dog past my house: A double-wrapped plastic bag of cabbage peels and potato skins and other leftover makings from his St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Perhaps this stew will help get my pile’s Irish up.

I have more in store for my pile: While doing some spring-cleaning to start the morning, the vacuum cleaner clogged with a winter’s worth of domestic detritus – dog and cat fur, dirt and sand tracked in from outside, dander and dustballs flecked with the down feathers from a pillow fight.

I’ve read that most any vacuum-cleaner bag contains a cringe-worthy amount of detritus of our own making – sloughed-off skin and hair along with the remains of all the mites and motes that share the interior spaces of our lives. I rather like recycling all that stuff. Dust to dust, as the good book says, with a stop in between to be recycled by my pile. Instead of stuffing the dust bag in my kitchen garbage can, I take it outside to my pile.

Snow or no snow on the horizon, the first day of spring is a fine time to stir my pile with an infusion of fresh green organic energy and other recyclables.

Having turned the top of my pile last weekend and added a sizable amount of kitchen waste and the bulk of the sycamore fluff to its midst, this morning the craggly brown layer of leaves that cover the surface is damp; smoky wisps of water vapor tell me that my pile is cooking underneath. But still, I worry that adding so much sycamore seed fluff will hold back its decay.

Sure enough, as I turn out the top edges of my pile with the pitchfork, I unearth patches of matted orange-brown sycamore fluff, unchanged from the week before, seemingly immutable as Donald Trump’s hair.

After a winter’s worth of messing with my pile, I am now practiced at borrowing from the sagging center of the heap to build up the edges. I’m relieved to see the jangled stalks of salt marsh hay, buried just a week ago, are rotting nicely. And once more, the foodstuffs previously tucked into its midst have done their disappearing act, save an eggshell or two, and the curled skin of an avocado.

Before long, I’ve carved out a bathtub-sized crater from the center of my pile, and into the excavated space I tumble most of the plastic bag of sycamore seeds, heaping it with all of the assembled food scraps, and the remains of the vacuum bag. I stir it together with the pitchfork, and add a layer of seaweed, matted together in clumps and already pungent from sitting in the plastic tub overnight.

Adding a fulsome amount of food scraps and gleanings from the yard to my pile, on the first day of spring.

Adding a fulsome amount of food scraps and gleanings from the yard to my pile, on the first day of spring.

The front of my pile is a now raggedy stack of pressed leaves, like so much shawarma on a spit. I shave off slices of the compressed leaf litter and turn them up and onto the top of my pile, once again building it up higher than before.

Over the past few weeks I’ve borrowed about three feet from the front scree of my pile, and it, like the backside, now forms a nearly vertical wall. It’s about the shape of an old toaster, with some of the same function. I know, just behind that crumbly brown wall of dried pressed leaves is the very center of my pile, into which I’ve been mixing food wastes and other compostibles on through the winter. It’s now within easy reach, and will soon be exposed to the warming sun of spring as I begin to turn my pile upside-down and inside out.

After raking up some scattered leaves, I now stand on the hard-packed dirt that was once part of its original footprint from the fall and dump the rest of the plastic bucket of seaweed across the top, which finishes as a flourish of sand collected on the bottom.

 

I borrow leaves from the front slope of my pile to build up the top and create a nearly vertical wall made of dried, compressed leaves.

I borrow leaves from the front slope of my pile to build up the top and create a nearly vertical wall made of dried, compressed leaves.

A measure of sand is always welcome at my house, whether it’s clinging to skin or sandal or towel or brought back by the bucket full. Beachcombing is much like my perambulations around the garden and lawn and all the messing I do with my pile. It’s an outdoor pursuit that’s rewarding in a free-range sort of way.

Regular additions of such freeloaded sand benefits my pile and in turn my lawn and garden. Made up largely of inert particles of rock and other minerals like silica, beach sand helps keep the soil in my yard — which leans toward silty clay once you get past the root zone — airy and stable. Sand adds heft and no doubt plenty of trace elements and minerals to my pile, and I imagine the granular crystals help grind up the leaves, like so much microbot sandpaper. Sowing a shovel-full across the top of a freshly fluffed gathering of leaves in the fall weighs it down just enough to keep the winds from scattering the leaves back across the yard.

I don’t worry too much about overloading my pile and yard with the salt that I’m sure infuses the sand that I scoop from the beach, but several years ago I was pleased to make use of a local surplus of construction-grade sand, also free for the taking.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the town’s garbage drop-off and recycling center became the final dumping ground for many of the sandbags used by residents to keep floodwaters from their garages and basements.

With my pile such a capacious repository for kitchen waste, I visit the dump mostly to drop stuff off for recycling – newspapers, especially the colored slick ad inserts – milk jugs, plastic sport-drink bottles, beer cans and the odd bottle of wine. By weight, I would guess that dog poop collected from the yard is probably my biggest contribution (or his) to the local garbage stream, which is hauled to a nearby power plant for incineration.

By the following spring after Sandy, which destroyed a number of houses along the Connecticut coast and flooded by own crawlspace of a basement, the mound of burlap bags was still rotting away off to the side. So I loaded a half-dozen of the most intact sandbags into my car and added them, one at a time, to my pile over the course of the growing season. I also draped the empty sacks in front of my pile to sop up standing water, the rough burlap weave soon melding with the muck of mud season to disappear under my feet.

My pile and how I keep it is all about recycling. Seaweed and sand and another gleanings from the beach and elsewhere take a spin through the heap of leaves and kitchen scraps and then are flung back into circulation as compost across my yard. True grit, my pile.

My pile, poised to begin spring as a stout stack of decaying leaves from the fall, spiked in the middle by a winter's worth of fixin's.

My pile, poised to begin spring as a stout stack of decaying leaves from the fall, spiked in the middle by a winter’s worth of fixin’s.

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