Dreaming the Compost Dream

I’m finally writing about compost, but don’t leave me on that account. I think about this subject fairly obsessively, and while it’s become a suburban constant in Canadian cities — trucks for curbside pickup, pretty green bins on wheels — it’s not even on the radar in China. So let’s talk about compost. Don’t you love dialogue about rotting fruit and decaying leaves? I do.

It’s one of my oldest and clearest links, I realized recently, with a long-departed father who was always present while I grew up, but in a fairly vague and fogbound way. For some reason, maybe just because we weren’t that far removed from farmers in our rural community, we had a compost heap in the backyard 50 years before most people did. I didn’t hate it as much as I did other aspects of my (fairly limited) household chores. Pulling weeds was a pain, but it didn’t much matter that they had to be thrown in the compost. Okay, Dad, that’s easy. I had no idea of the productive side of the equation; even as a teen I don’t remember us doing anything with what I later realized was a nutrient-rich glop at the bottom of the pile. Old Mister Patterson next door, whose immaculate vegetable garden (not to mention his wife’s gorgeous flower gardens, invaded shamefully often by various wayward balls of my acquaintance) dwarfed our own sketchy efforts, might have been invited to harvest that “black gold”, though he had what must have been a more productive composting system of his own. As I later discovered, you can’t have too much of that splendid stuff.

When I first became a homeowner, it was a given that we would have a compost, not initially for environmental Action but simply because it made sense. There was no need to spend money on fertilizers and potting soil; just make yer own! (I am the son of Depression-era parents.) My first home was small, but had a well-treed and deep backyard, and once I learned a composting trick or three, I was hooked, lined and sinkered. I loved  my compost. I had three hand-built rectangular enclosures, each a metre high and a metre wide and about three metres deep. I bagged grass clippings and fired ‘em in (but careful – that’s a lotta nitrogen, gotta mix it up well, maybe neutralize it some), ran my lawnmower over raked autumn leaves so they’d break down faster, turned it and watered it at need and watched how a “full” cage of plant waste settled and lowered as it cooked. I wore a hard path to the pile running kitchen scraps out on snow-bound days. Our decision to move a few years later was one I wished we hadn’t made, not least because I have never since had nearly the scope for composting or gardening. (Or backyard baseball. Or treehouse architecture.) All those leaves and clippings and vegetable rinds, once I’d put the mature stuff through a screen into my wheelbarrow – damn, that was the last proper wheelbarrow I ever owned, too! – resulted in a dozen big green garbage bags of crumbly, wonderful-smelling, fine black humus that I gave to everybody I knew that loved gardening. And growers knew – I’ve never been more proud, or more earnestly thanked, about gifts given. Our household spider plants grew like teenaged boys.

Even in the smaller, condo-style backyards that I’ve mainly had since then, and especially since bonding with EcoWoman and becoming more aware of ecological thought and practice in the 1990s, I’ve continued with my Quest for the Ideal Rotting, mainly using commercial plastic bins. (We usually bought them used from people who had given up before they got the “black gold fever”). Back home in Ottawa, behind the bin, sits a wood frame with a 1-cm screen stapled to it. The frame is less than a metre square, and I’d faithfully used it about once a year to screen out stuff from the bin’s bottom – corn cobs, always slow to decay, and woodier bits – for return to another shot at dissolution from the top of the pile. Each screening leaves behind that always-gratifying mound of darkness, hell-bent to nourish.

Now I live in a ninth-floor apartment in Dalian, a city of millions, but the farmers still aren’t far away. Scratch a Chinese person of a certain age, and I’m sure you’re less than six degrees of skin away from the land. The retired folks in our middle-class haven, if they get a prized first-floor flat, inevitably grow (and cure and dry) vegetables. (Rarely flowers – these people have known hunger.) Those living above ground level, and some of the scrappy buggers collecting paper and glass and living in the hovels at the top of our hill, carve the most admirable hard-scrabble gardens in the pale, stony soil. They build garden enclosures from the million stones (bricks, cement shards) they endlessly rake out of their plots, and top them with windfall tree branches to keep out thieves. They carry bottles of water up the hill from a little artificial stream in our complex, doling out evening rations to each of their plants. Their insistence on growth is admirable, and their knuckle-busting labour is awesome. But oh, the composts they could build! Some do dig a shallow pit and bury some of their garden’s chaff as winter comes, but every time I walk through these miraculous, tiny rocky-top gardens, I want to be the Composter General. Community building through decay! Rotting with a purpose! Weeds for the world!

My apartment complex is blissfully unaware, but I can’t stop thinking about it: one or several composting stations for my 32-building complex, diverting kitchen and garden waste from our overworked migrant garbage-picking families’ smelly depot, and producing soil and neighbourliness for Hanlin Guanhai, these “thick woods [ha!] facing the sea”. From the ninth floor, I can see the water, and I can’t stop imagining an earthy-smelling compost paradise. I’ll write more on this soon.

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