My Pile: Bottom’s Up

The last day of August, a Sunday, and yet another fine summer day to spend doting on my pile and other backyard gardening duties. This summer has been as delightful here along the coast of southwestern Connecticut as the winter was bad. The weather has been hot and dry, with just enough dousings from summer thunderstorms to stave off outright drought.

After setting the rainbow sprinkler to arc across the sunniest part of my flower bed, I head over to my pile.

It sits in patient, ancient repose, Sphinx like, its flanks covered by weathered, crumbly detritus. I’d gleaned from one side five wheelbarrows of raw compost for my vegetable garden, and from the other four for the recent transplanting among the flower beds. The rest of my pile will soon be broadcast across my lawn, following the aeration I plan to do over the upcoming Labor Day Weekend.

It’s been several weeks since I stopped inserting fresh materials into my pile. I’ve filled one garbage can with sandwiched layers of kitchen scraps, shredded paper and additions of raw compost, and have mowed the lawn twice with strips of duct tape that seal off the bag catcher to mulch the clippings back into the turf.

Today my goal is to get to the bottom of my pile, at long last. I want to see if it’s fully cooked and ready to be served. I’ve tried before, but my pile always collapses on and into itself before I can reach its epicenter, the part of it I first laid down last November.

Finding the very beginning of my pile is like tracing the precise source of a river. I may never be able to pinpoint the wellspring, for after 10 months of poking and prodding, my pile has morphed and moved in place. Through the winter and spring I excavated holes across its top, reaching deep with the pitchfork. Did I touch the core? Perhaps.

After working the right side of my pile last week, I know there are few places within it that I haven’t fully turned over and outward. I decide to dig into the left side, using the pitchfork to tease out tightly compacted dark earth from the bottom; it looks like the bricks of peat I’ve seen being cleaved from Scottish bogs.

The inner core of my pile yields a clutch of raw leaves, undisturbed since last fall.

The inner core of my pile yields a clutch of raw leaves, undisturbed since last fall.

The chunks of compost crumble easily, with a texture of spent coffee grounds. A few sea shells drop through the matrix. I pierce a shred of tightly bound Sunday insert newsprint, from the bottom of my neighbor’s Angora rabbit’s hutch, tossed into a hole in my pile sometime late last winter.

I dig into and under my pile, excavating a wide cavity below an overhanging ledge of compost that trembles with each thrust of the pitchfork. I uncover a clutch of maple leaves, glistening wet but otherwise pristine. I lift them up out of the burrow and set them aside just before my pile collapses back onto itself.

For the better part of a year, I’ve been a good steward of my pile. I’ve tossed and turned every part of it, or near enough. I’ve mulled it over, lavished it with copious amounts of offerings. Soon I will not only get to the very bottom of it but cast my pile wholesale across my yard and garden beds.

Sometimes, the end result turns out not to be as important or interesting as the process of getting there. I can’t quantify exactly how much my pile will add back into the biomass that is the suburban property I keep, but I know all that it has given me to date — a year’s worth of mental musing and physical effort — and a ton or so of the best soil amendment on earth.

I will miss my pile, this particular edition of it. But it’s time to let it go, to return it from whence it came. Besides, seeing the brown leaves that are now falling across my lawn of late summer, I know my pile will soon rise, phoenix like, again.

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