My Pile: Breath of Fresh Air

It’s a Sunday, and in advance of the next-up storm, which the forecast says will be a mix of freezing rain and a few inches of snow, I head out to my pile.

It’s done well to slough off its latest covering of white, nearly a foot of wet, heavy snow delivered two days ago. Wide vent holes have opened up across the heap, and once again the top of my pile has sagged deep into itself.

 

My pile sloughs off the latest snowfall, creating vent holes over hot spots within.

But I can’t resist fussing with it further. Using the wide-mouth shovel, I clear the thick caps of snow from each side of the log walls, heaping the snow into the cavities created by the melting from within. I then scoop more snow from the sloped front side, which faces north and is still swathed in deep drifts. I then turn the shovel upside down and slice and dice down through the remains of the crusty snow caverns and new chunks of added snow.

The result is a topping of cottage cheese snow, about six-inches thick, for my pile to work its way up through anew.

Heaping my pile with more snow.

Heaping my pile with more snow, at the risk of dousing the biological process that keeps it burning within.

The log walls cleared of most of the old snow, I grab the rebar rod, clamor atop and punch a couple dozen holes down through the pile. I focus on reaching the “cold” areas where the heat from within hasn’t percolated upward. My goal is to activate as much of the pile as I can to give my pile fresh gulps of air to offset the weight and soddening effect of the water within snow. Sort of like doing acupuncture, only with a half-inch metal bar.

Aside from the shoveling of my driveway and porches and chilly walks along the beach with the dog, such tinkering is my exercise for a winter day. In short order my arms are heavy and burning with the effort of plunging the length of ribbed iron again and again through the resisting layers matted leaves below. The working end of the bar heats up before long, and the jousting releases a faint whiff of rotten egg.

In the aptly titled “Let It Rot! – The Gardener’s Guide to Composting,” Stu Campbell explains:

“To grow and multiply, microorganisms need four things: (1) an energy source, or carbon; (2) a protein source, or nitrogen; (3) oxygen; and (4) moisture.

“Oxygen is required by many of the microorganisms, especially the most efficient bacteria, called aerobes. When not enough oxygen is available, the aerobes cannot survive and the anaerobes take over. Once this happens, decomposition slows by as much as 90 percent.

“The aerobe can do a more complete job of composting than can the anaerobe. As the aerobe and its cohorts break down carbon compounds into carbon dioxide and water, they are also producing a lot of energy. This gives them a distinct advantage, because they can use this energy to grow that much faster themselves and decompose that much more material. At the same time, and no less important, they excrete plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and magnesium, to name just a few.

“Meanwhile, back at the airtight heap, the anaerobes struggle to produce carbon dioxide, water, energy, and nutrients, too – although in much smaller quantities when compared to the aerobe’s performance. They also produce a lot of useless organic acids and amines (ammonia-like substances), and in some cases are toxic to plants. Some of the end products of the anaerobe’s efforts are hydrogen sulfide (which smells like rotten eggs), cadaverine, and putrescine. These last two descriptive names do a great deal to explain the nauseating odor of an anaerobic compost pile. So you see why this book places so much emphasis on keeping the pile well aerated.”

At this point in its life cycle, my pile has all that it needs, save air to keep breathing. There is no timeline for my pile, no order to fill. I could let it slumber in stasis through these days and nights of sub-freezing weather. But where’s the sport in that?

 

My Pile: A Jolt of Morning Joe

After a run of warm, sunny days, the thick mantle of snow from last week’s storm is gone from my pile, though the ground around it is still a frozen mix of snow and ice. The crown of jumbled salt grass hay atop my pile has subsided, and the heap is now a crestfallen soufflé of sodden leaves.

A thaw in the usual snowy cold of winter gives me a chance to bolster my pile with an infusion of energy-rich material.

A thaw in the usual snowy cold of winter gives me a chance to bolster my pile with an infusion of energy-rich organic material, including coffee grounds, weeks’worth of kitchen scraps and a topping of salt marsh hay.

I have plans to plump up my pile, first by giving it a good turn, at least the top level, with the pitchfork. Then into maw will go an infusion of scraps and leftovers from the kitchen, including a groaning bag of food waste and rabbit poo from the neighbors that’s been hanging in the tool shed, on ice through the recent snow storm.

I’ve gathered more salt grass hay from the beach – and have an ash can full of dried pressed coffee grounds, at least 20 pounds’ worth, courtesy of the barrista crew at the local Starbucks. In all, it’s a rich supply of nitrogen-rich, rottable organics to stuff into the inner reaches of a freshly aerated winter heap. Regardless of what the groundhog has ruled, this will be an early spring for my pile.

Standing toes to the log wall, I reach the pitchfork into my pile to draw up wads of soaked leaves, turning them out and over to build a berm across the front wall and along the sides. I dig deepest into the corner of the pile that took longest to slough off the snow, figuring it to be a cold spot in particular need of a jolt of fresh rotting greens and grounds. Before long, I’ve carved out a crater in the midst of my pile that’s the size of a bathtub, to be filled by a fresh infusion of green wastes and pressed leaves culled from the perimeter of my pile.

I toss the buckets and bags of kitchen waste into the deep dish of dirt-flecked leaves, and stir the mushy mix with the pitchfork, twisting the tines as far as I can reach. The many cups of pressed espresso grounds melt away; adding 20 pounds or more of what began as a large hill of beans will surely add a boost of biological energy to my pile. Coffee grounds from Starbucks are turbo-charged manna for my pile, especially in the midst of winter.

Getting the grounds from the local Starbucks was a pleasant task – certainly moreso than diving head long into a dumpster outside the now-closed neighborhood coffee shop. After a phone call to ensure they still supported the “Grounds for your Garden” recycling program, I borrowed a galvanized tin ash can from the neighbors. With lid and handle, it makes a perfect receptacle for such a recyclable, especially when lined with a tight-fitting plastic bag. I dropped it off yesterday afternoon with the manager I spoke with over the phone and picked it up late this morning. The barristas commented on the cool retro look of the old-fashioned tin can, once a household staple used for hauling away coal ash. They seemed happy to pitch in, and all it cost me was a cappuccino to go and a couple of dollar bills added to the tip jar.

A bucket of pressed coffee grounds from Starbucks will give my pile a big, mid-winter pick-me-up.

A bucket of pressed coffee grounds from Starbucks will give my pile a big, mid-winter pick-me-up.

A heaping can of coffee grounds is a splurge for my pile, one that no doubt represents hundreds of dollars worth of espressos, cappuccinos and the like. The jolt of nutrient and nitrogen-rich granules will add to the unique batch of compost that I’m brewing this year. To each his own compost, concurs Clare Foster in “Compost,” a British title (Mitchell Beazley, 2014):

“How do you go about creating a heap that’s going to work for you? Since time began, people have used different methods to make compost. In recent times, some of these methods have been recorded and they can be used as models for our own composting. While some people are content to leave the heap for as long as it takes for nature to take its course, others are anxious to produce as much compost as possible to feed the soil and benefit their plants. Building a compost heap be as effortless or as time-consuming as you want it to be; however you decide to play it, you’ll end up with usable compost –the only difference is the time it takes to produce.”

The day’s warm enough to dig up the remnants of the collard greens and fennel from the vegetable garden, so to add further bulk to the sunken hollow of my pile, in goes a bushel’s worth of thawing clods of stems and roots. What’s more, I reach into the back of the fridge to extract a half-empty jug of lemon-flavored ice tea left over from the warm days of fall; rather than dump the mold-flecked remains down the kitchen-sink drain, I pour it into into my pile, figuring that the sugary compost tea will add its own measure of sugary measure of nutrients to my pile.

However unique my pile may be – customized by site, climate, weather and owner – I take comfort in realizing that my composting practices closely follow the principles first advocated by Sir Albert Howard, a British agronomist and botanist who was stationed in India, from 1895 to 1939. Howard is considered the founder of the organic farming movement.

Foster’s account is succinct: “Carrying out experiments on his 75-acre farm, Howard developed what is now known as the Indore process of composting (named after the area where he was stationed from 1924), which was based on an ideal of three parts plant matter to one part animal manure. The principles at the root of Howard’s thinking are summed up in an unforgettable statement that we could all do well to remember: ‘Artificial fertilizers lead to artificial nutrition, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.’

“His principles of layering and aerating are still applicable,” Foster relates, “The materials Howard used were animal manures, brush (twiggy material), straw or hay, leaves and soil, arranged in alternating layers in a wooden bin to a height of 5 ft. A layer of brush came first, followed by 6 in of plant matter, 2 in of manure and then a sprinkling of soil. Howard recommended three parts of plant matter to one part manure. Care was taken to moisten the pile with water while building, and the pile was turned, once after six weeks, and again after 12 weeks. Later, Howard experimented with using human urine mixed with kitchen waste and materials high in carbon such as straw and leaves. The Indore system is labor-intensive, and the heap doesn’t reach extremely high temperatures. It does, however, produce good quality compost in a reasonable length of time.”

I consider my pile a living (and dying) testament to Sir Albert’s good works, an ephemeral shrine to the Anglo-Indian system of Indore. My shop-warn coffee and tea and other food wastes are largely equivalent, in nutrient value, to the dung of India. I’m merely adapting the wheel of life, from colonial Raj to modern-day metro suburb.

To add more volume and rebuild the crown of my pile – my aim is to raise it higher than the log walls that contain it – I strip mine a layer of dry, pressed leaves from along the chicken-wire fence that bulges outward along the back side. The fence groans against the crush of leaves; already two of the galvanized staples that pin the end of the wire grid to the log wall have popped out like a fat man’s buttons.

The leaves are compressed, almost stacked, and excavating them by pitchfork is almost like moving large, crumbly bricks that fluff apart with a flick off the tines. I toss forkfuls across my pile, about 20 in all, to restore it to peak form.

The crush of leaves that press up against the backside of my pile add bulk and fresh fodder to the churning, burning core.

The crush of leaves that press up against the backside of my pile add bulk and fresh fodder to the churning, burning core.

I get about halfway down the back row of pressed leaves, enough to relieve the backward pressure on the wire fence, and to leave an easy-to-get to stash of leaf mold next time I need to replenish my pile. This hidden shelf behind my high-rise heap will also make a nice backstop against which to pee. Sir Albert Howard would certainly approve, and even Ms. Foster gives her blessing:

“Your nose may wrinkle at this, but human urine is one of the best additions for a nitrogen fix: it is entirely sterile, so it can’t be harmful, and as well as containing a high percentage of nitrogen, it is also crammed with minerals and vitamins. Many an owner of a vegetable patch (mostly male it has to be said) confesses to having the occasional pee on the compost heap – after dark of course—and it really does work wonders.”

I top off the mound of mostly sodden leaves with sprockets of salt grass hay, teased out of the plastic barrel with the pitchfork. I like the look of a compost pile covered with hay. It keeps the leaves from blowing around, and will help ward off the next snow. Its briny smell brings me out for closer inspection after a rain, and in time, the salt grass will be churned underneath my pile, to be claimed and consumed by its depths.

Before long, my pile once again meets my eye, or close enough. It is a proud survivor of winter, and harbinger, of spring.

A mid-winter turn and infusion of potent organic compostibles, has renewed and restored my pile.

A mid-winter turn and infusion of potent organic compostibles, has renewed and restored my pile.

My Pile: Groundhog Day

One of the remarkable things about tending a backyard compost heap is watching how it keeps to its own internal time clock and rhythms through each passing season, regardless of the current weather conditions.

It’s Groundhog Day. Some years here in coastal southern Connecticut there is more snow, or less, or spells of freezing cold or a stretch of mild, almost balmy warmth in the midst of winter that make it seem as though spring is just a few short weeks away. That’s the case this year, and as a pale, weak sun casts its shadow upon it, my pile is busy sloughing off its cloak of  snow.

It’s Groundhog Day, a day to ponder my pile through the prism of the present and past blending together along a continuum of deeper time. The scenario that follows has played out before — last year, in fact — and will play out again.

Another winter storm has dumped 10 new inches of heavy wet snow on top of the foot or so already on the ground from the past three snowfalls, without a thaw between.

From my kitchen window I see my pile is freshly cloaked by a smooth mantle of glistening white. My pile is serene in its winter repose. It blends seamlessly with the rest of the backyard landscape, more now snow pile than compost pile.

A winter view of my pile under a fresh mantle of snow from a few years ago.

A winter view of my pile under a fresh mantle of snow from a few years ago.

Groundhog Day. I don’t need some silly little varmint to tell me to expect six more weeks of winter. With this much snow on the ground, it will be weeks before we see even a patch of grass. It’s a pain keeping the driveway and porches clear, and there’s no relief in sight; more snow is forecast. Snow, shovel, repeat.

Groundhog Day. A special day, for it inspired a movie that in its own way explains my pile and my fascination with it in a way that I cannot.

The classic Harold Ramis comedy stars the always watchable Bill Murray and Andy McDowall at her loveliest. I’ll let two others help me explain, from ying-yang, Western and Eastern, points of view:

Groundhog Day, writes Michael Foust in Philosophy Now: “Viewed on the most trivial level it’s just another Hollywood rom-com, but on closer inspection it furnishes a dazzling treatment of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, even illuminating Deleuze and Irigaray’s conflicting interpretations of this key Nietzschean idea. Eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s idea that we have lived the exact life we are living now an infinite number of times in the past, and will do so an infinite number of times in the future.

It also throws light on postmodern thinking regarding simulacra – representations without originals. Finally, it updates the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, casting its protagonist, played by Bill Murray, in the role of Sisyphus, the absurd hero.”

Barbara O’Brien, writing on AboutReligion.com, gives the Zen point of view: “OK, so maybe it wasn’t intended to be a “Buddhist” film, but many of us have adopted it.

For the one or two of you who haven’t seen it — the film follows the life of Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray), as he re-lives the same day over and over and over.

Eventually he begins to pay attention to each moment and each person he encounters, and to care. And when he finally gets it right, he wakes up to a new day.

In a talk on Groundhog Day, Zen teacher Dairyu Michael Wenger noted that the film also is about karma. Each time he re-lives Groundhog Day, he makes different choices, and each choice leads to a new reality. The days are extraordinarily different from each other, even though the only thing that changes is Phil himself.

However, there are limits to what Phil can do. He tries repeatedly to save the life of a homeless man, and every day the man dies, anyway. “It was just his time,” a nurse says, words that have a sobering effect on Phil. He gives up trying to control outcomes and instead becomes a “bodhisattva mensch.”

Like Phil Connors constructively idling away in Punxsutawney, I put a lot of energy into my pile, day after day. My pile is a creative act that offers the prospect of improvement over time yet invariably turns out the same, year after year.

Groundhog Day. With my pile buried under its new load of snow, I have time to dig through the journal I’ve kept about it for some years. The journal provides the raw material for this blog. Most of the many words I put down are as inchoate as the leaves and such that I gather up for my pile. But what’s striking about all the fodder is how familiar the past entries chronicling the yearly passage of “eternal recurrence” are to the current season.

Before the recent snowstorm, I sprinkled ash across the top of my snow pile. Here’s what I wrote several years ago, before the locally owned coffee shop gave way to a new Dunkin’ Donuts:

Thinking of my pile while I lay in bed, I hatch a plan to return to the coffee shop to get more coffee grounds. My pile is buried under a couple feet of snow, but here’s the deal: I’ll sprinkle the grounds across the surface, like chocolate shavings on vanilla ice cream. In reading about global warming I’ve heard of the albedo effect – dark colors absorb more heat from the sun than white, which reflects it. The loss of snow cover in the Arctic has exposed more rock and water, triggering a feedback loop of ever-intensifying warming. The dark coffee grounds will serve as tiny heat sinks across my snow-covered pile, warming themselves down through the snow until they finally meet leaves. How elegant!

New entry: The scattered grains of coffee look just as I had dreamed; like chocolate sprinkles on whipped cream. Later on the sunny winter afternoon, I trudge along my ever-widening boot marks to beat a path back to my pile. The dark grounds have etched their way into the snow, staining it like a pile of old rotted snow on a New York City sidewalk.

This, from an inspection of my pile after I’d buried it with a heaping of snow from a White Christmas:

The New Year’s holiday is over, and I haven’t touched my pile over the weekend, unless you count peeing on it during breaks from watching the bowl games. The snow that still carpets the lawn is a week old and now has changed from fluffy flakes to ice crystals like the kind you crunch from a snow cone.

I step along the left-side log wall and see that my pile has fended off the onslaught of snow I shoveled over it, at least partly. I see a blow hole, perfectly round, and first think it’s from a gopher or rodent.

A close-up of a vent hole in my pile created by escaping heat from within.

A close-up of a vent hole in my pile created by escaping heat from within.

I peer in and can see matted leaves about six inches down; the entry way widens to a separation of snow and leaves. I am relieved to see that my pile has enough stored energy to fight off this avalanche of snow, or perhaps it was newly energized because of it.

My pile is venting along the paths of least resistance, out to the side. It was silly of me to think that it would behave like some Vesuvian volcano and spout puffs of smoke out the top like some sort of papal announcement.

I step back and regard my pile. A year has turned, at least by the calendar, and with the turning over of that new leaf I see that the pile has sagged under the snow, with the summit now lower than the upper reaches of the log steps. I walk around the back of the pile, and see that the back of the pile has sagged far enough down to create a depression between the center and the wire fence. In adding fresh material to the pile, I usually leave a rim of undisturbed leaves against the back fence, for insulation mostly, but I also don’t want any banana peels or egg shells hanging out for critters or me to see. I keep a tidy pile, and it keeps its secrets well. I know it only superficially, I admit, its beauty to me is skin deep, and I know there are mysteries beneath the surface that I am only beginning to fathom. I don’t know exactly how far under the surface the snowmelt has soaked; only a fuller excavation will tell me that.

Though my kitchen “Hooch” bucket is nearly filled to the brim with the remains of the holiday, I hesitate to disturb the pile. I know from past snow dumps that if I turn the pile over and bury snow inside it, the colder reaches within will insulate the snow. Or, perhaps the snow itself will freeze up my pile from within. One year while depositing some kitchen scraps, I tucked in clumps of snow from a late March storm. When I got back to tumbling the pile over on a warm day in early May, I uncovered those same lumps of snow.

Groundhog Day. I trudge out to inspect my pile close-up, first ducking inside the neighboring saltbox tool shed to hang a plastic bag full of kitchen scraps from a spare hook on a ceiling rafter. The kitchen bucket was crammed full of two weeks of scraps and coffee filters and beginning to fail the sniff test. Its vinegary contents will soon freeze to wait out the snow in suspended animation.

Sure enough, my pile is pock-marked with fresh vent holes rimmed with hoar frost and that lead to caverns of air above damp matted straw and leaves. The sides against the log walls and the front, which faces north, are still thick with snow. In time, the warming sun will melt and evaporate my pile’s winter blanket, but that day is a long way off.

My pile is an endless loop of new life reborn out of decomposition and decay. It is a stage unto its own. And I am happy to play a supporting role. Groundhog Day.

My pile

A view of my pile from a snowstorm a few years ago. The snow remains high on the log walls, but has nearly disappeared from the heap itself.