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: Dive Right In

I lean over the grimy edge of the dumpster so I can sift through the jumble of garbage bags mired below with outstretched arms. Toes tipping to the ground,  the heavy metal lid of the bin pressing against the button on my baseball cap, I pluck a squishy, pendulous plastic bag from the mix and hoist it out of the bin.

I hold the straining, swollen bag at arm’s length, like a trophy fish.  It’s 20 pounds, easy, of freshly spent dark brown coffee grounds groaning against the thin white plastic film. I see no drippy leaks or cast-off paper cups or plastic lids, just a smattering of soggy paper filters. It’s a keeper. I set the bag, warm to the touch and ripe with the dank, roasty aroma of spent coffee beans from the tropics, on the floor mat of the backseat of the car and head for home.

I back away from the dumpster, rolling down the back windows and with a parting, sheepish glance into the rear-view mirror. I’m relieved to see no barrista running out the door asking me to explain myself.

But explain myself I will, for I’d do most anything for my compost pile. Even if that means getting, I see with a glance down to my lap, a smear of grease on the front of my good leather jacket, in return for some surreptitious dumpster diving for a morning’s worth of coffee grounds from the neighborhood coffee shop . Oh, well. It seemed a good idea at the time.

Coffee grounds already look like dirt but pack a bio punch. Not caffeine, but nitrogen.

Coffee grounds already look like dirt but pack a bio punch. Not caffeine, but nitrogen. They make a prized addition to my pile.

It’s early November here in Westport, Connecticut, an affluent, artsy New York commuter suburb along the shore of the Long Island Sound. The trees that surround my small home on its flat, one-third acre corner lot have largely shed their leaves. Over the past few weeks I’ve raked colorful, crinkly leaves into piles and hauled them the blanket-full over to the log-walled compost pile I keep in the back corner of the yard.

The heap of leaves and such I gather is now head high and a broad-jump deep and wide. It’s the copious conclusion to a short but bountiful burst of green growth that culminates with the kaleidoscopic “leaf-peeping season” here in southern coastal New England. The autumnal leaves of hardwood trees in these parts are more than a tourist draw or seasonal scenic perk to living in Connecticut. I see each leaf as a bank slip of carbon and other nutrients and minerals, just waiting to be recycled into new gains over the coming year.

My pile is a final resting place for a season’s worth of green life given up for dead. But it’s more like a waystation, and all those dried-up leaves need a catalyst, a kick-start to their conversion into living new soil. Rich in nitrogen and other nutrients, the 20 pounds of recycled coffee grounds will deliver the same jolt to the heap of leaves and such I compost in my backyard as they gave to scores of caffeinated customers this morning. Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Not only are coffee grounds sky-high in nitrogen, the granules have a microporous structure like charcoal and contain a wide range of useful microogranisms, reports Nicky Scott in “How to Make and Use Compost — the Ultimate Guide.” Besides being a rich source of nitrogen, which both kickstarts a heap of fall leaves and hangs around to supply plants with an essential element for growth, coffee grounds happen to look pretty much like finished compost — dark brown crumbly soil that acts pretty much like fertilizer once its spread around plants or cast wholesale across the lawn.

I’m acting locally, thinking globally, I tell myself, trying to rationalize my dumpster diving, lightening the coffee shop’s dumpster by a bag of trash and saving the garbage hauler from having to truck off that much more organic waste to some distant landfill.

All that coffee adds up — to some 500 billion cups a year, worldwide. In all, 7,658,780 tons of coffee are processed each year, making the brewed beverage the second-most valued commodity on the planet, behind only crude oil.

“That’s a whole lot of coffee — and a whole lot of spent grounds,” I read on, where founder Mary Tynes “focuses on innovative sustainability efforts worldwide, and encourages environmental mindfulness in personal choices and actions.”

“I teach composting because I believe it helps connect people to the Earth’s natural processes,” Tyne writes. “The more we learn about compost’s effect on soil, soil nutrients, soil structure, water, bacteria, fungi, insects and other creatures, it is obvious that Nature’s entire cycle of life was designed flawlessly.

“Environmental protection doesn’t just happen on the other side of the world.  Our first responsibility is to care for the patch of soil on which we live.  People who understand soil and how Nature replenishes it are able to make more responsible choices on both small- and large-scale environmental policies, and wider socio-economic issues.”

Which brings us back to coffee. Spent coffee grounds are the perfect compost input, Tyne says, because:

  • They smell good.
  • They absorb and hold moisture which is so critical to the compost pile.
  • They are one of the few sources of nitrogen that is widely available year-round to people in urban and suburban areas.
  • They are easily stored for days in a closed plastic bag.
  • They are free.

Tyne surveyed followers of her blog and found that “more respondents have used coffee grounds for gardening or composting (87%) than actually drink coffee (81%).” She also found that “the idea of using coffee shops as a source of spent grounds had not occurred to most of the respondents in our survey.” Only 13% reported doing so. The chief reason being that most were too embarrassed to ask for other people’s garbage.

Tyne helpfully suggests “calling it ‘organic waste’ instead of ‘garbage’ — problem solved. Spent coffee grounds are a fruit nut that has been ground and had boiling hot water poured through it. It isn’t medical waste, or something that has been in someone’s mouth. It is the cleanest garbage around…You might be surprised at how fascinated some shop clerks can become with a person who finds spent coffee grounds useful.”

Some coffee shops around the country are making it easier to recycle and reduce waste; Starbucks has a “Grounds for Gardeners” program that offers spent coffee grounds to gardeners and composters, free for the taking in the bags originally used to ship espresso beans to the stores.

But this is a local java hut, and the last time I was inside I asked the girl behind the counter if she had any coffee grounds I could take home with me. She couldn’t quite process the out-of-the ordinary morning order, and it’s not easy to explain the concept of composting to a barrista when there’s three edgy people in line behind you.

“OK,” she relented. “There might be some in the bin, as long as you don’t make a mess…”

The mess is on me, at least for this day. But only the best for my pile, my insatiable, wondrous, mysterious pile.

My pile is my touchstone, a wellspring of life that nourishes me and my garden as I nourish it.

My pile is my balm. Some count bounding sheep to drift off to sleep; I turn over shovelfuls of compost in my head. After all, what’s a brain but an organic, chemical repository for gathered thoughts and things to be broken down and processed, to be composted. Visualizing, x-ray-style, what’s in my pile, sifting through its unseen layers and musing of its secret processes soothes my soul.

Garbage in, garbage out? That is only half-right about my pile, and that’s the beauty of it. The bits and pieces of digested life and matter that make up this heap of compost, in time and with some tending, always reconstitute themselves into something new and useful and whole, if only for a moment before being dispersed as fresh fodder and fertilizer for the future.

Each season brings a new and wholly unique pile, yet over the years each pile inevitably becomes one in the same. The longer and more deeply I dig into it, the more firmly my pile remains terra incognita, a Rubik’s cubic yard of shape-shifting organic matter that defies description.

Still, I try, if only for the exercise. My pile is a portal to the physical and psychic place where I spend my most agreeable waking hours, the backyard. On that front along, my pile is worth getting to know. I am comforted by the fact that there is a rich history of such landscape navel-gazing.


“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience,” writes Patrick Kavanagh, in Robert Macfarlane’s “Landmarks.” “In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow — these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

“While writing about landscape often begins in the aesthetic, it must always tend to the ethical,” writes Brian Lopez, also in “Landmarks,” a compendium of nature writing that aims to “re-engage a largely metropolitan populations with the marvelously specific and intricate habitats that continue to be smashed by industrialization, population growth and sprawl.” As a construct my pile may have modest value that extends beyond just one backyard.

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know,” wrote Wendell Berry. I want to particularly know my pile, and to do that I aim to plunge into it deeply, to turn it over and again, to process it, and, in time, to reap in and share its rewards.

Karel Capek,  writing nearly a century ago in The Gardener’s Year, had it just about right in unearthing the essence of what draws me to my backyard garden, and keeps me there. It’s not the showy blossoms or ripening fruits, it’s something much more basic:

“While I was only a remote and distracted onlooker of the accomplished word of gardens, I considered gardeners to be beings of a peculiarly poetic and gentle mind, who cultivate perfumes of flowers listening to the birds singing. Now, when I look at the affair more closely, I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth, and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost.”

I could write a whole book about my pile.

So let me begin.

All the raw ingredients of fall start cooking quickly.

All the raw ingredients of fall start cooking quickly in my backyard compost pile.