My Pile: Churn and Burn

It’s the home stretch for my pile in its annual cycle of transformation from an assemblage of dead leaves and such to a new life as the mysterious thing known as humus.

I’ve nurtured my pile as best I can, adding at regular intervals copious amounts of fresh green organics — of all manner and in varying states of decrepitude — as well as regular replenishments of decaying old browns, natural and manmade, and other essentials, like water and pee and sand and soil. The process has kept my property tidy, given me a scavenger’s joy in sourcing such an array of recycled contributions, and provided a steady outlet for physical exertion and mental musing.

It all adds up to a very large heap of moist, dark crumbly organic matter sitting in the corner of my backyard.

For the past weeks, I’ve largely left my pile alone, trusting its inner workings to complete the job of turning all these elements into a finished product – part fertilizer, part soil amendment, part good, ol’ fashioned dirt – that I will soon spread across my lawn and garden, and share with neighbors.

Today after work, it’s time to dig back into my pile and give it a good turning. Over the past couple of months, I’ve infused the ever-absorbent and accommodating heap with an ample supply of grass clippings, pulled weeds and other trimmings, as well as the leftovers from my kitchen and coffee pot as well as food waste from my neighbors. I’ve poked and prodded and carved up my pile as best I can to add air and help mix and disperse the yin of matted brown leaves with the yang of the ripe-to-rotting organic material that will meld with it.

Despite my efforts to blend my pile all together, there are still parts that remain untouched since last fall – the deepest, darkest parts of the base. I want to get to the bottom of my pile.

I've tilted back one side of the log wall that contains my pile to excavate its inner reaches. Note the dried leaves in the crevasses.

I’ve tilted back one side of the log wall that contains my pile to excavate its inner reaches. Note the dried leaves in the crevasses.

I know from year’s past, as well as my recent excavations, that there remains a layer of compressed leaves at the core of my pile. Like an Egyptian archaeologist opening a pharaoh’s tomb, I also know that once exposed to light and air, these long buried leaves will quickly crumble. That’s the goal at least.

I have another chore, and that is to find a repository to stockpile the continuing pile of kitchen trimmings and other compostables as my pile matures. For the first time this year, I’ve decided to cut off my pile from having to ingest fresh fodder and instead create a starter batch of compost.

My packrat of a neighbor has several extra garbage cans he doesn’t use, so I borrow one with a lid and set it up on the opposite side of the log wall that I’ve splayed to get to the side my pile. It’s a good spot to park the can as I harvest this year’s batch of compost and prepare for the next season’s haul.

I fill the bottom with a layer of pieces of sycamore bark, then cover those scraggly bits with half of my regular supply of shredded office paper for a base of absorbent material. I top it with a pitchfork of compost from my pile, then upturn my kitchen Hooch bucket. I cover that small batch of leftovers and coffee grounds with another forkful of compost, filling up nearly half the plastic garbage can.

As my pile matures, new raw materials go into a garbage can -- a base of sycamore bark, shredded paper, food scraps and a dollop of compost...

As my pile matures, new raw materials go into a garbage can — a base of sycamore bark, shredded paper, food scraps and a dollop of compost…

My neighbors’ kitchen scraps fill a five-gallon white plastic bucket, and in it goes as well, a mucky supply heavy with corn husks, avocado skins and egg shells. As these are all slow to decompose, I’m glad I’ve made the decision to keep them out of my nearly finished pile, but worry that I may have just created a barrelful of stinky problems for the next month or so. But after mixing up the mess with a pitchfork and adding a bit more compost and the rest of the shredded paper, I put the lid on this small batch of compost, flipping up the handles to seal it up for a week or so. It’s air-tight at least enough to not attract flies, and surely the few stray worms I’ve tossed in will have the compostibles to themselves for the next few weeks.

I plunge back into my pile with the pitchfork, relishing the simple task of digging through the loose matrix of crumbly proto dirt. I start with right side, which has been left unturned the longest. I pull the bottom layer forward and excavate inward, piling up the tailings across the three other flanks of my pile. I’m happy to see that the compressed leaves I fork out have turned to clod-like chunks that crumble into bits and pieces. A few of the largest pinwheel down to the slopes of my pile and break apart against the ground.

Digging deeper, I come across a few flecks of white shredded paper bound together, a half-pipe of a sunflower stem I’d laid down last fall. Having served its purpose as an air tube, is now turned to a pulpy sliver. The pitchfork tangles on a snarl of fishing line, which I set on top of a log with a few pieces of plastic detritus from the beach. The buckets of seaweed I added to my pile through the fall and winter and even this spring are long gone, save for stray oyster shell and flecks of mica that glisten on the backs of dark moist bits of leaves.

A clump of leaf mold impales itself on the curved tines of the pitchfork. I tease it off; pleasedto find  that it’s warm to the touch. I search for sulfurous spots of matted grass but find only smatterings of yellow-green flecks. My pile has not turned anaerobic, as I’d feared, but has largely burned through the infusions of grass clippings I’ve added to it on through the summer. I come across a pocket of the maple seeds I tossed in recently. They remain obstinately intact, and I take care to rebury them in as deep as I can as I work my way down into the center core of my pile.

I carve a wide hole nearly to the middle center before the top portion topples down into the chasm. My pile is no longer a lasagna-like layering of distinct components but more like brown cottage cheese. Much of it separates through the wide tines of the pitchfork before I can toss it up onto the pile.

With the evening light fading, I decide I’ve made enough progress, and spend a few more minutes scraping the dried chunks of leaves from the perimeter of my pile and tucking them back up into its interior.

Before long, I’ve reconstituted my pile into the squat pyramid that is its natural shape. Freshly aerated and rekindled, the nearly finished compost will continue to churn and burn until there it finishes consuming itself.

My pile, nearly mature, after a thorough turning in mid August.

My pile, nearly mature, after a thorough turning in mid August.

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