My Pile: Scratching the Surface

It’s a Friday in late June, a midsummer night’s eve to enjoy with some idle yardkeeping. In my backyard, cocktail hour is garden hour, and unwinding from the workweek by reconnecting with the ground I keep is a pleasure, especially at this time of year when the plants are intoxicated with new growth.

I stop by my pile before ducking into the shed to collect some pruning tools. I’m surprised at how little it has settled after the last big deposit and dig-out of the left side, even after a soaking rainstorm earlier in the week. My pile is in its cups as well, positively Falstaffian in its fulsomeness.

The leaf litter across the rounded surface is moist and crumbly, mottled clumps of caked-together leaves bound with layers of proto-dirt. My pile now has its own heft, and the whole lot is well on its way to recomposing itself as a matrix of new earth — humus — that I can shovel instead of pitchfork. In no small way, it’s something I don’t want or need to mess with right now. It is its own thing at the moment, a complete ecosystem of teeming life, best left to its own biological devices.

Especially when my pile is damp with rain, it takes only a scrape with a rake or pitchfork to uncover all manner of centipedes, rolly-pollies, skinny red worms and fat racers. It fascinates me to see how much life is contained within my pile, even just scratching the surface.

Each morning and evening when I let the dog out the back door, he makes a beeline for the back corner of the yard and circles around my pile. Sometimes he chases off a squirrel or sniffs out a chipmunk, but more often on these mid-summer days, morning and night, he gives flight to two or three robins that have taken to perching on the log walls beside the pile. I can see tell-tale signs that they flick about the surface of my pile, scattering flecks of leaf litter in search of easy pickings.

Not unlike the robins, I inspect the surface of my pile each time I visit, plucking out and flicking away the twigs and wood chips that continually bob up like corks to the surface. I seldom notice those woody chunks and stems when I rake up the leaves from the yard each fall. Maybe some fall directly from the overhanging maple that shades my pile; most get hoovered up when I pass the mower along the mulched garden beds. But still, these stray pieces remind me that a leaf really is just the tip of the spear, and the trees in my yard continually crop themselves by shedding bark and limbs and branches, which fall to the ground to be broken down further by hand or blade. I pick them off as a habit all through the winter and spring and toss the pieces to the side, their dark moist color standing out from bed of the sun-bleached wood chips spread between my pile and tool shed.

An oblique view of my pile from a couple years ago. At this point in the season it is a squat, rounded mound of nearly finished compost.

Each chip I toss aside is one less piece I’ll need to screen the finished compost come the time to disperse it across my lawn, a laborious task I rarely bother with anyway. Mostly such grooming is my way to stay connected with my pile, by hand, much in the same way I enjoy picking up seashells and curious rocks at the beach, or plucking rocks from the lawn heaved up by the spring thaw. A touch is sometimes all it takes to stay connected, bonded. Ask any chimp.

My pile gives me much pleasure, in the way that a backyard sandbox once entertained my boy, a world unto its own, full of imaginings and possibilities.

The recent hard-pounding rain has exposed, like it always does, a fresh smattering of wood chips and twigs gathered to flick away. Flotsam and jetsam from the beach constantly reveal themselves as well; the rubber heel to a flip-flop, a stretchy wristband and other scraps of plastic are tossed aside as well, to be taken back inside to the garbage can in the kitchen. Tonight’s surprise find is a salad fork, likely discarded from a dinner plate hastily scraped off by one of the neighbor’s girls and dumped into the waste bucket. Its tines are crusted with humus; I’ll stick it in the dishwasher before returning it, once again shiny and stainless, to the family next door. My pile is nearly done. I can tell that not by sticking a fork in it, but by pulling one out.

In no small way, I want to delay the end game, to string out my pile for as long as I can. Over the past six months I’ve mixed into the base heap of autumn leaves hundreds and hundreds of pounds of reclaimed green organics, from kitchen, lawn and garden, beach and barn. I’ve turned and aerated the top and front and back and left side. Next will I will plunge into the right side, squaring the circle that is my pile with pitchfork and rake.  It’s the final untouched quadrant of my pile, and once I turn it up and over, I will have handled most every inch of my pile, save for the very bottom core. Though I’ve scratched the surface of my pile through and through, deep inside it is a time capsule of compost undisturbed since late last fall. No doubt there will be new surprises to come across, along with a rich supply of humus I had no hand in making. My pile always does its own thing, and that thing is turning the rot of old life into living new soil.

I’ll harvest a small portion for the vegetable garden, adding shovels of nearly finished compost around the tomato plants and along the rows of salad greens to keep the weeds at bay and the soil from baking in the hot summer sun. The rest I will soon broadcast across the yard and mulch into the turf — a labor of love but laborious, too. And then, my pile will be no more.

So for now, I am content for my pile to stay itself, in all its glory.


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