I am not exactly what one might call a dedicated composter. I don’t water it on a regular basis, turn it, or measure the temperature in the center to make sure the microbes are happy little critters. I’ve been known to throw weeds, seeds, and even (heaven forfend!) dairy products into the mix. Because I am careless about maintaining the correct proportions of “greens” to “browns,” (i.e. fresh organic matter with decayed material or dirt), my compost bins smell quite charming, even in the depths of winter. And because things take about a year longer to decompose when one doesn’t keep all those microbes happy, I tend to fill up a bin before the bottom section is ready to be used. Solution? I head down to the Rutland Solid Waste Management District and buy a new bin. I am about to get my third (the first one got moved with us from Middlebury about four years ago), since we generate the same amount of kitchen waste year round while freezing temperatures outside slow the decomposition process to a crawl.
Yet I love composting. To me, it is amazing that I can scoop up all those used paper towels and, instead of throwing them in the trash, throw them onto the compost heap, where in a year or two they will be used as fill in the depressions in our yard. When I need to clean up all the half-eaten/half-rotten drops from our ancient backyard apple and pear trees, I just pile them up in the compost bin, where they eventually begin to release an odor somewhat like cider that has turned. The black walnut tree that was the bane of our existence and the blessing of all the squirrels that nested in and chewed through our 19th-century carriage barn also littered the play areas of our yard liberally with their toxic offspring; nothing can grow under a black walnut due to the acidity of the nuts. My compost pile graciously accepted all the nuts I could gather, ameliorating both the destructiveness of the squirrels and the unfortunate appearance of black walnut saplings wherever the squirrels had buried them the previous fall.
Compost bins literally teem with life. What I like most are the composters that I can see are so hard at work, and loving it. I have a special affinity for earthworms, so simple in their biology, and yet so durable. They evolved long before us — perhaps as early as 1200 million years ago during the Proterozoic Eon, when multi-celled animals first began to appear on earth. Earthworms have also survived, largely unchanged, at least two mass extinction events, including one that wiped out the dinosaurs and every other large animal of the skies and seas 65 million years ago, and a much earlier, more devastating one 250 million years ago, when up to 65 percent of all life forms disappeared. Without earthworms, I frequently tell my kids, we humans would cease to exist; so while they make earthworm habitats and collections while gardening, I forbid vivisection experiments of the kind I did as a kid, and we always plop our scientific subjects onto the compost bin before going inside.
I have also come across an occasional larger creature, usually not a composter, but a predator of composters. When I moved my compost bin from Middlebury to Brandon, I discovered that a mole had settled deep into its depths in order to burrow and feast on the abundance of worms. Occasionally, scavengers get into the bin, including the neighbor’s dog, the skunks who live under our carriage barn, and of course the squirrels who discover the veritable treasure trove of black walnuts awaiting them. One night, my neighbor called in a panic, claiming to have seen a bear pawing the piles of rotting apples. As unlikely as this sounds, there had been a recent sighting of an adolescent black bear going through some dumpsters in downtown Brandon earlier that week, but as I told my neighbor, better to keep the bear beyond the fence than in the yard for a late night encounter with my golden retriever.
I'll admit that composting can be hard on a marriage. On busy days, or lazy days, or bad weather days, I have a tendency to let the compost pile up in the kitchen. When my one small Tupperware fills up, I simply get out a larger one, and then a larger one, until I am forced to move them onto the railing of the back porch in order to have room to wash dishes or cook dinner. There they sit, collecting rain or freezing solid, sometimes falling and spilling their slimy contents all over the back steps, until I find the motivation to take them all the way to the compost bins. Sometimes in his frustration, my husband will put everything down the garbage disposal. What a waste! We have to pay for the water in our individual sewer bill, pay for the waste water treatment plant’s maintenance in our town tax bill, and of course use electricity to grind everything up. My husband opts for the simpler solution and is far less fanatic about lowering our carbon footprint than I am; moreover, when confronted with clutter, he usually deals with it by shoving it aside. Thus the convenience of putting all my carefully collected compost down the disposal.
That is the one thing I am careful about: collecting everything that can be composted (and even some things that can’t). When I do finally re-use my composted kitchen and yard waste, I often discover plastic labels, bottle caps, rocks, and all other manner of inorganic material. To me, this is backyard archeology. I enjoy finding the unexpected treasures that are buried on our property, like the broken bottles, the original slate roofing nails, the old marble pathway lying six inches under the current slate walk. When I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, the docent talked about how much they were able to learn simply by excavating the old trash piles; and of course, just about everything we know about ordinary human beings of the past comes from looking through their garbage. Of course, I know the history of my own family; still, I enjoy seeing the pineapple tops that refuse to biodegrade, the corncobs still intact after two years, and the occasional potato plant or tomato vine emerging, pale from lack of light, from the pile of refuse. The fact that new life can spring from garbage seems miraculous to me. And it happen so even under the adverse conditions I provide as a committed, albeit haphazard, composter.
Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.