More looking closely at the worm

Charles Darwin’s final book, 1881, was Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

Adam Phillips’ Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories addresses both Darwin and Sigmund Freud.

Could a trip to the compost bin be as amazing as visiting the Galapagos?

Darwin

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Turning the compost

My wife observes I have a low tolerance for the nitty-gritty details of life. I have trouble accepting that things break down or fall apart. I don’t like cleaning up afterward. I don’t like confrontations, much less having to call people to remind them of their obligations. Maybe it’s just a factor of getting older, or of feeling myself constantly pressed for time.

What I have found is that turning the compost has therapeutic value. I’ll retreat there when I’m at a loss for dealing with people. My little buddies, the red wigglers, extend their own comfort, simply by being. I don’t know how they survive winter. They simply disappear and come back.

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My daughters balk at carrying kitchen refuse to the enclosed compost bin. The task falls on me. I wish they wouldn’t feel grossed out, as they claim. What I realize is how much this practice reduces the amount of trash and garbage we place out on the street for weekly pickup. More than the several hundred dollars we save each year, in city-issued trash bags, the practice heightens my appreciation for what we can convert back into soil. I wish we would do more with newspapers, for instance. The ash from our wood stove is applied rather than bagged lime.

And I’ve seen the ground itself responding, becoming softer, more pliable, and more verdant.

There are many life lessons here, as I keep seeing, collecting, turning, and spreading this process.

Behold, the worm

The humble stars of this show, revealed by a garden fork.
The humble stars of this show, revealed by a garden fork.

Red wigglers truly are, as the jingle in the comedy WKRP in Cincinnati proclaims, the Cadillac of worms. While that show’s fictional sponsor touted their excellence as fish  bait, I could never willing drown them: I’ve come to greatly value their appearance in the compost, first as a harbinger of health and progress, and then as a profusion taking the decaying matter (in our case, mostly deciduous tree leaves) into the final stage, which resembles dark, rich soil. Their arrival shows the work of decomposition is nearing completion. The original organic matter is now down to a quarter of its original size, or less, and will soon resemble rich soil.

Whether this process is scientific or simply mysterious is answered to some degree in the eye of the beholder. I do my share in turning the mass in each bin with a pitchfork, to work in more air, and then try to add nitrogen, one way or another. Our household, for instance, has a pet rabbit, and her manure pellets are concentrated energy for this transformation. And then, as the conditions become optimal, the slow process occurs. A new pile to be composted begins to retain moisture before typically reaching a takeoff point where the interior mass becomes quite hot to the touch, perhaps reaching 150 degrees. After a light rainfall, the bins will actually be steaming.

For the record, I’m not a gardener. My wife is. My role is more the assistant, constructing raised beds, maintaining the wood-chip pathways, mowing, some weeding, and composting, especially.

My first real encounters with composting came in religious circles. When I lived in the yoga ashram, we were serious composters, although most of the hands-on work with it was done by others. We also had a significant amount of manure from our horse and chickens to work with. Later, traveling within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I overhead a number of conversations regarding the practice and learned that the root word of humility is related to the concept of composting. Humus, then, as rich soil for growth.

The lowly worms lead the way.

* * *

The worms become emblematic of the unanticipated directions this journey has taken. I have no idea of where they come from, other than underground or perhaps from neighboring, more finished compost. Yet they appear. They show up as reminders of unfinished work and of rot. There’s nothing sleek, secure, and finished about our house and yard. Everything seems to be in motion. I keep hoping we can afford to put a new roof on the barn, while my wife wants to redesign the driveway. Turning the compost is something I can afford, as is collecting all the bags of leaves from the neighbors each fall. It would be so much easier and nattier to have truckloads of topsoil and finished compost delivered, if our budget allowed. The worms move around, as most of our possessions seem to do also.

The worms also reflect our desire of going organic. They are living organisms, rather than chemical applicants.

They are red, like our house and barn and small garden shed.

Tombstone angels

Colonial Puritan headstones present an evolving emblematic reminder of fleeting nature of mortality, moving over time from harsh stylized eyes of judgment to the bare bones of the human skull to more humanized features before turning to images of Grecian urns or weeping willows. The images came to be known as Tombstone angels, for good reasons.

Here are some examples from a burial ground in downtown Concord, Massachusetts.

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Citations and more

Bonnie Friedman, in Writing Past Dark (Harper Collins, 1994), recalls “leaves kindled on the trees, bursting into orange and red and yellow almost with a gasp like a pilot light lighting, and they hung there the barest instant – a week, nothing – before they flung themselves to the earth. The ground flowed with colors as if a globe had been spun. Everything urged disorder.”

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To demonstrate how intensely the dominant Puritan culture could bear down on those who opposed its values, historian David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989), relates the origin of a well-known American word:

“In Massachusetts Bay, an eccentric Devon family called Maverick settled the present town of Chelsea and an island in Boston Harbor that still bears their name. They had trouble with the Puritans and moved away, keeping one jump ahead of the larger cultures that threatened to engulf them. By the nineteenth century, the Mavericks had found their way onto the western plains. Their name was given to range cattle that bore no man’s brand, and became a synonym for independent eccentricity in American speech.”

The fact remains that New England has, at its heart, Puritan roots – which, surprisingly, include an awareness of witchcraft. Fischer demonstrates that the United States bears the often conflicting legacies of four distinct English migrations to the American colonies. New England, he argues, arises almost exclusively in a culture transported from East Anglia – in particular, the counties of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. From the Boston accent, which in England was known as a “Norwich whine,” to the diet of oven goods (pies, Yankee pot roasts, and Boston baked beans), to the “saltbox” and “Cape Cod’ style of houses, to the New England sports of baseball and American football, the origins can be traced to surviving parallels in East Anglia and neighboring shires. Fischer also reports:

In England, every quantitative study has found that recorded cases of witchcraft were most frequent in the eastern counties from which New England was settled. The American historian John Demos concludes, “… interestingly, the figures look most nearly equivalent when New England is matched with the [old English] county of Essex alone. Essex was beyond a doubt a center of witch-hunting within the mother country …”

A rare repertoire

Apart from the seasonal recipes my wife trots out in autumn – the leak-and-potato or butternut squash soups, for example, or the last of the fresh eggplant parmesan  – I mark the occasion with my own extended ritual. Somehow, each October, I pull out my recordings of the symphonies of Charles Ives and play them in sequence. Rarely as 1-2-3-4 and the Symphony of Holidays, either, but more as a dozen playings of the first, followed by a dozen of the second, and so on. And then that’s followed by George Whitefield Chadwick’s string quartets, often leading to other New England Romantic era composers – John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote – as well as the more contemporary Walter Piston and his colleagues. These are not pieces I hear often on the radio, not even Boston’s, where all but Ives had lived and worked. (He had become the leading insurance executive in Manhattan, as well as a legendary maverick musician.) These are the neglected but brilliant and often innovative voices of New England, defiantly proving to the world what the Germans were not required to match. I’ve come to feel their music in my soul as my own.

Occasionally, while driving in autumn, I pass a meadow of intense green, even after a killing frost. How inexplicable this reminder of spring aspiration feels so late in the year!

Once, approaching Pinkham Notch on my return from northern Maine, I pulled over beside a boulder-strewn streambed and hiked briefly, thinking myself alone in the now pale yellow, chilled air. As my exhale fogged, I glanced around the forest and listened to the echo of the few remaining birds. Then I noticed the fly fisherman in his waders, patiently casting.

The line, as easily a filament of music as of hope or tranquility; the skill of casting, advanced over the years; the mastery of tying the feathers themselves, likely in the long nights of winter: all coming together in the passing, the present, now, momentary, fleeting, falling wonder.