My Pile: As the Worm Turns

I celebrate Earth Day by spending a bright and sunny Sunday morning tooling around in the backyard. The crabapple and dogwoods have burst forth in full bloom, and the japanese maples and willow tree are vibrant with their own budding out, as are the lilac bushes, bright yellow forsythia and wilding privet shrubs that I’ve let grow tall along the fence line. I tromp across the morning dew for some hand-weeding — the low cast of the sun makes it easy to spot the “tall poppies” rising from the lawn that catch my eye and dandelion digger.

Once it’s late enough not to bother the neighbors, I haul the mower from the shed to make the first cut of grass. Its quick work, for I only need to scalp the few patches of turf scattered around the yard that have grown tall and lushly green, spiked by the dog’s urine, and likely that of the resident deer that make nightly pit stops to and through my yard. The spots are thickest in the sections of lawn nearest the back door and patio, as well as a strip of dog-walking territory along the road, starting with the mailbox and ending with a telephone pole, both of which are ringed by thick rings of grass. The uneven growth makes me realize how finely attuned the grass is to inputs of nutrients — and that adding store-bought fertilizer to a yard basically amounts to just so much pissing on your lawn.

I mow two stripes around the perimeter of the lawn, to etch the borders of the perennial beds and to hoover up more of the sycamore dander that continues to rain down upon the yard and streetscape. The result gives me a tidier lawn that will be uniformly lush, if not still messy with spring weeds, and in need of mowing fully in another week or so.

I also am left with two catchers full of first-cut grass to add to my pile. I set the clippings, along with a week’s worth of food scraps from my kitchen and the neighbors’ and a winter’s worth of gleanings from the vacuum cleaner, beside my pile.

The latest contributions for my pile.

The latest contributions for my pile.

Through the week, the daytime temperatures have spiked into the 70s. An overnight shower has dampened the top of my pile, and as I dig into it with the pitchfork, to resculpt the top to make room for today’s insertions, the earthy smells of ripening rot rise up from the warm inner reaches. I fluff up forkfuls of moist, mold-flecked leaves of all kinds, mixed with a scattering of blackened and jagged hollowed reeds of the salt marsh hay. It’s a pleasing inside look at the fecundity that is my pile.

Having inserted last week’s grass clippings from the neighbor in a row excavated along the front of the heap, today I delve deep into the back side. I find no sign of the trespassing rodent, and set aside the live trap cage that was perched on a ragged shelf of leaves midway up from the ground. To gain easier access to the jagged wall of pressed leaves along the back side of my pile, I take a screwdriver to jimmy the staples that fix the wire fence to the right back log and curl the fence out of the way.

Over the past several months I’ve carved my way into this crush of leaves, using it as fodder to mix with a steady supply of rich green organic material, from buckets of coffee grounds and barrels of seaweed to the routine additions of food waste from the kitchen. There are also contributions of horse manure and sycamore seed fluff, layers of crinkly shreds of office paper and a fair amount of urine-soaked  straw from the pet rabbit next door. All that and more makes up my pile.

With heaped pitchforkfuls of leaves piled high along the narrowing log-wall sides and across the front of my pile, I hollow out a trench across the back as deep as the pitchfork can reach. Into this fluffy maw, I upturn the buckets of food scraps, spread the dusty detritus from the vacuum cleaner bag and parcel out the dried green bedding of hay from the rabbit hutch. Mixing it in is easy, and I’m always amazed by how quickly these insertions disappear without a trace.

To backfill, I scoop up the tailings of crumbly leaf mold from the corners of the rear side of my pile, dank with my morning pees, then stick the tines along the bottom to pry out forkfuls of leaves from the base. Once free of the press of weight above, each forkful expands by volume and becomes further unbound when I toss the lot across the top of the pile.

I  alternate with layers of the dog’s own scented grass clippings to build the top of my pile back up to chest high. Even with the sycamore seed duff, which seems as inert as the detritus from the vacuum bag, this latest addition of food waste and grasscycling, along with big gulps of air, will surely spark a fresh riot of bacterial growth. There is much decomposition taking place within my wandering pile as it steadily consumes itself. As I tidy up the backside wall, I know am coming ever closer to reaching the steamy cauldron that is at the heart of it. Once the grass begins to grow in earnest, I’ll soon have a surfeit of clippings to add, to stoke my pile to a fever pitch of decay as spring turns to summer.

I finish my Earth Day work by burying the last of the grass clippings under a top dressing of crumbly, dirt-flecked leaves. The summit of my pile rises to a precarious point. My log cabin of a pile now looks as much like an A-frame as it does a rounded heap. My pile will soon settle upon itself as it exhales the stirred-in air and the latest round of rot kicks in. After I put away the tools I head to back porch and turn to gaze upon my newly heightened and refurbished pile and see two robins, one tromping across the top and its mate pecking at the base.

The backside of my wandering pile. I've shaved three feet or more from the backside of the heap to help my steadily consume itself.

The backside of my wandering pile. I’ve shaved three feet or more from the backside of the heap to help my steadily consume itself.

My puny efforts at composting pale in comparison to the true workhorses of my pile: Earthworms. They are peerless in chewing their way through rotted organic matter and turning it into the finished end product known as humus. Truth be told, new soil is mostly worm poop.

The worm castings that dot my still dormant lawn, along with the squadron of robins that patrol the turf, are ample evidence of this handiwork. Gutwork might be a better term to describe the inexorably dogged pursuits of the class act that is Oligochaeta.

A worm is an animated intestine,” Steve Jones writes in “The Darwin Archipelago.” “The body is divided into segments, each possessed of an outer layer of muscle that encircles it and an inner muscle sheet that runs parallel to the axis. Each segment bears a simple kidney. A series of even simpler hearts is distributed along the animal’s length. The body is hollow and filled with fluid, with a long digestive tube down the center.

“Aristotle described worms as the ‘Earth’s entrails.’ Cleopatra decreed them to be sacred animals and established a cadre of priests devoted to their well-being. [As Darwin’s book put it], ‘All the vegetable mould over the whole country has passed many times through, and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canal of worms.’”

Worms are what make my pile work, and I strive to make the heap hospitable to the collective of worms that resides within it. Lowly as they are, worms are near the top of the bio pyramid that is my pile, and they lead the way to its deconstruction, perforating my pile with their burrowing and churning out countless worm castings along the way.

In form, my pile may look like a heap of leaves mixed with green trimmings, but it functions more like a coral reef, with countless worms standing in (or squirming) for the multitude of sea polyps that crank out deposits of limestone that, in turn, become the base of an entire ecosystem. Worms do the same on dry land, and what they leave behind is soil.

Charles Darwin had a lot to say about both coral and earthworms, among other truly landmark research, thoughts and conclusions about our own origins and purpose in life.

Allow me to let Joe Palca of NPR’s “All Things Considered” to explain things further. In a 2009 story, “Darwin’s Earthworm Experiments Broke New Ground,” he reports:

“Many people know about Darwin’s famous voyage aboard the Beagle — of his observations of the birds on the Galapagos Islands. Less well known is that Darwin spent quite a bit of time studying earthworms.

“Initially, his earthworm work drew as much, or more, attention as his evolution work. His book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, published in 1881, sold even better than On the Origin of Species during Darwin’s lifetime.

“‘At the time when Darwin started looking at the worms, no one appreciated the role they had in agriculture,’ says Alun Anderson, a journalist who became interested in Darwin’s worm work.

“In fact, Anderson says, in the mid 19th century, most people thought earthworms were pests.

“But Darwin was convinced they were valuable for turning over the soil, in part by chewing it up and pooping it out, thereby making it more fertile.”

Darwin spent decades studying worms at his estate in the English countryside to find out how fast and effecient worms were turning in the soil, and how much new earth they produced.

His thesis was that England’s “lush topsoil was the product of ceaseless soil consumption and defecation by earthworms: 53,767 per acre, depositing 10 tons of fresh soil atop each acre of English countryside, every single year,” I read on Wired’s website. It was earthworms, Darwin realized, that had buried the monoliths of Stonehenge.

“It may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly, organized creatures,” Darwin wrote.

I turn and add to and aerate my pile once a week or so. Earthworms do the same 24/7.

I turn and add to and aerate my pile once a week or so. Earthworms do the same 24/7.

Steve Jones digs deeper still, in “The Darwin Archipelago:”

“An acre of rich and cultivated ground is riddled by five million burrows – which, together, add up to the equivalent of a six-inch drainpipe. Half the air beneath the surface enters through burrows, and water flows through disturbed soil ten times faster than in unperforated.

“The surface of the Earth, if watched for long enough, is as unruly as the sea. Everywhere, it is on the move. Gravity, water, frost, heat and the passing seasons all play a part, but life disturbs its calm in many other ways. Living creatures – from bacteria to beetle larvae and from badgers to worms—form and fertilise the ground. The largest reservoir of diversity on the planet lies beneath our feet, with a thousand times more kinds of single-cell organisms per square meter than anywhere else… a shovel full of good earth contains more individuals than there are people on the planet…Insects, mites, spiders and subterranean snails, together with worms, may make up fifteen tons of flesh in a hectacre of soil.

“In an English apple orchard they eat almost every leaf that falls—two tons in every hectacre each year. In the same area of pasture, they can munch through an annual thirty tons of cow dung.

“The constant flood of slime pumped out as they burrow also recycles other minerals such as nitrogen…their casts contain five times as much nitrogen and ten times as much potassium as does the soil itself.”

After starting his masterwork on worms, Darwin went off on the Beagle and to come home with the “Origin of Species.”

I will stick closer to home and tend to my pile and the worms that will do the real heavy lifting in turning a heap of leaves and recycled greens into rich new earth.

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.’”