Why Compost?

Because it is a zero waste strategy ~ Because it restores and remediates the soil  ~ Because it is quiet activism you can do without leaving home or carrying protest signs

Today, thousands of young people like Rachel Walsh of Transition Tallahassee are in Washington to protest against the KXL Pipeline, much as my spouse and I did last summer in the Walk for Our Grandchildren.  Standing up, speaking out, boycotts, even subjecting one self to arrest, are effective ways to oppose injustice in all its forms.   If enough people participate, e.g. Gandhi’s march to the sea, the March on Selma, even the original Boston Tea Party, these actions can rock the known world.

Jean's compostWhat if take-to-the-streets activism of this nature isn’t in your nature?  Food activism, in which composting is a key element, is the perfect local DIY project that contributes to a healthier, more sustainable community right away.  As the documentary, Symphony of the Soil (now available in DVD) showed us, reclaiming our soil even on a small-scale can be effective because everything is connected.   Doesn’t it make sense to convert yard trimmings and organic food scraps – yes, even conventionally-grown vegetables – into next growing season’s soil instead of paying to have them removed?  Not that I’m advocating any more lawns for South Florida however much carbon they might sequester, but this is Green Gold just waiting to happen.  Take a look at Composting 101 from the US Composting Council, a national, non-profit and trade association, and see how this all works.

Composting is very much on my mind these days because, thanks to Margaret and Norm Robson, two revered elders and pillars of my UU faith community, we are going to soon have a place where we can put these ideas about composting into practice – a mini-revolution in the making.   We do a fair amount of food service already, some of it prepared in our commercial-sized kitchen, and every Sunday there is an ample deposit of coffee grounds.   Habits are sticky, so I don’t have any illusions that it will be easy to get everyone on the composting bandwagon right away.  Even if we convince half of our congregation to participate, this will be – like our vegetable patch and butterfly garden – another small model to practice and experiment with.  Nonetheless, I am optimistic because activism is a core principle; we already support Fair Trade coffee and chocolate with our purchases; we recycle clothing and household items through our thrift shop.   Small, committed effort works; it is “the only thing that ever has.”

If you are among the shrinking number of people who grew up on a small family farm, the value of composting will not be news to you.  I didn’t, yet managed to glean a little bit of knowledge from my generous next-door neighbor who grew the most flavorful, succulent New Jersey tomatoes in a small bed in the middle of his back lawn, using coffee grounds and egg shells as fertilizer, and picking off the bugs by hand.  Another source was a family elder who would enrich the soil around his citrus trees with ground up fish bones.  I experienced my first Victory Garden in the UK, carefully tended  by my aunt and uncle, who would bring what they couldn’t consume to the weekly farmers market in the main square.   It was a small supplement to their modest income, and a social time for them.  It’s no surprise that the Transition Movement is flourishing in the centuries-old small town cultures of Europe.

Most of us of a certain age have memories of food coming directly from local producers, unmediated by supermarkets, which is one reason I believe our compost benefactors are so enthusiastic about this project.  Possibly they share many of my environmental passions although it’s hard to imagine them hugging a tree or chaining themselves to a fence.

It will become increasingly important that we share our memories of where food comes from with our grandchildren, especially if they are urban- or suburban-raised and can’t tell a carrot from a cabbage when it’s in the ground.  Accompany them to the farmers market – better yet a real farm! — and let them see, smell and taste for themselves.

Let’s all remind ourselves that, as Wendell Berry wrote: “Eating is an agricultural act.”  It is also an act of social activism.  Composting completes the cycle, transforming our so-called waste into next year’s crop.  So it has been, and could be again, but only if we understand and act accordingly.

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