My Pile: Holy Ground

You don’t have to dig too deeply into the canon of writings about compost to find a spiritual, even mystical appreciation of the process. For some, composting is nearly a religious act.

Biblical, even: “In the beginning, there was manure,” Stu Campbell sets forth in “Let It Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting.”

“Soil is where geology and biology overlap,” Steve Jones writes in “The Darwin Archipelago.” “Adam’s name comes from adama – the Hebrew word for soil – and Eve from hava – living – an early statement of the tie between our existence and that of the ground we stand on (Homo and humus also share a root).”

“The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil,” I read further in “The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.” “It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it.”

It’s Easter Sunday. Today I will worship not at a church but at the altar that is my backyard compost pile. And I will place within it a tithing of fresh green horse manure. Rich in nitrogen and ripe with voracious microscopic decomposers, it will kick-start the near dormant heap of dead brown leaves amassed last fall. Manure also provides plenty of phosphorous and potassium, both vital elements to the renewed growth of spring.

Yesterday, partly to free myself up for a blessed spring Sunday devoted to gardening chores, I drove my son’s grandmother from her senior-living facility nearby to a horse-rescue farm in the northwest corner of the state. A lifelong animal-rights supporter, she sponsors a broken-down race horse now in pastoral retirement. She wanted to see the old filly, hand deliver a further donation, and I was happy to drive her there. In part, because in the back of my car was a large plastic tub to fill with horse poop to haul back home to my compost pile.

If she had religion, Gigi’s patron saint would surely be St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican is a bit more equivocal on the point person for me and my pile.

Saint Phocas, the patron saint of composting.

Saint Fiacre is said to be the patron saint of gardening, but it seems he had an aversion to women, which is why he’s also considered the patron saint of those afflicted by venereal disease. Hard to cast yourself with that lot.

I’ve heard Saint Phocas described as the heavenly protector of compost, as he was martyred by Roman soldiers after digging his own grave in his garden, so that his remains would be subsumed by the soil. Props to him, but I’ll pass…at least for the time being.

Instead I make this pilgrimage to the nonprofit manger in upstate Connecticut, a complex of stables and paddocks devoted to giving comfort and shelter to rescued thoroughbreds from the race track, retired carriage horses from Manhattan and the odd, abandoned Shetland pony. The shelter also gives young girls a chance to groom and ride the horses, which is nice. Other than that, its chief product is horse poop.

“It’s the one thing we have plenty of,” said the friendly blue-jeaned blonde who runs the place, directing me to a 10-foot tall mound of manure in a muddy enclose behind the barn.

It’s a sight for any backyard gardener to behold. Karol Capek captured the feeling well in The Gardener’s Year. The slim, almost psalmic volume, is worth quoting nearly chapter and verse: “There are times when the gardener wishes to cultivate, turn over, and compound all the noble soils, ingredients, and dungs. Alas! there would be no space left in his garden for flowers. At least, then, he improves the soil as well as he can; he hunts about at home for eggshells, burns bones after lunch, collects his nail-cuttings, sweeps soot from the chimney, takes sand from the sink, scrapes up in the street beautiful horse-droppings, and all these he carefully digs into the soil; for all these are lightening, warm, and nutritious substances.

“Everything that exists is either suitable for the soil or it is not. Only cowardly shame prevents the gardener from going into the street to collect what horses have left behind; but whenever he sees on the roadway a nice heap of dung, he sighs at the waste of God’s gifts.

When one pictures a mountain of manure in the farmyard – I know, there are various powders in tin boxes; you can buy whatever you like, all sorts of salts, extracts, slags, and powders; you can inoculate the soil with bacteria; you can till it in a white coat like an assistant at the university or in a chemist’s shop. A town gardener can do all that; but when you picture a brown and fat mountain of dung in a farmyard –.”

Alas! Grabbing a thin-tined rake set against the fence, I fill my beer-keg tub with a rank mixture of horse droppings, rotting straw and sawdust shavings. Good thing I’d remembered to bring along a heavy-duty plastic bag to cover the tub or it would have been that much longer a ride home with my former mother-in-law. As is, I could only fill the bucket about halfway to the brim before it got too heavy for me to lift.

Whoa, Nelly! A mother lode of rotting manure and muck from horse stalls at a horse rescue farm in upstate Connecticut.

Alms for my pile, direct from the source. Back home at dusk, I finish up my winter reading:

“The compost heap in your garden is an intentional replication of the natural process of birth and death which occurs almost everywhere in nature. Compost is more than a fertilizer, more than a soil conditioner. It is a symbol of continuing life,” I read in “The Rodale Guide to Composting.” As thick as a King James Bible, the guide was first printed in 1979, as the title page states, “on recycled paper, containing a high percentage of de-inked paper.” For organic gardeners, this seminal work is as close to the gospel truth as it gets. Even so, its authors remain admirably humbled by the unknowable essence of their subject:

“The entire composting process, awesome in its contributions to all plant and animal life, is probably impossible to contemplate in its full dimensions.”

The Guide draws on the research and inspiration of the American prophet of compost, J.I. Rodale, who was building on the pioneering research done in the 1840s by German scientist Justus von Liebig, and the work of British agronomist Sir Albert Howard in the early 1900s, who spent nearly 30 years in colonial India experimenting with organic gardening and farming.

In 1943, Sir Howard published “An Agriculture Testament,” based on his findings that the best compost consisted of three times as much plant matter as manure, with materials initially layered in sandwich fashion, and then turned during decomposition (known as the Indore method). The book renewed interest in organic methods of agriculture and earned him recognition as the modern-day father of organic farming and gardening, report the helpful researchers at the University of Illinois Extension.

I read further on the UI site that “the ancient Akkadian Empire in the Mesopotamian Valley referred to the use of manure in agriculture on clay tablets 1,000 years before Moses was born. There is evidence that Romans, Greeks and the Tribes of Israel knew about compost. The Bible and Talmud both contain numerous references to the use of rotted manure straw, and organic references to compost are contained in tenth and twelfth century Arab writings, in medieval Church texts, and in Renaissance literature.”

If passing along these writings qualify me as a modern-day evangelist for the art and science and, yes, religion of composting, then so be it. I confess. And then I get to work on replenishing the sagging, sodden mound of gathered leaves that is my pile. First I carve a shallow trench along the top front, uncovering among the rotting leaves the moldy remains of my last insertion of food waste from the kitchen, releasing a plume of steaming vapors in the cold morning air. I add a few shovelfuls of the manure into the mix. Next I dig a deeper, wider hole along the back, pitching the excavated leaf litter to the front to mix in and aerate with the freshly deposited manure.

A trench along the front of my pile filled with leaves, manure and kitchen scraps. I’ll dig out a trench along the back, heaping old leaves on top of this new supply and bury the rest of the leaves and manure.

Into this new void goes a modest roundup of dry, crinkly leaves that have blown up through the winter against the chain-link fence that lines one side of my backyard. I follow with more manure, then add some wet, matted leaf mold scraped from the bottom backside of my pile. A week’s worth of fresh kitchen scraps follows, along the rest of the manure. I top it off by strip-mining the back side of my pile with the hay pitchfork. Pressed into a shawarma-like stack by a long winter, the leaves cleave off the ragged edge of my pile in tidy forkfuls.

In short order, I have buried twin chambers of hot manure and fermenting kitchen scraps deep within the dank, musty leaf mold and piled the heap high again with borrowings from its crumbly flanks, returning my pile to the pyramid-shape I favor for composting efficiency — and to have a backyard privy tall enough to pee behind.

If my pile and I had a religion, it would stem from the civilization that prospered long ago on the banks of the river Nile. “The ancient Egyptians saw the shape of the pyramids as a method of providing new life to the dead, because the pyramid represented the form of the physical body emerging from the earth and ascending towards the light of the sun,” I read on the About Religion website.

My pile is now fully primed for its resurrection by the warming powers of the spring sun. By mid-summer, the heap of dead leaves and organic detritus will be transformed into newly minted soil to be cast about the garden and lawn. Come the fall, it will begin again.

Until then, allow the last words on this virtuous cycle to Wendell Berry:

“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure.

“Even in its functions that may seem, to mechanists, to be mechanical, the topsoil behaves complexly and wonderfully. A healthy topsoil, for instance, has at once the ability to hold water and to drain well. When we speak of the health of a watershed, these abilities are what we are talking about, and the word “health,” which we do use in speaking of watersheds, warns us that we are not speaking merely of mechanics. A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted, for it not only gives us good crops but also erosion control as well as both flood control and a constant water supply.

“It is apparently impossible to make an adequate description of topsoil in the sort of language that we have come to call ‘scientific.’ For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call ‘unearthly’: it is making life out of death. Not so very long ago, had we known about it what we know now, we would probably have called it ‘miraculous.’”


My Pile: Armchair Composting

Winter is slowly loosening its grip upon the landscape and my pile — but here in coastal southern New England the onset of spring remains a distant prospect. In a futile bid to break a bad case of cabin fever, I tried to take a walk on the beach with the dog yesterday but was turned back by a biting, bone-chilling wind.

The lure of resuming outdoor pleasures is growing stronger by the day, spurred on by the fact that spring training is now under way down south for the boys of summer and the envious sights on weekend TV of pro golfers playing away across verdant fairways in warmer climes.

The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, but for the moment it is: I awoke this morning to find the backyard dusted by a thin covering of snow. Letting the dog out, I trudge across the crusty stubble of grass to check on my pile. Tendrils of steam rise through damp patches of salt marsh straw. The inner warmth of my pile is sloughing off the coating of snow, a most welcome sign.

My pile shrugs off a dusting of snow on an early March morning.

My pile shrugs off a dusting of snow on an early March morning.

But still, it is a slow march toward spring, which in these parts always includes a slog through mud season as the frozen ground slowly thaws and turns to mush. At the moment, there is little of productive use to do with my pile, or anywhere else in the backyard lawn and garden. There is no seaweed to glean from the beach; no green yard waste to dispatch; not even much kitchen scraps to bother with. If there is a downtime for my pile, a period in its yearly cycle when the heap is best left to its own devices, this is it.

“January to the end of March,” lamented Vita Sackville-West. ” I wish we had a name for that intermediate season which includes St. Valentine’s Day, February 14th, and All Fools’ Day, April 1st. It is neither one thing nor the other, neither winter nor spring. Could we call it wint-pring, which has a good Anglo-Saxon sound about it, and accept it, like marriage, for better or worse?”

No wonder the concept of taking a spring “break” — a fling from wint-pring — is so tantalizing for those of us still sidelined by winter. In years past, Florida has been our escape, whether it’s a week on the beach near the grandparents’ condo or a visit to the fantastical attractions of an amusement park in Orlando.

Alas, this year my son and I will ride out the remaining days of winter at home. I head inside to spend a Saturday afternoon with further readings from my shelf of garden books and some online browsing. Many avid gardeners while away this interrugnum by perusing seed catalogs and such. I long for a more active escape.

Call it armchair composting, a virtual trip to where the sun is always shining upon ground more fertile and fecund than anything back home. I grab my copy of Dirt, by William Bryant Logan, a “mystic biologist” who has written the Cuttings garden column in The New York Times.

Saint Phocas, the patron saint of composting.

He’s also described on the jacket as the Writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, which no doubt contributed to the book’s subtitle, “The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.”

Setting out the case for replenishing the global supply of quality topsoil in part by through recycling efforts, Logan writes: “Like every other gardener, I wanted to find the magic soil, the dirt of Eden. The eighteenth-century Agriculturalist Arthur Young called the vale in southern England between Farnham and Alton ‘the finest ten miles in England.’ I wanted to find the finest ten acres in America.”

I turn to the chapter, “The Compost Man,” and soon find myself happily transported to the Disney World of compost.

Logan’s quest for the best dirt on earth takes him to Florida, where he meets one Clark Gregory:

“He slung a gallon Ziploc bag into my lap. ‘Smell that,’ he said.

It looked dark and it felt squishy. ‘What is it?’ I asked. After all, I’d just met the guy.

‘Scallop viscera compost,’ he replied.

Ah….Well, I was asking for it, so I opened the bag and took a very slight whiff. Then I breathed in deeply. It smelled sweet and earthy, with a little tang of citrus somewhere. If I’d been a wine taster, I could probably have described it fully, but it was more than ok. It was very pleasant.

‘Ninety six tons of scallop viscera, twelve hundred yards of shredded pine bark from a log builder, twenty-four tons of orange peel, and nine tons of shredded water hyacinth,’ said Gregory.

What? I asked.

‘That’s what it’s made out of,’ he said.”

Gregory escorts Logan to a municipal landfill and composting operation in Brevard County. There, Logan meets up with Ollie King, who takes him up on top of his Scat tractor and starts to work the five-hundred-foot-long rows of compost in the making.

“’I like working the compost,’” he says.

A whitish cloud of steam rises behind us as we churn up the eight-foot-high rows. He turns neatly at the end of each row and guns the big Scat down the next one. Occasionally, we hit a patch that is less well cooked and a stink of dead meat rises.

Afterward, as we walk down the chocolate-brown rows together, Ollie says of the smell I’ve mentioned, ‘That’s nothing,’ He looks around in the heap, combing through the remains of conch, crabs, whelks and barnacle-covered cans, the wasted ‘by-catch’ of a commercial scallop-dredging operation. He sniffs at a red crab claw that now has the texture of wet cardboard, then discards it. He sniffs a whelk, makes a face, and hands it to me.

‘There!’ he says simply.

This is not the smell of ammonia or sulphur. It is beyond odor.

I asked him, ‘I know that you can compost many things, but aren’t there things that just have to be thrown away?’

‘There’s no such place as away,’ he replied curtly.

‘Look,’ I insisted. ‘Compost is compost, but aren’t some things just waste?

He answered, ‘It isn’t waste until it’s wasted.’

I’m also intrigued by the chapter, “Saint Phocas As Fertilizer,” which is about the patron saint of the garden, who instructed the Romans who killed him to compost him in his garden.

Here’s more dirt on “Dirt,” from

If I had a bucket list of compost destinations, high on the list would be Cedar Grove Composting outside of Seattle, Washington. I found mention of the operation on the delightfully named website,, managed by Dave Dittmar, who professes to be “addicted to compost.”

I learn that Cedar Grove is one of the largest commercial composting companies in the United States, processing over 350,000 tons of yard waste and green waste annually at five facilities that is then sold for use in soil amending, water conservation, erosion control, farming, and post construction soil enhancement. It is also used as the base to create high-end mulches, designed soil blends, green roof mixes and other growing media. Cedar Grove offers a full line of compost-based soil amendments available for purchase by the truckload or sustainable organic products for consumers by the bag, according to their website.

An aerial view of one of Dedar Grove's composting facilities outside of Seattle, Washington.

An aerial view of one of Cedar Grove’s composting facilities outside of Seattle, Washington.

“Working collaboratively with waste haulers, city and county government, businesses and citizens, it represents one of the best models of green and sustainable industry in the country,” reports Dittmar.

I’m fascinated to learn that there are more “compost junkies” out there than I ever realized: I read on Cedar Grove’s website that their facility in Everett has “had more visitors than any other composting facility in North America, with over 5,000 people from 17 countries touring our operation.”

Below is a visitor’s photo of his son playing in Cedar Grove compost. And I thought I was immersed in my pile…

A young boy playing in Cedar Grove compost.

A young boy playing in Cedar Grove compost.