Compost: Where Everyday is Earth Day

If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Jnana’s Red Barn then I hope you will consider taking a quick field trip there. He writes many thoughtful posts but his recent Composting as Prayer gave me an excuse to think about how and why composting just feels so right.

First: some show and tell. My son takes care of a red wiggler worm bin. He kindly donates the worm castings to the various ongoing garden projects here. It amazes me that even this simple system holds hidden complexities. And if a tiny cycle like this is complex I can’t even conceive of the true grandeur of an entire functioning ecosystem — let alone this magnificent planet.

Here is a picture of a red wiggler egg. In the background you can see how rich and dark the worm castings are.


In this next picture one of the worm tails is waving hello or more likely goodbye:


 The Great Chain of Being

Back during the middle ages when I went to Catholic school we were taught the concept of the Great Chain of Being. (Hate to age myself but the truth sometimes must be revealed.) Basically, the idea was that all of creation was balanced in a kind of hierarchy. God resided at the top. Rocks and the stuff of the earth kind of squatted on the bottom rung. Between the rocks and God (in ascending order) were: humans, demons and angels.

Great Chain of Being (Elizabethan version)
Great Chain of Being (Elizabethan version)

This paradigm of seeing the world as a hierarchy influenced Western civilization in endless ways — most of which we are probably not even aware of though I believe we remain firmly within its grasp.

The hierarchy of being & becoming was first devised by Aristotle and then endlessly tinkered by others. Within each category people would sometimes get fancy and create more divisions. For example, in the category of people — well — let’s be honest: it was called “men” there were many layers or slices. In one formulation the queen was placed at the top in a throne held by her nobles who were balanced on the shoulders of the commoners.  Let’s hope those nobles were not wearing stiletto heels. The great chain was also a handy device used to justify sexism: men were ‘obviously’ above women. It did triple duty justifying racism: people with lighter complexions were closer to the clouds of heaven while those with darker skin were closer to the earth.

Throughout this entire way of seeing the world one “fact” was a given: the lowliest facet was the earth itself. That is why even today people associate the earth with words like filth, muck or dirt. We try to get our minds out of the gutter and rise up to greatness. The metaphors are endless and a testament to how pervasive the idea of hierarchies are in this culture of Western civilization.

Sad but true, the great chain of being provides the seed or maybe the fertilizer for almost all of the major problems/issues of our world today. I can’t help but wonder what the result would have been if Aristotle pictured a different metaphor. A spider web. A fishing net. A crystal. A harmony. A jigsaw puzzle. Or a loaf of bread.

Soil is Sacred

I am not using the word ‘sacred’ here in a connection with God but maybe more in the sense of something worthy of veneration or respect.

Imagine a world where instead of despising and depleting our soil we could have spent these centuries creating monuments and lasting works of art like the Amazon basin garden. Remember all those stories you’ve heard about the poverty of rainforest soil? “Worst soil ever,” according to the Comic Store Guy. The truth is much more complicated. Without human assistance all the nutrients do wash away. But with human assistance something like terra preta do índio can be created instead. This soil is so healthy that hundreds of years later it continues to be fertile even when it has been abandoned. In essence, the aboriginal people created an immense self sustaining forest garden centuries before western cultures were even aware that sustainability could be a problem.  That is the kind of footprint I think humans were meant to leave. Aristotle was wrong. Heaven isn’t above the clouds; it resides beneath our feet.



21 thoughts on “Compost

  1. Heaven truly can be here. The soil is our friend, however with the infiltration of the Big Food business, our soil is not producing what was intended.And it is being contaminated beyond measure. I love your historical approach to this subject. Whatever happened to the earthworms?


    1. After I took that photo I returned it to the happy dark world of the worm bin. My son has had them (or well several generations of them) under his care for a couple of years now. They just carry on doing what worms do: eating our scraps and making nice compost in return.


  2. We have a long way to go before people are willing to change the idea of the great chain of being is changed. At least we can plant some seeds in your fertile soil… BTW, due to the tropical climate, compost material In a tropical rain forest can decompose much more rapidly compared to a region in a temperate climate. This means that compost material can be used much faster. This results in a thin organic layer on top of the soil while rapidly growing trees and plants still can get all the nutrients they need.


  3. Worms and compost and comic book guy? All in one blog entry? Well done. I think I’m going to have to come back more often to visit.


    1. Oh. Thank you for saying so. None of this is original though of course. I actually did learn about the great chain in school when I was a kid and part of the discussion that followed was the importance of compassion for those who may be downtrodden by others.


  4. Yay for your son (and his red wigglers!). I’m working up to the idea of getting more actively into vermiculture. Part of the natural evolution of a gardener to (finally!) focus on the fauna as much as the flora, right?

    The idea of compost as prayer and soil as sacred reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:
    “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

    Madeline L’Engle


    1. Isn’t she awesome? I love her work but I never saw that quote before. That one goes into the keeper file. Thanks. =)


  5. and again Debra you nailed it …earth is sacred wholesome and without which we aint gonna survive…
    let us celebrate compost let us give back to the land..


    1. It is too bad the idea was twisted into a hierarchy. A chain where each link is important seems like a much better world view. =)


  6. Nice post! Some of my fondest memories of gardening involve compost. It can be a contemplative exercise, sitting on the warm mound, screening out the larger bits and collecting amazing goodies for the garden.


    1. Thank you. I honestly think I was a dog in a former life because it is the smell that grabs my attention. I love it and those other smells like the ‘it is going to rain now’ smell or the ‘you have just walked into a greenhouse’ smell. That fills me with joy.


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