By Peter Schaller
I just got back from spending two months in the United States.
For what it’s worth, it was the longest period of time that I have spent in my country of birth in the past 22 years. I’m not a shady expat escaping the Babylonian flaws of the U.S. It’s simply that I have chosen to live in a different country and work, family and finance make it difficult to do much extensive traveling.
I have always felt that I could live anywhere.
I think I was just fortunate enough to receive an adaptability gene and I tend to find all places interesting, for one reason or another. Logically, there are things that I like and dislike about all places, but for the most part, the balance is positive. I am continually fascinated by the subtle mechanics of everyday life.
I do have to say that I found one thing to be quite challenging on this extended stay in the U.S.—hardly anyone composts. In a certain sense, I have been spoiled by Nicaragua.
In a tropical climate, decomposition is highly accelerated and microorganisms thrive. Also, people in Nicaragua are much less concerned about suburban aesthetics, so “unsightly” compost piles tend to go unnoticed. My yard is not that large, but in the back corner we have a prosperous compost pile that is shared and visited by myriad creatures.
The lack of compulsive composting in many people’s lives is probably just a lack of information. Most folks probably envision a pile of stinky, rotting vegetables. However, a well-managed compost pile should not have a foul odor and can dramatically improve the vibrancy of any yard-sized ecosystem.
Composting is one of the simplest actions that we can take to minimize our impact on the already battered earth. It helps to build up healthy, organic soil and to improve water retention. It also encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria, the foundation of any healthy soil system.
A functioning compost pile is akin to an endless supply of free, organic fertilizer.
About 35% of all garbage that ends up in the landfills is compostable. Most of that is food scraps and yard waste. When organic waste ends up in the landfill, it does not decompose gracefully to produce organic fertilizer. It generally ends up rotting nastily, to produce increased emissions of methane gas. Methane, as we well know, is one of the most harmful greenhouse gases and a leading contributor to global warming.
So, it could be argued that the failure to compost is quite directly related to the acceleration of climate change.
Science aside, composting is a healthy activity. I have been a compost addict for many years and I find that it makes me think about the waste I am creating and the benefit or detriment that it will create in the world. I separate organic materials and have an extra excuse to walk from the kitchen out into my yard every day. On the way, I almost always encounter something or someone that reminds me of how tightly knit is our web of life—a new leaf, beetle, bat, lizard, toad, bird, flower, fruit.
And so, with this deep seated love of composting in my blood, I spent eight weeks as a guest in eight different homes, spread across six different states, where I found myself forced to scrape onion skin and banana peels into plastic garbage bags, destined for the dump.
Most of these homes had moderate to ample yards. In many cases, these yards were covered with grass that served no other purpose than to consume water, chemicals and compete with the neighbors. I did offer to help set up composting systems for most of my hosts, but that suggestion was often met with a puzzled and distrustful look, as if I were offering to dump a pile of rubbish in the middle of the house.
It was killing me, so, I started Guerrilla Composting.
If any rabid composter should ever find her or himself in this position, Guerrilla Composting is pretty simple. Here is how I did it:
-First, I tried to assign myself the task of chopping fruits and vegetables, as often as possible. That way I could directly control the whole operation. Yeah, control.
-Next I would nonchalantly find a recipient for camouflage. Sometimes it would be a plastic bag or an empty cereal box that was already in the trash. These generally raise very few suspicions. As I would carefully deposit the organic scraps into the underground composting railway, it would actually look like I was trying to keep the garbage neat and orderly.
-Once the recipient was full, I would either offer to take the trash out to the barrels, or if no one was looking, I would simply abscond with the contraband. Once outside, there were several things to take into consideration. Is someone looking out of a window? Are the neighbors watching? Will anyone see this innocent pile of nutritious plant matter before it looks like soil?
-With all this in mind, I would carefully scout out the most inadvertent spot on the property and make a quick deposit to the undernourished earth. It felt like sneaking table scraps to a stray dog who was wandering about the perimeter, famished and confused by the juxtaposition of hunger and abundance. I made sure that the apple cores and corn husks were carefully hidden by weeds or leaves and imagined that they might even be eaten by a curious bird or animal before the patient bacteria even got to them.
I’m glad to say that over the course of two months, I successfully completed at least two dozen missions, rescuing perhaps one hundred pounds of nutrients from the cruel indifference of the landfill. Now that I am home, I am so glad to be back to composting without the cloak and dagger routine. I have a compost bucket by the kitchen sink that, on a good day, fills up two or three times.
There are few things that give me more pleasure than weaving through the trees and plants and my yard to get to the compost pile. I have even been known to converse a bit with the microorganisms as I feed them.
We easily harvest a couple hundred pounds of organic fertilizer each year and the results can be easily witnessed in our tangled, jungle of a yard. It is easier and faster to do it in the tropics, but even in temperate climates, composting is easy; it just takes a little time and mindful concentration.
Living mindfully means living harmoniously and composting helps us to align our daily routine with the nature.
Photo: Peter Schaller
Editor: Dana Gornall
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