Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On Humus and Humility

Last year I put a lawn in from seed. A whole lawn. It was a terrible idea, don’t do it. It is far better to grow healthy children than a healthy lawn.  That said, this spring when my lawn came in, I had a gardening epiphany.

As part of the process of setting the seed, I turned out the decomposed material from my composter, sowed it into the soil as far as it would go and set the rest of the seed in chemical fertilizer. You can very easily tell by looking which parts of my yard had humus from the composter worked into them and which were chemically fertilized. The part that looks like Eden and needs to be mown all the time but never weeded, that’s the compost section, the spindly “hair club for men” section with the dandelions, not so much.
I have a composter still and I use it almost every day when I make meals for myself and my family and friends. I load it with the ends of things: the stems of zucchini and the rotted places on peppers.  I put in apple cores and tons and tons of egg shells.  I pile it high with steaming coffee grounds and all the things that don’t make it onto the table.  These are the bits and pieces of things that were not good enough. They are things that would have changed the taste or altered the texture in a way I did not want.  Sometimes all they are is not pretty.  Sometimes they have been let get actually toxic.  They have sat in a container in my fridge until I had to confront them.  They have molded while awaiting my determination to make the dish I bought them for. They are the by-products of the end product, the trash that didn’t make the table.

My composter sits at the far end of my yard, out of sight, in theory, and away from where the smell might bother people, though if you’re doing it right, this process shouldn’t bother anyone else. I have to load up a bowl and walk out, sometimes through snow, across a dark and untrustworthy lawn to put things into it.  And then when I open the lid it is frequently smelly and gross.  And it’s hot in there, even in winter, cooking and steamy and revolting.
Now, compost is not an easy pet to keep. It has to be turned. You have to get out with a spade every once in a while and dig it up and turn it over all the time bifurcating worms and not inhaling gnats and trying to keep the gagging to a minimum. One year I discovered a family of mice living in a space in my compost and I had to work around them all summer to keep from killing them… so they could grow big and strong and move out into my cupboards where I could self-righteously poison them.

And then the time comes to turn out the decomposed material.  It is not technically humus, but that is what we call it. Out it comes, black and stinky and sweaty and strange.  You spread it out in the sun for a day to let it “cure.” The sun dries it a little, the breeze carries its delightful stench into the neighbor’s yard. And then you work it into the dirt and the effect is magical. While it isn’t actually soil, humus is “the life-force” of soil that enables soil to hold water effectively and drain easily, to make nutrients available for growing plants, to help decaying material to decompose. Humus, from the Latin word humilis meaning “low” or “humble,” is also the root of the word “humility.”

It makes perfect sense, really.  Humility is anthropological humus.  When we go out into the world, we try to present the best possible version of ourselves.  We try to avoid those aspects of our personality that won’t constructively contribute to the whole.  We cut away the bruises to our egos, we trim off the unsightly failures and leave off the sour words of recrimination and the moldy hurts we’ve let fester over the years.  These things are not suited for public consumption.  Now, we can, if we choose, put them down a garbage disposal and have them rush away with the sewage.  Or we can toss them into the garbage to build up with the commercial baggage of our time in a giant landfill somewhere.
Or we can force ourselves to load them into a bowl.  We can troop out, even in the snow, and dump them into a pit with all the other leavings of our lives, to sit and stew and break down into elemental pieces.  We might have to work it, once in a while to confront the stink and the pestilence that it has wrought.  But over time, if we are diligent, those by-products of our world worthy self will break down into their elements. And then, if we are willing, we can pull it out, expose it to the light of day and see, once and for all, that all those experiences, all those feelings, all those aspects of ourselves that were so totally not going into the salad, have become something infinitely more useful. Those ends and pieces are the starting point for new lettuce and new strawberries, new strengths and healthy places that one day, if all goes well, will end up as the true fruits of our labors:  beautiful and fragrant, healthy and entirely organic.