My Pile: Hump Day

It’s hump day. This pleasant Wednesday evening in June marks the summer solstice as well. The Earth’s axis is now tilted as far as it can go toward the sun, which makes it hump day for the whole year. As far as daylight goes, it’s all downhill from here until the darkest, shortest day of December.

Tonight the solstice and full moon coincide—a rare event, The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells me, one that hasn’t happened in nearly 70 years. The Almanac further informs, “The month of June’s Full Moon’s name is the Strawberry Moon. June’s Strawberry Moon got its name because the Algonquin tribes knew it as a signal to gather ripening fruit. It was often known as the Full Rose Moon in Europe (where strawberries aren’t native) and the Honey Moon.”

I make hay of the longest day of the year by mowing the lawn after work, decapitating a galaxy’s worth of round white clover flowers and collecting three hoppers of grass clippings for my pile. Once again I mow around the several small island meadows left to grow in the middle of the lawn. The uncut stalks of grass have turned tawny brown and bow their seedheads with the breeze. I spot a bee or two hovering above the dense crop of clover that’s making rough green mounds of the meadows, and, nearby, a few butterflies nosing about in the garden to help with pollinating duties.

Tipping two logs to their sides gives me insider access to my pile.

Tipping two logs to their sides gives me insider access to my pile.

I consider my stout, rounded hump of a compost heap. Over the past few sessions I’ve thoroughly worked the front and back sides, strip-mining the flanks to aerate and mix it full of fresh clippings from the yard and kitchen and dried brown leaves gleaned from the corners. It’s time to shift my pile from side to side.

Having gouged out the lower corners of my pile for crumbly old leaf mold to cut the grass clippings with, I’ve already exposed most of the log walls, leaving only a reach of about three feet of untouched compost bound in by the two rows of stacked old logs.

I start in on the left side, digging along the log wall with the hay pitchfork, heaping the heavy clumps of pressed leaves onto the top center of my pile. I tease out a few pockets of tinder-dry leaves and pine needles, tossing them like confetti across the top of my pile, but most I pry out thick wads of leaf mold, damp and crumbly and well on the way to rot, which I mix in thin layers of grass clippings grow my pile ever higher and steeper.

I channel my way from front to back. My pile also feeds off the decay of the log wall that contains it, themselves well on the way to rotting. The deeper I go, the richer the compost.

My neighbor has brought by two large plant containers with the request to for me to fill so she can plant with basil. This rich dark leaf mold isn’t quite humus yet, nor a total substitute for planting soil, but will make a good amendment and filler for the bottom of these vats. I fill them near full and haul out my own wheelbarrow. This proto compost will make good top dressing for my vegetable garden. Consider it the first pour, a sample of all the humus to come.

This is the hard labor part of tending an active, hot compost heap, especially one that wanders in place. I’m happy to have to move this batch of compost only once, to my garden. I still have a lot of my pile to get into and move around, and a lot of grass clippings and kitchen waste to dispense with. It’s tough work, working in the cramped space between the log wall, to unpack the compressed leaf mold from underneath the crush of compost above it. I feel like a miner working a seam of coal, and I turn out clump after clump of peat-like proto-compost.

This where my inputs of manual exercise, my sweat equity, pay off. I divert the crumbliest to the wheelbarrow, and cast the coarser snatches across a new trench I’ve opened along the backside of my pile, mixing the cool dank mass with the week’s kitchen scraps and regular dousings of freshly clipped grass. Hump Day, indeed.

At last I create a foot-wide gap that spans the length of my pile and the log wall long stacked against it.  The left side is revealed in cross section, a thick stack of cold-pressed compost that begs to be teased out and turned. This Humpty-Dumpty of a pile needs a great fall.

I teeter to their sides two logs midway on the left side and standing perpendicular to the wall of newly exposed compost, I step in close with the pitchfork and gouge a hole starting from the inside middle. The bound layers of seaweed and leaves laid down early last fall are now compressed into a dark moist stack, like so much meat on a shawarma spit. I unbound the pressed leaf mold and turn it loose onto the top and backside of my pile.  I heap these leaves into a trench I’ve formed along the backside to bury the kitchen waste, mixing the oldest part of my pile with the newest.

I've dug a trench along the log wall that contains my pile to heap the near-finished compost on the top and back side of my pile.

I’ve dug a trench along the log wall that contains my pile to heap the near-finished compost on the top and back side.

At last I’ve chiseled deep enough into the bottom side of my pile so the overhanging matrix of leaves and past mixings collapse in a tumble. I set the two logs back in place and draw more of the newly expunged compost up against them, adding the rest of the grass clippings to the mix. I feel a bit like Beetle Bailey, digging a foxhole only to fill it back up.

With the rise of the full Honey Moon nearing, I scrape the last of the grass clippings from the front of my pile and toss them over the top and left flanks. I’ve carved out about a third of the left side of my pile and much of the backside, and backfilled it all with tossed layers of rotted leaves, fresh grass clippings and kitchen scraps. My pile now a slightly lopsided version of its former self, leaning to the right, though taller and much suffused with air and freshly mixed compostibles. It turns out you can put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, after all.

Rain is forecast for the weekend, which I hope will slake my pile’s thirst and ensure a further crop of lush green grass. The next time I mow the lawn and dig into my pile, it will be from the right side. Only the very bottom center of my pile will then remain untouched, as all else above and around it has been revealed and mixed into a mulch of old brown and new green, churning and burning with a hot riot of bugs and bacteria and all the other creative acts of biological decomposition. My pile is over the hump, and well on its way to fruition.


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