Turning the Spring Compost

Mushroom near the compost pile

Scanned from my nature journal.

Mid-afternoon at the compost pile. Much rain lately. Right now, only an occasional drip from the trees when the air moves.

No … wait … starting to rain again.

Frogs calling back and forth in the woods, God bless them. The cluck of the neighbor’s hen, and then the rooster crows, and crows again.

With the rain comes more bird sounds—fluttering, chirping.

And the rooster crows again, and again.

~ ~ ~

It’s February 1— Imbolc— one of the four quarter days of the Celtic and pagan calendar. Six weeks have passed since the winter solstice. Six more weeks will pass before the spring equinox.

Imbolc marks the beginning of the end of winter, the time of lambing, and the lactation of cattle. In some cultures, spring starts today rather than at the equinox in March.

I am standing next to our three compost bins:

The compost bins stand in the shade of fir trees that David planted years ago, as a birm to block the bins from the house.Those trees just love growing next to compost piles! Their roots sneak up into the bottom of the piles, making it hard to turn thee last shovefuls.

The compost bins stand in the shade of fir trees that David planted years ago, to block the bins from the house.
Those trees just love growing next to compost piles! Their roots sneak up into the bottom of the piles, making it hard to turn the last shovelfuls.

  • The first bin is where we dump kitchen scraps, raked leaves, stuff collected from the gutters, and other green and brown flora.
  • The second bin is where I dump the contents of the first bin when I turn the compost piles. Turning the first pile into the second pile aerates the contents, invigorating all the little creatures that break our kitchen scraps down into soil.
  • The third bin is where I dump the contents of the second bin when I turn the compost piles. The third bin is where we get new rich soil for the garden.

The third bin is empty. It’s time to turn the compost piles.

Using my pitchfork, I lift a chunk off the top of the second pile and turn it over into the third bin.

When last I turned the compost piles, the over-turned contents of the first bin completely filled the second. Now it’s barely half full. That’s because in the intervening months, worms, bacteria, and other good little guys have been chewing away, breaking down the orange peels, alder leaves, fir needles, and banana peels into dark, sweet soil.

Over time, everything settles. I’m not as tall as I used to be, either.

The contents of the second bin are so crumbly and loose, I switch from pitchfork to shovel. Fragments of egg shells and tea bags are the only bits still recognizable from the kitchen. The rest is all dark, loamy soil, with an occasional fir cone or stick mixed in.

It doesn’t take long to empty the second bin into the third. Which clears the way for the contents of the first bin to be turned into the second.

But first, a little rest.

In days gone by, I could turn all our compost piles in one joyful, fast-moving, sweaty session. But old bodies are less forgiving than young ones. Today, I’m slower, stiffer, and maybe just a tiny bit wiser today than I was way back when. After all, turning compost is one of my favorite household jobs. Why not stretch it out, just for pleasure? Besides wanting to be able to move tomorrow, I mean.

A cup of tea, a few more sentences, and lo and behold, the sun breaks through the clouds. Feeling very wise indeed, I return to the compost piles.

The first pile is much denser and wetter than the second was. Also much livelier. In earlier years, besides the gleaming red worms and curling millipedes, I’ve turned up sleepy young newts, slugs, and cranky old black beetles among the soggy cabbage leaves and brown fir needles.

Today, it’s just worms and wonderful smells. The smell of new earth.

All day, I’ve been writing this piece between sessions with the compost pile. Now the afternoon, my Imbolc post, and the compost pile are each coming to their proper end.

So I bid you farewell, wishing you joyful tasks, life uncovered beneath the surface of things, and the smell of new earth.

Margaret

P.S. For those inspired to start their first compost pile, check out this WikiHow posting: http://www.wikihow.com/Compost

About Margaret D. McGee

Comments

  1. Brad Offutt says:

    Margaret, I love the way you’ve told this. I can feel your dedication and joy. And I can grasp the sense of accomplishment and contribution when that new soil goes to the garden. But somehow I just am not a composter. Probably has something to do with growing up experiences – anyway, I’m not moved to work in the earth the way you are. Yet I take great joy in being in the woods or forest where the Spirit of Life is renewing things. Even on our “lower 40” here I’m fascinated to see that piles of slash and chips from some thinning work years ago are now nearly decayed back down to the ground. New soil in the making! And I really think that my old sorrows and joys, and things done years ago or left undone, all sort of decompose and melt together into the rich stuff that new life’s experiences grow out of.

    • You are a composter of life’s experiences, Brad — and the resulting soil brings meaning to new life.
      (Or is that taking the metaphor just a little too far?

      • Brad Offutt says:

        Not for me it isn’t – I love it! Bruce Bode often points out that the sadder, more painful stuff in our lives is as essential as is joy and success. Each of us is in some way a composter. On a different note, I suddenly thought of one of Walt Kelley’s famous lines, uttered now and then by one of his critters in the “Pogo Possum” script – “What hath got rot?”

  2. Seabeck discussions: evolved into a discussion of mortality, and Autumn, and compost and haiku…. Organisms in the compost continue to work, through the grey and chill of our winters, becoming good soil. I, too, appreciate a really good compost pile 🙂 enough to write haiku about what has always seemed to me to be “magic”:

    worms
    in the compost
    the smell of salt