My Pile: Brush Off

Returning home to coastal Connecticut from drought-stricken Southern California, I’m struck once again by how lush and verdant this well-watered corner of southern New England is, especially in mid-June, the height of the growing season.

That happy fact brings my outdoors on a lengthy evening mid-week to tackle a related and recurrent backyard chore: pruning the bountiful growth of the shrubs, bushes and small trees that populate the property. Properly spaced and prudently tended, these plantings make up the bones of the classic suburban landscape. Among other attributes, they create a beautiful, shady backdrop for the flowering annuals and perennial plantings, provide screening from the street and neighbors and offer a wealth of food and shelter for all kinds of backyard birds and critters.

Left unchecked, this under story of big bushes and small trees would in a few short years overtake the property, turning it back into the state I found it 10 years ago: An uncivilized briar patch of brambles and brush and vines, all scrambling to crowd each other out.

The dynamic — some would say romantic — tension between chaos and cultivation in the garden was perhaps best expressed by Vita Sackville-West. As Sarah Raven writes in “Sissinghurst,” her biography of her mother-and-law and the garden she created from the ruins of an Elizabethan estate in the south of England, “Vita loved her borders to be packed. She hated the sight of too much mulch, criticizing Edwardian rose gardens with their ‘savagely pruned roses of uniform height, with bare ground in between, liberally disfigured by mulches of unsightly and unsavoury manure’.

“An enchanting garden like Sissinghurst is, I would say, at its most beautiful at precisely the point where its informality is about to tip over into chaos. I am with Vita and her desire for sprezzatura — a studied nonchalance, a balance of formality of structure with informality of planting.”

So tonight I browse across the yard with clippers in hand to help guide the growth of yard’s shrubs and bushes, pruning, tidying up the property and freeing up time for the coming weekend, Father’s Day.

Like parenting, pruning generally follows fairly well-established guidelines, in terms of where to cut, how much and when. I start tonight’s session with one of the more straightforward pruning tasks: Cutting the old-wood stems from the hydrangeas that bloom big and bold each summer. The bases of the plants — I have three in the perennial garden — are thick with fat green leaves emerging from the bloom buds. But rising from each plant are dozens of old-wood stems from last season, a thicket of stout, two-foot tall hollow shafts that end sharply with cuts from when I dead-headed the big blue flowers last fall.

Just the other day my son proudly showed off the scars he’d collected over the years; one a lasting scrape on his kneecap from falling off his bike, and another a puncture wound on his calf from trying to jump over a neighbor’s oversized hydrangea while playing some game of tag with with an older boy, which I’m reminded of as I snip off the dagger-like pickets of old wood.

A view of the side of the backyard, looking over the neighbor's hydrangea to the forsythia hedge along the street. In the shade of the maple tree is a growing pile of brush to be hauled off to the town yard-refuse dump.

A view of the side of the backyard, looking over the neighbor’s hydrangea to the forsythia hedge along the street. In the shade of the maple tree is a growing pile of brush to be hauled off to the town yard-refuse dump.

Tending a backyard, a garden or a compost pile is very much a paternalistic exercise. My goal to raise a yard that is sturdy, strong and resilient; one that is a product of its environment, yet individual, a unique creation that I can be proud of having nurtured along and to seasonal fruition, one that is not a danger to itself of others.

Though I prune with some impunity, to tidy things up around the edges, or remove a limb hanging over the house or power line, the backyard is shaped in its own image. It’s still thick with invasives that planted or took root long ago and that through pluck and perseverance, have become tolerated, even accepted, permanent residents of the local landscape. “It’s my nature, and I’ll do what I want,” the backyard continually reminds me, if not insists. I’ve grown to admire the scarlet show of the burning bush in autumn, and the edgy show of its angular branches in winter. The white blooms of the privet in spring are fragrant; the birds feast on their purple berries as they ripen over the winter. The yew and japonica alongside the house, likely planted by the first homeowners 50 years ago, have grown thick and massive. Each time I prune their tops and side branches that scrape against the shingles I have to take care not to disturb the two or three bird nests hidden within them.

These naturalized citizens of the backyard are especially profligate in their growth, in branching out toward the sun, in sending up suckers from the trunk, in seeding, by self and with help from birds. Regular weeding and pruning keeps them in check, and through the year I gather armful after armful of stemmy dead twigs and sweeping new branches. Hard to say what I pick up more after: My 15-year-old son or the plants, bushes and trees of the backyard.

Even the native shrubs and foreign ornamentals I prize as specimens need their growth guided by saw and shear. The rose of sharon I planted as sprigs near 10 years ago require reining in each spring, or else will flop over with the weight and drama of their late-summer blooms. Same with the fragrant lilac that grows outside the back door.

Early each spring I snip the flowering tops to capture their aromas in a vase indoors, but still it grows scraggly. A thunder shower passed earlier in the week, causing a main branch of the old lilac to droop over the limestone step of the stoop that leads to the kitchen door. I lop off the limb and trim the suckers at the base and add the lot to the brush pile I keep in the back corner of the yard, tucked under a maple tree beside the street.

Made up of all the branches and yard trimmings I drag to the curb for disposal, twice a year or so the messy sprawl grows to rival my pile in size. The tall trees that lord over the property shed bark, twigs and limbs with every storm, and after each I sweep the yard clean of the wind-blown debris. Today’s brief squall also brought down a thigh-thick stump of a branch from a maple beside the driveway. I could have sawed it down before, but left the snag aloft. It was riddled with holes made by the woodpeckers that picked at it for grubs. I drag it off to the brush pile as well.

I’ve thought keeping this refuse on site, perhaps by creating a second compost pile to serve as a starter for the next year. But backyard space is limited, as is my time to spend harvesting and recycling all the more readily compostible organic matter that my suburban yard produces each year. I could use the leafy branches whole as the bottom layer of next year’s pile, but know I’d be picking the woody stems out of my pile all through the next season, cursing as they tangle themselves in the tines of the pitchfork. I suppose I could chip the sticks and branches by purchasing or renting a shredder, though that’s a commitment and expense I’ve never been able to justify.

(I’m fascinated to learn that some English gardeners save the clippings from English yew (Taxus baccata) to donate them to companies that produce Taxol, an anti-cancer drug. “The potent medical effects of Taxol weren’t discovered in the West until the 1970s, though native American Indians had been using the bark of Pacific yews (Taxus brevifolia) for generations to treat ailments as diverse as rheumatism, scurvy, and lung and bowel complaints,” writes Sarah Raven.

Would that I could. I do whittle away at the brush pile through the fall and winter by breaking some of the the limbs and dead wood over my knee and burning them in the small firepit in the corner of the back patio. We make a special bonfire each January with the crackly remains of the Christmas tree. I add the ashes to my pile or cast them across the yard.

But when the stack of limbs gets big enough to cause me worry about it becoming an eyesore, I borrow the neighbor’s pull-behind trailer, a ramshackle contraption of plywood and rust, and haul the tangly mess off to the town yard refuse center behind my SUV. I make couple trips a year, usually one after this pruning of spring growth and another, in the fall, to tidy up the yard after a season of fulsome growth. Then there’s the occasional Nor’easter, a limb-snapping early snowfall or other weather calamity that requires a special cleanup. Nature culls as much from my backyard as I do.

The brush and tree trimmings I drag to the side of the road and haul off to the town yard-refuse dump.

The brush and tree trimmings I drag to the side of the road and haul off to the town yard-refuse dump.


But, yes, I prune. It’s a discipline, and disciplinary. After ordering my son off the trampoline in the backyard and inside to study for his final exam of the school year — which, coincidentally, involves writing an essay on Lord of the Flies, I tackle my biggest pruning project of the day, and the year: The long row of forsythia bushes that extend from each side of my driveway and along the street. (The main difference between gardening and parenting? The limbs you seek to prune don’t talk back…)

The hedgerows serve to give my yard privacy, especially in summer, when the green screen is thick enough to snag wayward frisbees and tennis balls. In winter, the hedgerow harbors flocks of sparrows, which use the bare branches as jumping off points for the nearby bird feeder. And in spring, its bare branches burst with electric-yellow flowers. But what was then a fairly uniform mass of plant has grown into a spiky riot of green shoots that angles every which way. It’s like the hair on a cartoon figure plugged into an electrical socket.

Trimming the forsythia hedge that shields the backyard from the street. In the distance is the brush pile I keep in the corner of the property.

Trimming the forsythia hedge that shields the backyard from the street. In the distance is the brush pile I keep in the corner of the property.

The untrammeled growth juts out into the street, blocks the street sign and thrusts upward into the lower branches of a young oak that I planted as an acorn in the wood chips on the lawn side of the hedge. I trim the forsythia with a pair of shears, selectively picking limbs to trim by hand. It requires extra effort, but I like the exercise for my hands and arms, and it keeps the hedge prim and proper in a natural, free form sort of way, not scalped roughshod by a mechanical trimmer.

I strive for a light touch to pruning, favoring a more natural, almost jungly yardscape. My backyard is no poodleized version of a topiary garden. Like my 15-year-old son, I keep most of the plantings on a long leash, and allow them to grow on the wild side, while trying to maintain some sense of order. Put another way, my backyard ideology is a mash-up of Father Knows Best and any of dimwit dad sitcoms you now see on TV. It’s a nature vs. nurture struggle for control that has played out over the centuries:

“The image of man’s dominion over nature is deeply rooted in Western thought,” I read in a paper by Eleanora Montuschi, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “Order of man, order of nature: Francis Bacon’s idea of a ‘dominion’ over nature.”

“It first appears, in different forms, in the Book of Genesis. It also reappears as one of the leading images of the emerging ‘new science’ in the 16th century…. Over the ages, Western thought has been variously concerned with the image of the ideal garden. At the same time, it has been rather eclectic in its illustration of what constitutes such an ideal. If we look, for example, at the planning and construction of gardens in the 17th and then 18th/19th centuries, we will soon and vividly appreciate these differences in conception.

“Starting from the 17th century, gardens were then designed as geometrical spaces. Plants and bushes were cut into triangular, spherical, conical, and pyramidical forms. Sometimes they were shaped as animals or human beings. In other words, nature was altered by imposing specific forms over her spontaneous ways of expression.

“Instead, in the 18th and nineteenth centuries, gardens were conceived in view of complying with nature. Nature was to be allowed to express herself in her own forms: she was at most to be ‘perfected’. An idea (or ideal) of cooperation between man and nature replaced the idea of human calculated planning and imposition of an external order on nature. Man was to improve on, not to transform, nature – that is, he was simply to respect whatever form nature might happen spontaneously to suggest.

“According to the former ideal, man is encouraged to think of himself as a conqueror of nature, as someone who succeeds in imposing an order over natural wilderness. According to the latter ideal, man appears rather as an ‘executor’ of a pre-given natural order, an order which at most needs to be brought to completion.”

That about sums up the duality of gardening and parenting: striking the balance between being a control freak to maintain order and letting things develop with a gentler guiding hand.

Nature, like a child, will always find a way to express itself, fully in “her own forms” and in keeping with the soil in which its offspring is nurtured and under the sun that shines upon them. The day I asked my son, “Do you want me to tell you what to do, or do you want me to let you make your own mistakes?” and he answered, “I’ll make my own mistakes,” was the day I realized I could no longer much “prune” him. And everything (I don’t recall what, exactly, mistake we were talking about) turned out fine.

Pruning, like raising a child, is about guiding growth in the right way, with a fair amount of culling in a never-ending pursuit for some sense of order and control. It’s also about knowing what not to cut. A plant doesn’t talk back to you when you prune it, which appeals to the parent-gardener in us all. An ill-treated plant will let you know when you’ve done it wrong. I still miss the thriving butterfly bush that I incautiously pruned at the wrong time of year; the next season it sprouted just a few meager branches, and this year refused to come back at all. Sometimes Father doesn’t know best. Earlier this spring I dug out the stump and added it to the brush pile.

Pruning, and parenting, is about letting go, and recognizing that not everything will fit into a neat package, or my pile. The truth is messy, a writing professor once told me, as is raising a child or tending a garden. The tangled stack of brush I leave at the side of the curb is ample evidence of that.

But both child and garden tend to work out as long as you keep serious problems from taking root, prune when necessary to help guide growth, ensure sufficient food and water — and always add as much compost as you can.

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.




My Pile: A New Home Base

Some years ago I relocated from Los Angeles to Connecticut, landing a better gig with a golf magazine, and looking forward to a change of scenery. I plunged into marriage, then homeownership, buying a tidy little Cape in Westport with a sizable yard of trees and grass and not far from Long Island Sound.

At last, I had a compost pile that I could call my own. We had a son, and it was nice while it lasted. Then things fell apart, and I ended up buying a smaller, cottage-style house nearby for me and my 5-year-old boy.

It was an old widow’s home, with a seriously overgrown yard on a one-third acre lot studded with tall trees, including several different types of maple, two large sycamores, a pair of mulberry trees, a big white pine, a pretty tulip magnolia in front and an ancient, bedraggled willow tree in back. I knew I would buy it the moment I pulled into the driveway to meet the realtor. I was sold on the yard, a reclamation project that I knew would keep me preoccupied while rebuilding my own life.

I heard later from a neighbor that the woman of the house once enjoyed gardening, but after losing her husband and contracting Lyme disease, she gave up on maintaining the property. As she aged in place, a shut-in, the invasive vines and trash trees slowly took over, encroaching from the tree-lined edges of the yard, rolling over her garden borders until only a narrow moat of grass was all that separated her house from a suburban jungle.

When I moved in, the property was the neighborhood eyesore. I couldn’t wait to reclaim the yard from decades of neglect and make it my own.

Closing on the house in May, I spent the summer clearing the property of 20 years of unchecked growth, hauling away truckloads of brush. Spending so much time outdoors, I got to know my neighbors, who would stop by to appraise, and praise, my efforts at overhauling the blighted mess.

The property was so untended that when I was grubbing out the tangled mess of vines in the back corner of the yard, I came across tramplings and scat from deer that had overnighted there in seclusion, though my neighbors’ houses were less than 30 feet away on either side. I also had to encourage the fat and happy groundhog who lived under the back porch to take up residence elsewhere.

After a summer’s worth of sweat equity, the bones of the property were revealed, and they were good.


The west side of the yard, looking from the street to the back corner, where my pile makes its home.

The west side of the yard, looking from the street to the back corner, where my pile makes its home.

A corner lot yet not quite square, the yard had what English garden creator Vita Sackville-West called “minor crookedness.” Plotted from an onion farm that was developed in the postwar years into a modest neighborhood of capes and split-level ranches, the yard slopes from the road in front about a foot in grade, with the back corner the lowest point, tending toward the mucky. The neighborhood is less than a mile from Long Island Sound and just a few feet above the mean high tide line, which means that in wet times the water table rises up to nearly ground level.

A friend in the tree business tackled the trees that needed to come down – a pair of old mulberry trees that draped over two sides of the house, carpet-bombing the roof with purple berries; a slender maple tree fatally wrapped and warped by hairy tentacles of poison ivy that reached far up into the canopy; a bigger, rotted old maple that stood at the center of the new grass lawn I envisioned for toss-and-catch games with my young son.

I recall it being a handsome tree, but it was a swamp maple, considered a junk species by most arborists, and its roots spread far across the ground. Swamp maples sprout early in the spring. Their dense leaves block the sun in summer and come fall their weak, over-extended limbs often fall victim to storms, usually across power lines. Swamp maples are becoming the dominate tree species in the Northeast, unchecked by humans and aided and abetted by deer, turkey and squirrels, who chomp away at oak saplings and acorns and have no use for swamp maple.

Dominating the backyard was an old willow tree, a good three feet thick at the base. It had three main branches, each lopped off about 25 feet off the ground. Years of second growth had sprouted from the topped ends, giving the tree a ragged if still majestic crown. It was a dramatic sight, thickly cloaked in heavy strands of English ivy. I considered keeping it as I worked my way across the rest of the yard, rooting out truckfulls of brush, daydreaming of elaborate treehouse constructions to place atop its thick trunk and tripod arms.

Willow trees, too, are considered second-class citizens of the modern suburban landscape – fast-growing but unruly, messy and weak. They generally don’t age well. I suppose the old widow had the money to trim it but not the cash or will to take it down entirely.

Likewise, I resisted my tree guy’s entreaties to put it out of its misery. Cutting down the huge old willow would nearly double my tree-clearing bill; I got a deal on the maple because it made good firewood to be hauled away as logs, but the soft, spongy wood of the willow wasn’t good for anything. It would cost a small fortune to haul off, even if you could figure out a way to load it into a truck.

Chris, my tree guy, made the decision for me, and I came home from work one day to find it prostrate on the ground, in massive, chopped-up pieces.

It was those chunks of willow that I used to construct the new home base for my pile. I rolled them to the corner of the yard, upending two of the biggest pieces about eight feet apart. I hoisted two more logs atop them each, rejoining the pieces of the limbs so that two logs stood as one across the backside of my pile, about chest high.

I stacked two twinned smaller logs next to the first pillars, pleased to find them about six inches lower than the cuts of the anchor logs. For the third row I used two logs, each about six inches shorter in length than the stacked logs before, and finished with two squat logs of park-your-butt size, creating a wooden crib with twin barked sides that stepped from two feet high to about four feet.

The side wall of my pile, made of logs from an old willow.

The side wall of my pile, made of logs from an old willow.

The whole logs made a decent, if rustic enclosure. I nailed an 10-foot section of wire garden fence, caged from a neighbor, across the back end to complete the three-sided enclosure. I filled the crib with its first batch of leaves and dirt and debris left over from the cleanup of all the brush and tree limbs.

By the time the leaves of the trees left standing began to rain down upon my newly seeded lawn, that first flush of yard waste was well on its way to being cooked. I had a new patch of ground with plenty of green grass for my son to play on, freshly prepared garden beds to plant the coming spring, and a sturdy new home for my compost pile to call its own.

Five seasons later, the willow logs are now encrusted with fungus and molds and sprout mushrooms after rains. They look like old pilings, rotting away as they age in place. But they’ve done their job containing my pile, and adding to it. The log walls harbor billions of fungus spores and bacteria that launch themselves into each year’s new pile, just like my son once did.

Mushrooms sprouting from the rotting log sides of my pile.

Mushrooms sprouting from the rotting log sides of my pile.