My Pile: Life Everlasting

Today is Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, I realize, after seeing a coworker with a smudge of gray ash on her forehead this morning.

I’m not Catholic, so I have to look up the fact that this day marks the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of Lent, on which many Christians receive a mark of ashes on the forehead as a token of penitence and mortality.

I take the afternoon off as a sick day, citing the winter bug going round the office — and snagging a bag full of office-paper shreds on my way out the door,  personal penitence for playing hooky so I can go home to check up on my pile.

The predicted snow did come and go early this week, leaving a few inches more of powdery, not hardly enough to shovel off the driveway. I see my pile has also shrugged off the latest covering, etching craggy vent holes across the top, which roughly correspond to where I buried the last insertion of coffee grounds and kitchen waste. There’s not much I can do for my pile at this point.

Well, some. After etching a pee into the drift of snow along the back of my pile, I duck inside the shed to retrieve the hanging bag of frozen kitchen scraps; I add a fresh bucket from the kitchen and put it back in cold storage, along with the shredded paper.

Next, I clean the fireplace and then sprinkle the few scoopfuls of fine gray ash and bits of crumbly black charcoal across the top of my pile, which again sags between the log walls, beaten down by the leaden weight of winter.

Wood ash is in abundant supply this long winter, and the dusty detritus of cozy fires inside is the only recent addition to my pile. Ash and charcoal bits contain lots of desirable trace nutrients and they balance the acidic bent of the leaves and grass. What’s more, virtually all of the carbonized remains are from the maple tree that I had taken down this past fall, not 20 feet away from my pile. I’ve spent the fall and early winter splitting the logs from that tree into cordwood for the fireplace.

A smattering of ashes on my pile, tussled with melting snow.

A smattering of ashes on my pile, tossled with melting snow.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life,” goes an Anglican burial prayer.

All ground is renewed by the ashes of what grows on it and above it, and adding ash from the maple that once spread its branches over my pile and its roots underneath it closes a very local feedback loop in the cycle of life that is my backyard.

“The forest soil needs dead trees, or the slash and ‘waste’ from logging, to feed it,” writes Bernd Heinrich in Life Everlasting (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). “By decomposing dead plant and animal matter, soil microbes release organically bound nitrogen and phosphorous in forms that the plants can use for growth,” adds Heinrich, who describes soil as “a complex, species-rich ecosystem that in some ways acts like an organism itself.”

“Aside from the complex chemistry,  however, soil with organic matter folded into it has a texture that binds water, making it continuously available for the trees’ growth. The carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles all meet in the soil, intersecting on dead trees, which give forest life. Soil plays a central role in the productivity of forests, and hence it gives farmland derived from forests their fertility.”

So there is a certain symmetry to the sprinkling some of the final remains of the maple tree upon the compost heap that long nurtured it. Just as its leaves have contributed to the soil that surrounds it, so, too, will the ashes of its limbs and trunk. Besides, I like the look of charcoal gray on white, the poetic juxtaposition of spent fire on frozen water.

“Plants, animals, insects, and people are all inextricably linked in a complex web of interrelationships with air, water, soil, minerals and other natural resources playing vital roles. Compost, too plays an important role. There is a cycle, a continuity to life,” I read in The Rodale Book of Composting (Rodale Press, 1992), the bible on the subject.

All of the environmental problems we face are rooted in a failure to appreciate the life cycle and to keep it intact….Composting is one way to work within the life cycle in the furthering of our welfare.

“Compost is more than a fertilizer, more than a soil conditioner. It is a symbol of continuing life….The compost heap in your garden is an intentional replication of the natural process of birth and death that occurs almost everywhere in nature….It is ironic that composting, the oldest and most universally practiced form of soil treatment in the world, should today be claiming so many converts. Perhaps this is nature’s Restoration–a reaffirmation that people do, indeed, live best when they live in harmony with nature.

“Because the compost heap is symbolic of nature’s best efforts to build soil, and because compost is the most efficient and practical soil builder, it has become the heart of the organic method of farming and gardening. Composting is the single most important task of the organic gardener or farmer because the health of the soil depends on the composting treatment it receives, and success in gardening and farming depends on the health of the soil.”

In hopes of resurrecting my pile, or at least nurturing its inner life toward the eternal promise of spring, I grab the hay pitchfork from its roost in the shed. First I scrape the tines up through the thick crusted snow on the north-facing front. Circumnavigating the log walls and sagging back fence between them, I thrust and parry my way through the congealed snow, collapsing the meltwater caverns and stabbing into the cold hard crust of leaves. It’s like punching through a sooty snow globe.

I work my way round my pile with the pitchfork and soon its top covering is a corduroy of granulated chunks of sooty snow. It’s about four inches thick, less than the untrammeled snow field of a backyard that surrounds it.

My Pile on Ash Wednesday, seven weeks until Easter!

My pile on Ash Wednesday, seven weeks until Easter!

After a series of snow events over the past six weeks, a day of rain is now on the horizon. I’m hoping that by scrambling the snow and ash cover atop my pile, it will be snow-free sooner than the rest of the yard.

To spur things further along, I grab the rebar, hop atop the ice-capped log walls and thrust the rod down through the chopped-up snow and frozen leaves until it tings against the rock-hard ground underneath.

The end of the piece of ribbed iron is warm to the touch. My pile is primed for a resurrection that will come as much from within as with the warming sun.

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.

My Pile: Ashes to Ashes to ‘Black Gold’

After a long, cold week of work and further digging out from an additional dumping of snow, I finish up Saturday morning errands and indoor chores, pondering my pile all the while.

I glance across the backyard through a bedroom window. Like the ground that surrounds it, my pile is still thick with snow, though I can see from afar several craggy holes across the top created by the furnace of heat-producing microbes within. A good sign on a frigid winter day.

My pile, in the process of shrugging off its mantle of snow.

Still, I worry that the weight of the snow covering my pile will squeeze the life out of it.

Through the fall and into these winter months, my pile’s lung-like movement up and down has amazed me. It absorbs the blankets of leaves and buckets of seaweed I add to it, rising high. A day or week or so later, it settles back into itself. My pile is like the science experiment taught to grade schoolers: Here’s a glass of water and here’s a shaker full of salt. Add all that salt to the water, stir it up and wonder: where did all that salt go?

So now I wonder: will all the water locked up in the snow douse my pile’s inner fire? Or will the water melt into sips that will sustain my pile’s inner workings until the sun is potent enough once again to boil it off?

Like my pile, my musings about it are anything but dormant. I enjoy provoking it and prodding it along in all seasons. My pile, even in winter, is my favorite hobby, and more.

I gather dustballs from under the beds and empty the fireplace of its ashes. Rather than dump the resulting brown paper bag half-full of indoor detritus into the kitchen trash bin, I decide to sprinkle it all across the top of my pile. My fast-filling bucket of kitchen scraps has nowhere to go at the moment except into cold storage in the tool shed, but perhaps this dusty blessing of gray ash and carbonized wood will help further melt the snow.

I bundle up and trudge out across the snowpack to my pile. Setting the bag of ash and furry dander aside, I pick up the rebar rod I keep leaned up against the back side of the tool shed. I pierce my pile 20 or so times, from all angles and sides, circling its flanks like a caveman finishing off a woolly mammoth. I focus my prodding on places still thick with snow.

I’m wagering that my pile can continue to thrive under its blanket of insulating snow, and stabbing it a few more times will activate the now dormant areas of the pile underneath.

A 7-ft. length of ribbed rebar is a handy way to prod my pile, creating airshafts through and through.

A 7-ft. length of ribbed rebar is a handy way to prod my pile, creating airshafts through and through.

It’s a good, quick workout, and before long I’ve created a score of shafted pathways for meltwater to soak down through the cold, dry compartments of leaves that surely surround the areas into which I’ve forked in supplies of fresh green rotting stuff. As all the compost guidebooks say, a heap of compost should be like a damp sponge.

I lean over the log wall to peer inside one of the vent holes, rimmed with hoar frost. Within is a cavern of space, creating in part by the pile subsiding and its ceiling of icy snow rising. Like some salt dome down South, my pile’s covering of snow could easily collapse upon itself into a sinkhole of snow. But I figure the leaves inside have now fallen to about the level of the log walls; I decide to add more snow, if only to keep my pile high enough to pee on it in privacy.

I set the bar aside and pick up the wide snow shovel to scoop swaths of crusty powdery snow from an ever-widening ring around my pile, tossing the mushed-up snow across the top. I stop to heft a few chunks of snowbergs to plug the biggest vent holes. My aim is not to smother my pile but to seal any escape hatches of heat. A thermal blanket.

A dozen or so helpings of scrapped-up snow soon reforms my pile into a crested white butte between log walls.

Happy and panting with my handiwork, I grab the bag of ash and furry dustballs. I try to stay upwind as a tilt and flick the bag full of soot across the top of my pile. Chucks of charcoal tumble down the front face, but most of the ash swirls and sticks onto the snow covering my pile.

My pile, freshly adorned with more snow and a blessing of ash.

My pile, freshly adorned with more snow and a blessing of ash, containing nutrients from plant materials to be recycled back into the earth from whence it came. Truly, ashes to ashes…

This stubble of gray will gather sunlight and melt into my pile, the ash and flecks of wood coal sinking slowly downward to add its carbon and nutrients to the mix, the warm wet water vapor rising to meet it from below.

I’m sparing in the addition of wood ash, a very caustic material, to my pile. “Small amounts are fine,” advises Mike McGrath in his “Book of Compost.” “The ashes of high-quality hardwoods do contain high levels of calcium and potassium, which are essential plant nutrients. But we are talking small amounts. No more than a cup of ashes mixed into a 4 x 4 x 4-foot bin.” McGrath would rather see wood ash sprinkled across the lawn or garden (instead of lime) to raise the pH level of the soil, which tends toward the acidic in areas of plentiful rainfall. This I do, pacing across the yard as I jiggle wood ash and bits of charcoal from the paper bag.

McGrath expounds on the qualities and uses of wood ash on the website gardensalive.com: “Julia Gaskin, a Land Application Specialist for the University of Georgia Extension Service, explains that ash from good quality hardwoods contains a very nice amount of potassium; at least 3% by weight. Also known as potash, this is the “K” in the fabled N-P-K scale of plant nutrients—the Dow Jones of Horticulture! Potash improves root health and strengthens the very cellular structure of plants, helping them resist all kinds of stresses.”

Here’s more about potash, from Dan Sullivan, soil scientist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, quoted in an article by Carol Savonen on the Extension’s website. “In the 18th century, the benefits of ash-derived potash, or potassium carbonate, became widely recognized. North American trees were felled, burned and the ash was exported to Great Britain as ‘potash fever’ hit. In 1790, the newly-independent United States of America’s first patented process was a method for making fertilizer from wood ash (U.S. patent number 1: “An improved method of making pot and pearl ash).”

It’s fascinating to realize that processing wood ash was once so cutting-edge technology that it will forever be No. 1 on the list of American ingenuity. I am also intrigued by accounts of how the messy remains of my fireplace can turn my pile into a rich deposit of “black gold.”

Here’s what NPR has to say about it in a Science Friday story by Ira Flatow:

“Researchers say that adding charcoal to soil may provide more benefits for long-term soil quality than compost or manure…

“Poor quality soil. It’s a problem for farmers around the world. Dirt stripped of nutrients by years of over-farming and chemical fertilizers. Well, this week there’s new evidence that an old farming practice traced back at least 1,500 years to tribes in the Amazon basin can give new life to nutrient-poor dirt. It’s called “black gold agriculture.” The idea is really simple. You add charcoal from burned organic matter to the soil and the dirt holds on to nutrients and produces lots more crops.”

Flatow interviews Dr. Mingxin Guo is an assistant professor in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department at Delaware State University in Dover.

FLATOW: “Let’s talk about poor quality soil, a big problem around the world. Why is that?

Dr. GUO: Yes. So deterioration and chemical degradation is a severe and worldwide problem. It is expressed as soil compaction, poor tubes, surface crafting(ph), slow water seepage, low water draining, low nutrients and a low nutrient retaining, and also decreasing crop productivity. This problem is mainly caused by long-term chemical fertilizer application and mechanical tillage. The level of organic matter determines the quality of our soil. All the soils have high organic matter content, say, six to 15 percent. But soil plowing makes the organic matter decompose quickly, while chemical fertilization doesn’t incur any external organic matter adhesion. So year after year, farmland soils become low in organic matter and the quality turns poor. So currently, most of farmland soils have organic matter content lower than three percent.

FLATOW: Ah. So what does adding charcoal to the soil, why does it make it a better fertilizer?

Dr. GUO: Charcoal is a fine-grained, porous black carbon, and it is generated from plant materials. And it is non-toxic to plants. So there are many tiny pores in charcoal. So once applied to soil, the pores will allow air to diffuse into the soil. Plant roots need the air to breathe. And in the meanwhile, the tiny pores will hold water and nutrients and later supply it to plants. More important, unlike other organic fertilizers, charcoal is very stable and it will not decompose to carbon dioxide. So once applied, it will stay in soil for hundreds to thousands of years. So to summarize, the high stability and porosity make charcoal a better fertilizer than other organic materials.”

FLATOW: … And so, I know this is an ancient technique that was discovered in pre-Columbian tribes from the central Amazon. They were doing this 1,500 years ago.

Dr. GUO: Yes. We actually, we learned this lesson from the pre-Amazon people. An archeological event disclosed the fertile, charcoal carbon-rich and highly productive soil in the central Amazon basin. And later, scientific studies revealed that this fertile soil was fertilized by the Amazon people 1,500 years ago with char produced by smothering plant debris and annual bulbs(ph).

FLATOW: Ah. So the char, the fertilizer they made, the char they made 1,500 years ago, was still working?

Dr. GUO: Yes. The soil is still highly productive, even after 1,000 years of crop cultivation without any other fertilization.”

My pile is a long way from an ancient field in the Amazon jungle, but I subscribe to the theory. As I tend my garden beds and lawn and come across a chunky bit of charcoal, I think of a slash and burn farmer from a millennium before, and thank him.

Ash and bits of charcoal gather sunlight on my pile and add their own properties to the mix.

Ash and bits of charcoal gather sunlight on my pile and add their own properties to the mix.

Late in the day I step out onto the back porch to let the dog out for a pee. The sun is low through the trees and casts its light across the top of my pile. There, I see a wisp of steam backlit by a sunbeam. My pile has already punched its way through its new mantle of snow.

Life always finds a way, even on the coldest day of winter.