My Pile: Mousing Around

The chill of winter lingers over the landscape. My pile remains snowbound, like a ship hemmed in by Arctic ice pack. A spell of record cold — subzero lows with wind chills much worse — has surely driven what warm life that still stokes my pile to a retreat deep within its core.

This President’s Day I make due with some emergency wood chopping to replenish my supplies. I have a dwindling stack of whole logs stashed behind the tool shed, and roll one over to the flattened snow beside my pile. From Washington to Lincoln to Reagan and even Bush, splitting wood seems a particularly Presidential exercise.

The grain of the maple is smooth and true, like a hardwood floor. I halve the whole log with a steel wedge and a sledgehammer, then use the sharp side of a maul to cleave off smaller chunks. The squat round piece of trunk produces a dozen or more fractionalized slivers of cordwood, enough for an evening’s fire, at least.

While I’m busy splitting wood, the dog clamors up the log wall sides of the pile and proceeds to bury his nose in a vent hole. By the time I turn around to notice, he’s pawed out a patch of seagrass from under the snow.

Miller, knee deep in my pile, has sniffed out something of interest. Or maybe he's just helping out... out

Miller, knee deep in my pile, has sniffed out something of interest while I’m busy chopping wood on a wintry Presidents Day.

I don’t know what he’s sniffing out. It could be the aroma of the fermenting kitchen scraps from the last insertion two weeks ago — or he’s caught the scent of an interloping scavenger.

There’s been no sign of rodents around my pile of late, though it’s possible that some furry little critter from nearby – from under the tool shed, say, or from the ramshackle property on the other side of my backyard fence – has tunneled under the snow. It wouldn’t surprise me, given the extremes of weather, that a mouse or wood rat would be attracted to the warmth and sustenance of my pile.

It’s happened before. My pile is large enough to allow me to bury any kitchen scraps and such deep inside. That helps keep most of the roaming suburban varmints from nosing around my pile, though in mating season I’m always wary of skunks wondering by, mostly for the dog’s sake.

A few springs back, my pack-rat of a back-fence neighbor shifted around the collection of junk in his backyard; the wood pallets on which he’d stacked all manner of plastic tubs and rusty file cabinets filled with whatnot had rotted out.

Some of the diaspora of rodents that had nested underneath the yardful of junk made their way over to my pile. A round hole in the wood chip mulch along the bottom of my back fence connected to a same-size bore hole just above the last batch of kitchen scraps I’d tucked inside my pile. Pieces of egg shell and a banana peel lined the opening. Another entryway was neatly scratched out on the ground between two of the logs stacked in a wall to the side. My pile was turning into a compost condo for rats, with a 24-hour buffet there for the taking.

I borrowed a slender rectangle of a live trap and set the cage alongside the log-wall base, balancing a cracker laden with peanut butter on the spring hatch in the middle of the wire cage, then raised the spring-loaded hatches on either end.

A couple mornings later, the dog bounded out the back door and nosed straight to the trap, barking with keen interest. Inside, to my surprise, was a small, twittering rodent that looked like a mouse-sized kangaroo.

I hoisted the wire cage up out of the dog’s reach and took a closer look. The whiskered critter had hobbit-size feet and a scrunched-over back, like a hampster. It was mousey brown, except for a white, rat-like tail. It peed through the wire under my scrutiny, and the dog’s yapping.

I walked the cage across the yard and over to my car to set it in the back, figuring I’d let the varmint loose in exile when driving my son to school. I had no reason to dispatch the mammal, at least execution-style. Besides, on the 10-minute drive to his school we pass an empty lot set between the highway and railroad tracks, across a deep wooded culvert from the marshy inland area of a state beach. The state DOT uses the area to stage trucks and dump spare loads of asphalt and wood chips. The commute, of death sentence and by location, was the best I could do for my captured critter.

Holding the cage a foot or so off the ground, I opened one hatch and tilted. Out popped the little brown rodent, which sprung across the weedy ground in zigzag leaps and bounds, disappearing licketty-split into some deeper weeds across the way. My son and I were startled by the hip-hop display.

One of these little guys checked out my pile, but couldn't stay.

One of these little guys checked out my pile, but couldn’t stay.

Later, we googled “Connecticut rodents” and decided our compost lodger was a Woodland jumping mouse. Wikipedia tells us it’s “a species of jumping mouse found in North America. It can hop surprisingly long distances, given its small size. The mouse is an extraordinary part of the rodent family. Its scientific name in Latin is Napaeozapus insignis, meaning glen or wooded dell + big or strong feet + a distinguishing mark. This mammal can jump up to 3 m (9.8 ft) when scared, using its extremely strong feet and long tail.”

Back home, I reset the live trap, figuring my chances of capturing a mate were pretty good.

“A casually managed compost pile can become a mouse magnet, welcoming rodents in search of seeds, food scraps, and places for nesting,” I read in a posting on Rodale’s Organic Life. “Mice living in a compost pile are just doing what comes naturally. Even so, their role in the spread of serious diseases such as hantavirus, salmonellosis, and Lyme disease makes mice undesirable tenants anyplace where people are at risk of coming in contact with them or their droppings.

“To minimize mouse activity in and around a compost project, start by making the pile less attractive as a rodent dwelling. Turn the compost at least once a week and moisten the ingredients thoroughly. Both the increased disturbance and the damp conditions will reduce your compost pile’s mouse appeal.”

The next morning the trap was sprung. Inside was a Norway rat, big and grey and beady-eyed and without any charm. That morning, I was heading directly to work, and took the rodent with me. I don’t see pilfering my pile as a capital crime. On my way to the office I pass a small park along the Saugatuck River, a promatory of sorts among the tidal flats. I released the rat in the parking lot, expecting it to scurry into a nearby patch of phragmite reeds. Instead, it scurried across the lot and back toward the road. On the other side were houses.

Before I’d processed any course of action, a hawk sitting on the branch of an oak tree overhanging the road swooped down and took a stab at the rat as it skittered across the two-lane roadway. The rodent narrowly escaped, disappearing into the leaf-covered slope on the other side of the road. The hawk took off. So did I.

That was the end of my live-trapping that season; though a week or so later the dried-up smear of peanut butter on a ritz did capture a squirrel. I let it out in the middle of the yard, with the dog baiting his breath. The squirrel high-tailed it to the nearest tree, the dog nipping closely at its furry tail.

In the years since, I occasionally set the trap out, catching the odd mouse or vole, and most recently a brown sparrow that had hopped into the cage. I suppose the pair of red-tailed hawks that soar along the oak-lined ridge that flanks the valley road I live on keep an eye on things; while working on my pile this past fall one of them glided over my pile with a squirrel in its talons. Some years back, while digging for earthworms to take the neighborhood kids fishing, we unearthed a fat garter snake. And even though I’ve never seen one nearby, I’d like to think a native owl has learned to perch on the limb of one of the maples overhanging my pile. I bet my pile is a honey hole for things that hunt in the night.

My Pile: Marking Territory

My pile has many mutually beneficial purposes. It serves me well. I heap it with produce and praise, shower it with attention … and pee.

As Charlton Heston once explained to Dear Abby, in response to the lady who feared her husband’s habit of urinating on their lawn was inappropriate: “So it may be, but the fact remains that all men pee outdoors,” said Moses himself.

It’s the gospel truth. One of the reasons I keep my pile as tall as I do is to take a leak behind it without fear of pissing off any passing neighbors. Most mornings I let the dog out; he pees on the front of my pile, and I take the backside. After a cup of coffee and his morning bowl of chow, we may hit it again.

The backside of my pile, set in the corner of the yard. Keeping it chest high makes it big enough to continue to cook through the winter — and for me to step behind it for a private pit stop.

I’d probably piss outside even if I didn’t keep a compost pile. I’ve spent enough years in rain-deprived Southern California to value each toilet flush; I’ve paid enough utility bills to know to conserve my supply of water for more important uses, like watering the tomatoes in July.

I also drink a lot of coffee and beer, and when home try to spend as much time outdoors as indoors, often tromping around in muddy work shoes. Go back inside to take a leak? No, I piss on my pile. It’s a convenient and somewhat furtive release, in a Huck Finnish, behind-the-woodshed kind of way.

To excuse myself further, let’s hear more from Dear Abby & Co. on the subject:

DEAR ABBY: After reading the letter about the woman (“The Whiz-zard’s Wife”) whose husband urinates in the yard, I had to write. It’s what I went through with my ex-husband for 13 years! I pleaded with him to stop, but his answer was that no one could see him because it was dark.

My present husband (now of eight years) did the same thing. He’d be closer to the bathroom in our house and still go out back to urinate in our yard after dark two or three times a week. When I gave him my opinion about it, he’d ignore it.

When we moved to our new home, we had a wooden fence built. I decided to teach him a lesson. When he continued to urinate in the back yard, I decided to do the same. He was shocked! He told me I had better not do it again. I told him that as long as he continued his behavior, I would do the same.

Abby, he has not urinated in our back yard since. Sometimes when they won’t listen, you have to SHOW ’em.

DEAR HAPPY WIFE: Congratulations for having curbed your husband’s spraying. I was intrigued to discover that some men consider it a form of conservation! Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Marking our territory is only one reason for this age-old tradition.

Boys have long enjoyed distance, accuracy and creative urinary competitions: knocking leaves off the trees in the fall, drawing pictures in the winter snow, protecting young fir trees from hungry deer in the spring, and dousing campfires in the summer months are just a few highlights.

Some may deride this as small-minded male nonsense, but on a global scale, this ritual has significant benefits to our environment. The flush water we save is substantial. At 2.5 gallons per flush, a man urinating outside just once a day will conserve almost 1,000 gallons of water a year. If one-fourth of the men in the United States saved one flush per day, we’d save more than 4.5 billion cubic feet of water per year.

If you consider all the rainfall that’s channeled into storm sewers from our streets and parking lots, we’re returning valuable moisture to the soil by urinating on our lawns.

Giving the backside of my pile a dousing, I do some calculating: A couple-two-three leaks a day, a pint each, maybe…It adds up to more gallons of golden showers a year than I’d like to admit to. But all that urine is good for my pile: It turns out that this body waste that’s (usually) flushed down the toilet can actually be recycled into a number of useful products, says one online resource,

“Comprised of water, calcium, chloride, potassium, sodium, magnesium, urea, creatinine, nitrogen, uric acid, ammonium, sulphates and phosphates, urine’s beneficial ingredients can be separated from its waste, and used to make fertilizer, medicine, brain cells and, yes, gunpowder.”

The key ingredient is phosphorous, which was discovered in the 1660s by German alchemist Hennig Brand, who was trying to turn urine into gold. Instead, he turned 1,500 gallons of urine, likely collected from beer-drinking German soldiers, into what became a new kind of liquid gold. Under high heat, the phosphate in urine loses its oxygen and becomes phosphorus.

An essential element for life, phosphorous is the sixth most abundant element in any living organism. It not only glows in the dark, but can also be highly poisonous and combustible (white phosphorus is used in many destructive weapons, such as napalm), I read on Gizmodo, an account which adds: “Some environmentalists believe that we will have a severe phosphorus shortage in twenty to forty years. That said, human urine could hold the key to solving the crisis. According to Mother Jones magazine, ‘There’s enough phosphorus in your annual output of urine to provide P for more than half of all the grain you consume in a year.'”

Early each spring, my lawn is pockmarked with bright green patches as the grass begins to grow again, from both the dog and passing deer. I know from the splotches that there are frequent doses of energy, in the form of nitrogen, urea and other organic (and sterile) materials to be directed in a more targeted way. Why not my pile?

According to Nicky Scott, author of “How to Make and Use Compost — The Ultimate Guide,” urine is “the cheapest and best activator to speed up the composting process. It adds nitrogen and water to woody, dry, carbon-rich material.”

Rodale’s Organic Life agrees: “If you aren’t using your urine in your garden and on your compost pile, you are, pardon my French, pissing away a free, valuable resource and missing out an easy way to help close the gaping hole in your household nutrient cycle,” Jean Nick writes in “How to Use Your Pee for the Planet.” Using urine in the garden can help you cut your water use (less flushing) while also cleaning up the environment downstream (no water-polluting fertilizer runoff).”

Nick adds: “Recent scientific studies have shown urine is a safe and very effective fertilizer for cabbage, beets, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and pretty much anything else you want to grow. Urine boasts a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K) ratio of 10:1:4, plus more modest amounts of the trace elements plants need to thrive. The nutrients in pee are highly available to plants, too—an extra plus.”

So I like having a good excuse to pee outdoors and the privacy that my pile offers in taking that relief. I also take comfort in the fact that my own end product turns out to be so vital to the new beginnings that my pile is all about. A comfort station, indeed, the compost heap I keep…

My Pile: Inner Workings (Part I)

I’ve set up my pile for winter as best I can. It’s got all the makings it needs – layer upon layer of dead plant stuff mixed with an array of juicier, biodegradable organic material — to fuel the composting process that will take place deep inside my pile through the short days and long cold nights ahead.

Today, the last Saturday before Christmas, is when autumn turns to winter. For much of recorded history, the winter solstice — the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year — was marked by celebration, a time for feasting on the fatted calves of summer and the fermented grape and grain of the harvest fall. A final blowout before the start of famine season.

As the day marks the reversal of the ebbing sun, it also signifies a new beginning, the reawakening of nature, rebirth. Pagans celebrated the Yule holiday, and sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops.

Our modern “midwinter” holiday, with its Christmas trees and yulelogs, is a direct descendant of those customs, and I’m OK with that. But it can hardly improve on the idea behind the oldest known construct honoring the winter solstice: Newgrange, a neolithic structure in Ireland built around 3,200 BC. A large mound, built of alternating layers of earth and stones, with grass growing on top, the monument’s entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, when sunlight shines through a ‘roofbox‘ and floods the inner chamber. It’s called Ireland’s greatest national monument, and it’s all to celebrate this day. If my pile had the weight and significance of Stonehenge, it would be Newgrange — in 5,000 years.

I make the best use of this short day with a quick trip over to the beach with the dog and bring home a big bucket stuffed with the straw of salt marsh grass. I’ve gathered a pail full of kitchen scraps from the neighbors’ next door and set it beside my own smaller plastic canister of spent coffee grounds, chopped-up vegetables, broken egg shells and dinner-plate scrapings. Votive offerings were found in the inner chambers of Newgrange, and I will add these new offerings to my pile in kind.

Another neighbor, the older couple who lives on the western side of my property, had asked a few days ago if I could take the decorative pumpkins from their front stoop. They’ve long since served their symbolic purpose of the harvest season and Halloween, and it would be a waste to consign them to the trash when they could contribute their rotting plumpness to my pile. My son and I already have a supply of freshly roasted pumpkin seeds culled from our own porch set and tossed the rotting husks into the heap. Today I finish up the the season of giving thanks by smashing up the neighbors’ pumpkins and chunking them into my pile as well.

Pumpkins are a most welcome addition to my pile. A member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squash, cantaloupes, cucumbers, watermelons, and gourds, the pumpkin has been cultivated for a thousand years or more, first by Native Americans in the Southwestern United States, but today is grown mostly in the Northeast, and mostly near big cities to cater to the Halloween market.

The practice of decorating and lighting hollowed-out pumpkins and setting them on doorsteps to ward off evil spirits stems from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack, a tradition brought to these shores by immigrants uprooted by the potato famine. Long Irish story short: Jack was a drunk who successfully battled his demons but couldn’t quite make it to heaven. The Devil tossed him a lit ember straight from Hell — a bone, given Jack’s past shenanigans — and Jack placed it in a hollowed-out turnip to help light the way on his endless wanderings.

In all, 1 billion pounds of pumpkins are harvested in the U.S. each year, says the PennState Extension. Though I’m heartened by the fact that the season’s other decorative ornament — the Christmas tree — is often recycled, the fate of millions and millions of these pumpkins is, like that of old Stingy Jack, less certain, which is why I like adding their orangeness to my pile late each fall. Pumpkins are high in fiber, vitamin A, and like most vegetables, more than 90 percent water. Despite their heft, or perhaps because of it, their remains disappear without a trace in my pile but add measurably to it.

Using the hay pitchfork, I hollow out the top of the pile, exposing a steamy layer of moldy leaves. The buckets of kitchen scraps disappear into the mix, and I use a spade to shovel in about half of the pumpkin shards. I cover the lot with pitchforks of salt marsh grass hay, teasing apart the stalks with the tines so that the stems cover the top of my pile. Onto this springy bed of straw go the rest of the pumpkins. The bright orange rinds and mushy strands of flat pale seeds disappear as I twist the pitchfork deep into the mix.

With the start of winter just days away, it's time to say goodbye to the signature symbol of both Halloween and Thanksgiving -- pumpkins.

With the start of winter just days away, it’s time to say goodbye to the signature symbol of both Halloween and Thanksgiving — pumpkins.

I cover the pumpkins with two bedsheets of damp maple leaves dragged over from my neighbors’ backyard. Once again, the cover-up is complete, and my pile is largely on its own, left to its own devices.

As Ken Thompson writes in “Compost” (DK, 2007), “A compost pile is a complete ecosystem, a world in miniature.”

The inner workings of my pile are largely a mystery to me. Even soil scientists are still profoundly uncertain about what exactly takes place, biologically, underneath our feet. Michael Pollan and other close watchers liken soil to a frontier more unknown that the deep oceans or outer space. The humus that my pile produces is in many respects terra incognita.

I consider composting more a craft project than lab experiment. I am happy to let my pile do its own thing, with a certain amount of input and creative direction. That said, both the art and the science of making compost is well-developed and readily available, whether it’s from a book shelf at the library or simple online search term.

The University of Illinois Extension website, Composting for the Homeowner, provides a compendium of useful tips and academic research that seems clear, credible and worth sharing. There are many other such academic “extensions” of knowledge online and elsewhere about compost, including a few store-bought books that stock my own shelves, ranging from the earnest how-to guide to more free-form ruminations from ‘70s commune types turned cottage-industry composters.

While my pile gently heats, I explore the research and literature about compost. The more I learn, the more I realize I’m less a deus ex machina than silly old wizard behind the curtain. The more I think I do for my pile, the more I realize it will do its own thing anyway.

To whit, the UI Extension tells me: Backyard composting speeds up the natural process of decomposition, providing optimum conditions so that organic matter can break down more quickly. As you dig, turn, layer and water your compost pile, you may feel as if you are doing the composting , but the bulk of the work is actually done by numerous types of decomposer organisms.”

I’ll let the Extension explain further:

“Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes account for most of the decomposition that takes place in a pile. They are considered chemical decomposers, because they change the chemistry of organic wastes. The larger decomposers, or macroorganisms, in a compost pile include mites, centipedes, sow bugs, snails, millipedes, springtails, spiders, slugs, beetles, ants, flies, nematodes, flatworms, rotifers, and earthworms. They are considered to be physical decomposers because they grind, bite, suck, tear, and chew materials into smaller pieces.”

Here I thought I was the master of the domain that is my pile. Not true. I am only the minder.

Master composter Ken Singh, profiled in a Rodale’s Organic Life article, puts it well: “The microbes in our compost are the best employees I’ve ever had. They work tirelessly. They don’t complain. They never go on strike. By golly, I love ‘em! All the networks of fungi and microbes in soil are interconnected. We’re part of that, too. One day we’ll end up back in the soil ourselves.”

Charles Darwin knew that earthworms were the real movers & shakers.

Charles Darwin knew that earthworms were the real movers & shakers.

More from the Extension:

“Of all these organisms, aerobic bacteria are the most important decomposers. They are very abundant; there may be millions in a gram of soil or decaying organic matter. You would need 25,000 of them laid end to end on a ruler to make an inch. They are the most nutritionally diverse of all organisms and can eat nearly anything. Bacteria utilize carbon as a source of energy (to keep on eating) and nitrogen to build protein in their bodies (so they can grow and reproduce). They obtain energy by oxidizing organic material, especially the carbon fraction. This oxidation process heats up the compost pile from ambient air temperature. If proper conditions are present, the pile will heat up fairly rapidly (within days) due to bacteria consuming readily decomposable materials.”

My pile on a frosty morning in December. What's going on in there?!

My pile on a frosty morning in December. What’s going on in there?!

“While bacteria can eat a wide variety of organic compounds, they have difficulty escaping unfavorable environments due to their size and lack of complexity. Changes in oxygen, moisture, temperature, and acidity can make bacteria die or become inactive. Aerobic bacteria need oxygen levels greater than five percent. They are the preferred organisms, because they provide the most rapid and effective composting. They also excrete plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and magnesium. When oxygen levels fall below five percent, the aerobes die and decomposition slows by as much as 90 percent. Anaerobic microorganisms take over and, in the process, produce a lot of useless organic acids and amines (ammonia-like substances) which are smelly, contain unavailable nitrogen and, in some cases, are toxic to plants. In addition, anaerobes produce hydrogen sulfide (aroma-like rotten eggs), cadaverine, and putrescine (other sources of offensive odors).”

There is much more that the Extension has to say on this subject, but at this point in the season my place in the ecosystem that is my pile is clear: My pile needs me to help keep it on a slow burn as long as I can with a judicious, even artful blending of energy, air and water.

Otherwise, my pile is just a big mess of leaves cluttering up my backyard. And what good is that?