My Pile: Act of Nature

My pile is much more than a messy construct taking up space in my backyard. It is a garden unto itself.

Truth be told, I get more pleasure and payoff from my pile than I do from the vegetables and flowers that it helps grow come summer.

Today, the last day of the year, I dug up the fennel in the corner of my vegetable garden that my neighbor had given me as sprouts last spring. The fragrant green stems have grown wild and tangly, but neither of us knew if the bulbs had developed enough to shave into a fennel salad for brunch on New Year’s day.

Sadly, when I plunged the pitchfork deep under the roots, the fennel below ground was as sprawling as it was above. No fat bulbs that you see in the farmer’s market, just scraggly roots like misshapen white carrots. No matter. Once peeled, the shavings will make a fine, licorisey accent to the salad, and the lush green stems will make fine fodder for my pile.

It’s been unseasonably warm as winter dawns. No white Christmas this year, and the December storms have brought rain that has soaked my pile. The seeds from the pumpkins smashed a week or so ago have sprouted through the sodden leaves that cover my pile; their tender white stalks strive to gain purchase. Already I can see most are under attack from unseen creatures, and perhaps some nibbles from creatures higher up the food chain, a squirrel or one of the small rodents that I’m sure frequent or inhabit my pile, be they chipmunk, mouse, vole or mole.

I look closer at a slender rod of pale white; it’s not a pumpkin sprout but the quill from the wing feather of some sort of waterfowl. The hollow nub of the quill is a-swarm with roving creatures just large enough to detect their movement. They look like roly-polys writ small. I wonder whether these tiny scroungers came to my pile already aboard the molted feather or if they were resident scavengers with a taste for holiday goose. And what feeds upon these tiny mites when they are finished with the feather?

“Details, details, you might protest,” writes Richard Fortey in “The Wood for the Trees,” a biography of his own small patch of land in the shires of England. “I reply that the delight, as well as the devil, is in the details. To an animal of small size, particularly an insect in which the larva hides away discreetly to feed and grow, our wood is a potpourri of opportunities, quite a wonderland of niches. ‘Biodiversity’ as a word sounds rather dull and a bit abstract. Played out on the ground it is something else: the difference between the numbered title of a symphony and its glorious complexity unwrapped in a concert hall. Every rotting log is a small world. The underside of a leaf is a realm to a greenfly; a crack in the bark of a beech tree is a capacious and secret hideout. They all fit together in a jigsaw that remakes its own pieces month by month…

“Each little life is not much more than a pinhead of brilliance,” writes of the the bug that has captured his own attention, a crane fly, and wonders how his woods could support so many species of just this one type of fly. “Some bob up and down together; a mating dance, I suppose. Others move purposefully and then vanish from the light, seeking something, smelling something, following a precise instinct to a precise niche. Even if I had the scientific names of them all, it would only be like having the notes on a page, not the symphony. A species inventory is only the beginning. Every species will have its own biography, its special requirements and its curious secrets.”

Fortey trains his hand lens on the underside of a rotting log to reveal a hidden world very much like what is going on in my pile:

“A list of animals and fungi could become tiresome, but is necessary to grasp the true richness of nature. Think of it as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interlocking stories. The world beneath a rotting log is a small one, but it is marvelously complete. The cascade of life there comes ultimately from the sun. The photosynthetic work of a tree eats up the energy from sunshine for many years; as soon as the tree falls to the ground, the construction begins to unwind. Fungi play a vital role. Beneath the log in the damp, dark places, the recyclers and degraders get to work. Wood-eaters, and grazers of fungal patches, and then their predators, set up a food chain that is a lightless version, a dark parody, of the grass-herbivore-carnivore system that thrives in light and rain. Rot is creation in the underworld. That list, that catalogue, is the dramatis personae of a kind of soap opera of slow decomposition, where sex and death, voracity and subterfuge, play out their measured parts in the life habits of dozens of species ‘hidden away privily.'”

My pile is part hobby, part pet. It is a living curio cabinet, a menagerie composed of countless wild creatures I keep in untamed captivity. In return for helping create, develop, nurture and mature this creative act of deconstruction, I am rewarded in compound ways, not only in wheelbarrows full of compost at the end of its short year of life, but every day.

My pile keeps me grounded. In a very basic way, it’s even helped make me who I am.

Fragrant shocks of fennel from the garden help my pile ring out the old year. I'll cover the fresh green with a layer of soggy leaves.

Fragrant shocks of fennel from the garden help my pile ring out the old year. I’ll cover the fresh green with a layer of soggy leaves.

Writer Michael Pollan takes a deep dive into the metaphysics of compost in “Second Nature.” This “gardener’s education” reads as true today as when it was first published in 1993, especially the chapter “Compost and Its Moral Imperatives.” It’s worth reading whole, but allow me to share a composted version:

“There isn’t an American gardening book published in the last twenty years that doesn’t become lyrical on the subject of compost … In American gardening, the successful compost pile seems almost to have supplanted the perfect hybrid tea rose or the gigantic beefsteak tomato as the outward sign of horticultural grace.”

“The apotheosis of compost is really just the latest act in a long-running morality play about the American people and the American land. In the garden writer’s paeans to compost you can still hear echoes of Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, paraphrased here by Henry Nash Smith, ’Cultivating the earth confers a valid title to it; the ownership of the land, by making the farmer independent, gives him social status and dignity, while constant contact with nature makes him virtuous…’

“At least in a metaphorical way, compost restores the gardener’s independence – if only from the garden center and the petrochemical industry … and because it makes the soil more fertile, composting flatters the old American belief that improving the land strengthens one’s claim to it…

“No less than the nineteenth-century transcendentalists and reformers, we look to the garden today as a source of moral instruction. They sought a way to preserve the Jeffersonian virtues even in the city; we seek a way to use nature without damaging it. In much the same way that the antebellum garden became a proof of the agrarian ideal, we regard our own plots, hard by the compost pile, as models of ecological responsibility. Under both dispensations, gardening becomes, at least symbolically, an act of redemption.”

Pollan’s ruminations on the nature of compost and what it means leads him to conclude one fall day that “if I wanted to perfect my gardening faith I would have to begin my own compost pile. Which I promptly did … and forgot about it.”

To Pollan, composting is a byproduct of manifest destiny, a “quasi-religious movement” in which the compost pile has “emerged as the status symbol among American gardeners.” But he can resist signing on to the “moral crusade” of this particular branch of American horticulture for only so long:

… By the time I returned to the compost pile in April, I had read enough about American gardening to know that composting was a pretty silly fetish. It would never produce a beautiful perennial border, just a morally correct one, and wasn’t that a little absurd? Well, I guess it is, but when I lifted off the undecayed layer of leaves on top and ran my hand through the crumbly, black, unexpectedly warm and sweet-smelling compost below, I felt like I’d accomplished something great. If fertility has a perfume, this surely was it …. this heap of rotting vegetable matter looked more lovely to me than the tallest spike of the bluest delphinium. Right then I realized that, like it or not, I was an American gardener, likely to cultivate in the garden more virtue than beauty.”

Gardening, and more specifically, tending my backyard compost pile, defines me. It is an act of nature, and I am an actor upon this chosen piece of ground, cultivating the space, both physical and mental, between chaos and order, both natural and man-made.

“Gardening is an obsession that cannot be conquered or abandoned, only indulged,” writes Thomas C. Cooper in the “The Roots of My Obsession,” an anthology in which “Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden” (Timber Press, 2012).

“Marketers have tried for decades to identify what makes a gardener in hopes of brewing up a large batch of it and sowing it, through advertising, across the land. It has never worked … Gardeners are a blend of family and geography, of childhood wonder and even sometimes the independence born of the parental “neglect” that allows a child to get lost in the woods, tracing the source of a springtime rivulet. They rise from trauma and travel. People come to gardening for the refuge of a personal Eden, endlessly complex in its makeup, gloriously simple in its demands.”

That about sums it up for me, though there is much to recognize of myself in the reflections of the 29 other gardeners essayed.

As the page prepares to turn on another calendar year, I have no new resolutions to make other than to continue tending my backyard compost pile as best I can. It’s my nature.

Portrait of an American backyard composter.

Portrait of an American backyard composter.

My Pile: Gourmet Beginnings

A gardener is very much an editor.

That sensibility has played out over a career largely spent writing and editing for a mix of national magazines. It also might help explain my fascination with the pleasure and the process that is composting.

“The perpetual regeneration of forest parallels the timelessness of literature,” Richard Fortey writes in “The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature.” A noted paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, Fortey retired to a four-acre patch of woodland in Oxfordshire; his book is a closely drawn account of what he found in those ancient woods over the course of a year. “The wood is as old as, or even older than, the great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowolf, proving the endurance of art can be tracked by the life of trees.”

My pile begins as a load of raw if purposeful rubbish that over time and with some effort is refined into a finished product put to immediate use. As such, it is of incremental, temporary value, more ephemeral than lasting. A heap of fresh compost pales in comparison to a stately old beech tree that stands and delivers for generations; my pile is not literature; more like yesterday’s news in search of a better end than as bird-cage liner or a wrapper for Mr. Fortey’s fish ‘n’ chips.

There’s no exact recipe for making compost; it’s a creative, unscripted act, yet its production plays out in a time-honored format and fashion. My pile is very much a magazine; at its root, the word refers to a collection or storage location, like a gunpowder artillery magazine. My pile is the Guns & Ammo of gardening.

My vocation as an writer and editor and my avocation as a backyard gardener and composter go hand in hand. I often mull over writing projects while busying myself with the pruning and curating and transplanting that can keep a suburban backyard gardener preoccupied. I also sometimes plot out garden and landscaping projects while idling myself at work.

I’ve kept a backyard compost pile since my days as a writer/editor with a food magazine in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

It was a wonderful job in many respects, chief among them the twice-daily tastings in the test kitchen. Every recipe that ran in the magazine, and then some, were prepared in-house by our chefs, with assists from other staffers and guest editors.

The tastings were held three days a week, the first at 10 am and the second at 2 pm. I was invited to attend not because I had much culinary expertise but because for much of my tenure at the magazine I was the designated male among an office-full of women. Maybe my boss figured that my taste buds, if not discriminating, were at least different enough to give me a seat at the table.

In truth, the dishes were almost always delicious because the chefs could turn even the sketchiest handwritten recipe from some homemaker in Omaha into something to savor.

I’d hang out in the test kitchen as much as I could, watching and listening and smelling all that went into their work while avoiding the stack of recipe transcripts and manuscripts in my inbox.

This was in the early days of modern comfort food, just as the artery-clogging, cholesterol-laden recipes of old were being replaced by Mediterranean menus, featuring lots of vegetables simply prepared and seasoned not with rich sauces but with fresh herbs and garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I ate amazingly well from 9 to 5, and couldn’t get a date for the better part of three years.

I don’t recall how the subject of me taking home all the trimmings the cooks threw out each day came up, but once they knew of the modest compost heap I’d started in the side yard of the duplex I rented, they happily and conscientiously loaded me up with all the kitchen scraps I could take home at the end of each day.

kitchen scraps

It was gourmet stuff – floppy green carrot tops and big bottoms of fennel bulbs. Pounds of flicked potato peels, whole volumes of papery onion skins. Lots of shrimp shells, as I recall  — all in all, enough, usually, to fill two paper grocery bags every test-kitchen day.

Each issue of the magazine included about 100 recipes, which every month found its way into a million or more kitchens. Food-waste expert Jonathan Bloom, writing in his blog,, continues the math by reporting that 95 percent of the food waste produced in the U.S. that could be composted actually ends up going into a landfill or incinerator.

Food waste accounts for some 28 percent of all this trash, though Bloom argues that the total amount of food wasted in the U.S. is actually closer to 40 percent when you take into account farm loss or waste between farm and retailer.

Even though a minuscule amount of food and other organic material ends up being composted, overall the recycling or composting of organic material, including paper products and yard trimmings, “prevented 87.2 million tons of material from being disposed in 2013, up from 15 million tons in 1980. Diverting these materials from landfills prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2013—equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year,” according to an EPA report Bloom cites.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I suppose my LA compost pile offset its fair share of the smog I created driving back and forth to work each day, to help produce a magazine made of many acres of wood pulp.

“When we throw away food we don’t just throw away nutrients,” points out David Owen in The Conundrum, “We also throw away the energy we used in keeping it cold as we lost interest in it, as well as the energy that went into growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, and preparing it (assuming we got that far), along with its proportional share of our staggering national consumption of fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water, packaging, and landfill capacity. According to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of U.S. freshwater use goes into producing food that is later discarded. And rotting food is the main source of the methane — an especially worrisome greenhouse gas — that leaks from landfills.”

I lived in a Spanish-style duplex perched on a knoll at the base of the Hollywood Hills. On the edge of the back patio was a tall Ponderosa pine, its lower branches trimmed so the trunk branched upward and outward into a wide canopy sculpted like a statuespue standard poodle.

It was a gorgeous tree, especially in the evening when the setting sun over the Pacific and across the Los Angeles basin nearly lit it from underneath, making its orange-red bark glow and the waxy green needles sparkle. A patch of ivy covered the slope below it, and there, in the bottom corner of the yard, I carved out my first compost pile, digging steps into the terraced hillside to reach it.

Our landlord actually owned two properties on the narrow lot; our two-story unit and, behind it, a small bungalow that faced the next street over connected to our back patio by a pathway. The bungalow’s backyard was taken up by two old olive trees that shed copious amounts of long slender leaves and a rich rain of black olives.

Alongside the duplex was a sliver of grass bordered by a boxwood hedge beside the walkway to the street. The tiny lawn gave way to a small rose garden perched above the street, with an impenetrably huge hedge of brilliant magenta bougainvillea fronting the sidewalk and running alongside the downhill side of the property.

Though small and set on a hillside, the yard produced enough growth throughout the long California growing season to keep my compost pile in business. I especially liked scooping up piles of the day-glo petals of the bougainvillea to add to the heap, as thin as the breath strips you put on your tongue and just as fast to decompose.

Profoundly spoiled by the chefs in the test kitchen, at times my pile was more kitchen scraps than yard refuse. It was a turbocharged stew of vegetable matter, with just a few rakefuls of pine needles, scratchy live-oak leaves, a dose of grass clippings and a dollop of homegrown rotting olives for me to contribute.

My landlord was happy that I took ownership of the yard, and my downstairs neighbor was pleased, too, that she could clip flowers for her apartment as she wished, and happy to have me puttering about in the yard.

Being a monthly magazine, we worked off an editorial calendar set several months ahead of real time. In October we tested our Christmas menus, which meant that our fattest issues hit at the tail end of California’s dry season and just before the winter rains began. The test kitchen worked overtime in those months, producing turkey after turkey to taste, and more important, all the trimmings for me to take home.

Pound for pound, there wasn’t a more fecund compost pile in all of Los Angeles. I’d pitch my LA compost pile as two hours of a great movie, produced from miles of raw film.

Over the course of several years of magazine issues, my gourmet compost pile helped turn a rented patch of compacted, hardpan dirt into a lush backyard oasis. When the fall rains came, the garden soaked up every drop, and the roses and bougainvillea and rosemary thrived in the California sunshine. And I became a composter.

That all changed when my downstairs neighbor got a baby pot-bellied pig for Christmas…