Environment: The Happy Helper | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Environment: The Happy Helper

Composting is uplifting. Though the citizen may race stock cars and eat hamburgers out of polystyrene containers, the compost pile keeps right on working, atoning for his sins.


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Two things the citizen might want to know after finding out that God and nature provide a free disposal method--called the compost heap--for organic garbage, while many municipalities now want it put in little brown bags that cost 75 cents apiece:

(1) Does it smell?

(2) Will it attract rats?

First, a definition. Compost does not mean "landscape waste," which as of July 1 was in theory banned from Illinois landfills. Compost includes virtually any organic waste, including "wet garbage"--banana peels, rotten leftovers, what's left in the sink strainer. It is still legal, although increasingly expensive to the hauler, to send wet garbage to a landfill.

No matter which definition you choose, the answer to question one--Does it smell?--is yes, but it doesn't smell like garbage. Some people like the smell. They say it smells like prehistory, like the forest floor. A growing minority, from which we will surely hear more in the coming decade, is starting to think it smells like money.

There is also a small and potentially litigious minority that prefers the smell of Chicagoland's ambient toxic cloud to the smell of life renewing itself. There are, in short, people who will make trouble if they breathe what the composter is up to. It's a factor that can't be ignored.

As for question two, the rats will be more or less of a problem for composters depending on the specific location of the compost heap. Some engineering, in the form of wire mesh or screens, may be required. But rats, as well as their nasty cousins the squirrels, are less inclined to go after properly composting garbage than they are to shoulder their way into garbage cans and Dumpsters. A corollary to this proposition is that rats and squirrels, in time and properly layered, will themselves compost.

Meanwhile, it's a well-known fact that the same compost heap that turns grass clippings and leaves into good soil will turn grass and leaves plus garbage into even better soil.

Beyond that the benefits of composting are legend. Composting is uplifting. The process continues inexorably, though the citizen may fall. He may race stock cars, get drunk. Eat hamburgers out of polystyrene containers. The compost pile keeps right on working. A compost heap is like a flywheel. You put in some energy and it keeps going even after you quit.

If the citizen has been drinking, and if the hour is propitious, he or she may stop on the way home from the tavern, stand tall or hunker as the case may be, relax, and advance the cause.

Proponents claim this act preempts hangovers. Some argue it's an effective way to reclaim any day after eight hours with shoulder to the flaccid wheel of the service economy. You may push paper, count paper, shred it. Install hardware designed to fail in six months. Evening come, you can still send a few milligrams of nitrogen back to the soil, where it will do its small part toward getting the earth back on course, instead of sending it down the plumbing, where it contributes only to the planet's further unraveling.

Does composting really work? Yes.

How does it work?

How does a 747 fly?

As the smug engineer replied, "It can't help but fly."

A compost pile is a closing loop, a living example of one of those diagrams with arrows chasing each other in a circle that high school biology books still feature.

According to the father of modern composting, the Englishman Sir Albert Howard, it was after World War I that attention to this circle, or what he called the law of return, fell out of favor with agricultural researchers and farmers. Then began in ag research what Howard liked to call the age of the laboratory hermit.

Howard himself was a consultant to overseas growers in the late heyday of the British Empire, a kind of colonial troubleshooter, and apparently a good one. He believed that many crop problems--poor yield and pest infestation above all--could be minimized or mitigated by maintaining the health of the soil, or what he liked to call its "tilth."

To promote healthy soil, he advocated "mixed husbandry" (the raising of animals and crops in close proximity), a diversity of crops as opposed to "monoculture," and the return of all organic wastes to the soil.

Hearkening back to Darwin, Howard took note of the fact that soil itself is a complex organic environment, evolved over millions of years and teeming with bacteria, trace elements, and mycelia, the microscopic strands that are part of the life cycle of fungi.

The laboratory hermit, seizing on some valid but extremely limited research, reduced this rain-forest-underfoot to a dead matrix, to be seasoned artificially with requisite amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Howard called the syndrome "the NPK mentality"--N, P, and K being the chemical symbols for those three essential plant nutrients.

Hard-nosed men with an eye on the bottom line paid Howard a lot of money to put his theories into practice--although in his case it worked the other way around as often as not, the practice coming before the theory. He was a hands-on scientist whose life work added up to a broad vision, a type of synthesizing mind that became increasingly rare in the exploitative frenzy of the 20th century.

What was his secret? For one thing, he respected traditional agricultural practice. "Though confronted with some ignorance and a good many shortcomings, he allowed himself to be convinced of the permanent validity of the peasant achievement," wrote Louise E. Howard (the wife) in her book Sir Albert Howard in India.

Howard won a few battles in his time, becoming a seminal figure in what until recently was usually regarded as a kind of cult. (One of those who studied him was J.I. Rodale, researcher, organic farming advocate, and founder of the Rodale Press.)

But he lost the war. Artificial fertilizers revolutionized agriculture and brought with them an age of industrial monoculture, which, for some complex reasons, inevitably became also the age of pesticides.

Proponents of the new way liked to say that industrial agriculture fed the millions, that it was the most productive system ever invented, that one farmer in America could feed 200 people. One heard this sort of thing a lot during the 1970s, when the deans and entrenched professors of the land grant colleges began to be put on the defensive by the incipient alternative agriculture movement.

They usually failed to mention that behind the farmer was the small army needed to produce, package, and distribute the pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers that were indispensable to achieving his incredible yield per acre.

They also forgot to mention that the whole system is based on a single commodity--oil--as both fuel for the machines and raw material for the chemical inputs. Oil has always been the cheat card for industrial agriculture, enabling defenders to say the U.S. had the most efficient agricultural system in the world.

But critics honed in on that concept "efficient," suggesting it ought to be defined as calories of output compared to calories of input. So defined, they argued, it followed that the United States had the least efficient agricultural system ever devised, less efficient even than that of the most primitive slash-and-burn jungle yam farmer. To produce his extraordinary yields, the industrial farmer had not only to consume, directly and indirectly, many barrels of oil per growing season, he had to "mine the soil"--take the accumulated organic wealth of the millennia and use it up.

"Thievery pure and simple," Howard called it in An Agricultural Testament.

Today, some of the most advanced research in soil ecology and agriculture is based--in some cases explicitly--on Howard's theories.

Dr. Stephen Gliessman, director of the ten-year-old agroecology program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says "Sir Albert Howard had a lot to do with the early days of our program."

Gliessman says that scientists in the Santa Cruz program are confirming some key tenets of Howard's work: that mixed husbandry and crop diversity--and the soil conditions these practices engender--themselves act as buffers against pests.

Howard's theories can be understood as the agricultural equivalent of preventive medicine. Just as in medicine massive doses of antibiotics can counteract a pervasive failure in personal or public health, so can massive applications of pesticides counteract a failure to maintain the soil's health. In both cases, the applied remedy is widely abused and has a gaping downside that the professional mainstream has tended to ignore.

There hasn't been much research in the area of preventive health in agriculture. The effect of "good tilth," companion planting, the subtleties of crop rotation, the efficiencies of indigenous seed stocks, and the benefits of various techniques for "micro-management" of the farm were neglected for years in the schools. Traditional agriculture yields many suggestions and clues, and independent researchers like Rodale have followed some of them up but until recently, in the mainstream of scientific research this area was a black hole.

The reason has to do with the economics of the research institutions themselves. While the typical scientist prides himself on objectivity perhaps even more than the journalist, his claim is even more suspect. Empirical and experimental science is not written so much by the results of testing as it is by the choice of what is to be tested. For better or for worse, some investment juggernaut always feeds it.

In agricultural research, it has definitely been a mixed blessing, as seed companies, chemical companies, and other bastions of industrial farming acquired a near monopoly on agricultural research after World War II. By the 1960s, the sellout of the land grant colleges to agribusiness was virtually complete.

Howard's theories have been resurrected in the United States in the movement called "sustainable agriculture," and there are signs of change in the land grant colleges. At the University of Minnesota (where some years ago a prominent ag school professor was advising home owners to use chlordane to kill earthworms), a sustainable-agriculture institute with farmers and representatives of community groups on the board of directors recently was formed. The University of Illinois, the University of Iowa, and the University of Wisconsin, as well as the University of California, among others, also have established sustainable-agriculture programs.

It's interesting to note that sustainable agriculture has nosed its way into the land grant system--and is mentioned and in a minor way promoted in federal legislation--at roughly the same moment in history that landfills have begun to turn away landscape waste and large numbers of people suddenly have acquired an economic interest in composting. In the cities as well as the country, the law of return is reasserting itself as it becomes increasingly difficult to hide or foist off on next decade's taxpayer the cost of violating it.

There is no magic to backyard composting, except the main magic. But there are a few tips, which any composter will gladly share with anyone who will listen or watch.

I once observed a master of the art who kept a compost pile like some people keep a mistress. Farm-raised, he was at the time working for a seed and dry goods co-op, already a prototype environmental soldier by the time of the first Earth Day. One winter morning I accompanied him on a seed run and was astonished when on the return trip he drove off the road to an inner-city field between a freeway wall and some railroad tracks.

On the field was a pile of leaves and hay taller than a doorway and with a footprint roughly equal to that of a couple of parked cars. He stopped next to the pile and got out with a spade and a bucket of potatoes gone soft, which he had stashed in the back of the truck. With the spade, he knocked away some snow at about waist height, poked into the pile, and lifted.

It was as if he had opened a door into an idling furnace. Steam rose into the winter air. Holding it open with the spade, he threw the potatoes in, then let the flap close.

This guy didn't talk much, but the image was clear: think of the whole setup in terms of a matrix with fuel. The matrix is the leaves, grass, or hay--the dry stuff that's now banned from Illinois landfills. The fuel is the garbage. The trick to maintaining city compost that will not offend most neighbors and will keep inspectors, rats, and flies at bay is to use a lot of matrix to accommodate a little garbage.

There are a few other essentials. The compost pile needs air, and the moisture has to be kept within a certain range.

Luckily, you don't have to worry much about these requirements. Kitchen garbage itself usually contains moisture. Don't skimp on stale coffee or soup gone bad. The compost pile likes slop.

Take care of the oxygen requirement by turning the pile every time you add to it. Just make sure some of the matrix ends up on top of the garbage. If the pile fails to get enough air--if for instance the custodian is so neat and foolish as to contain the whole mess in plastic or keep it too wet--the result will be a different kind of composting, called anaerobic (without air). Ultimately it works, but it stinks. To avoid this during sustained periods of rain, you may have to cover the pile.

A spade is probably the single most indispensable tool for the urban composter. It's used to bury the garbage, turn the pile, chop some items, like squash rinds, into more digestible pieces, and in general keep things moving around. In the end, use the spade to shovel the resulting product onto the garden, where it can be worked into the existing dirt or used straight.

If used straight, the grower should either experiment for a season or find out if there are any problems with the mixture by testing or asking an expert. Compost based on leaves, for example, is relatively acidic and, depending on the crop, may need to be buffered; bonemeal, available by the sack at garden stores, is recommended.

Another caution: Be wary of leaves scraped off city streets. They are probably highly contaminated with lead, petroleum products, and other vehicle throw-offs.

The composting process takes from a week to several months, depending on the temperature, the moisture, the mix, and the fineness of the ingredients.

This is the basic picture. Composting will work as an open pile on the ground, whether shaped like a blob, an anthill, a pyramid, or a druid totem.

The ancient Chinese composted in wooden towers several stories high. They used "nightsoil" (human waste, which they carted out from the cities), as well as garbage and agricultural waste. This practice, while it is more ecologically sound and--once all the costs are added up--almost certainly more cost-effective than the current system that begins with flush toilets and ends with heavy metal-laced sludge, is not recommended for what might be called political reasons.

For the urban or suburban composter, the next evolutionary step after the freestanding pile is the pile backed up against a wire mesh fence.

From there, the variations are endless. A perimeter made of wood, brick, or cinder block is commonly employed. Aficionados living in apartments have been known to compost in a waste basket or an old trunk on a balcony. There is something to be said, however, for keeping the pile on the ground where it can connect back to earth central.

One popular variation is to contain it in a bin. Two-by-fours sharpened and pounded into the ground at the four corners become the frame. Lay a wood block on the end of the post as you hammer in order to avoid splintering the wood. Wooden slats can be nailed at all four sides, or leave the front side open for access. Between the slats, leave spaces that can be closed off with chicken wire.

Painting the wood is not recommended unless you want your compost seasoned with paint additives like mercury or lead.

As a barrier to animals and flies, lay an old screen over the top, or, for the crowning touch, make it a tight-fitting hinged door. With that much engineering, you can afford to get careless about the garbage-to-matrix ratio.

In any case, it's a good idea to have a stockpile of clean matrix nearby in case the pile does get overloaded with garbage or one of your enlightened pals gives you a crate of rotten peaches for your birthday.

Another variation is the double bin. Build it in two sections with a wooden divider between them. This is useful because there comes a time when you want to quit adding to the first pile, and instead just turn it and let it work until you have the homogeneous end product, give or take a few grapefruit rinds. If you have a double bin, you can let the process go to completion in bin number one while you start adding garbage to bin number two.

Worms help. If there aren't any around, try to add some. "Studies indicate" earthworms act as a kind of supercharger for a compost pile: the availability of nutrients in the soil increases when worms are working; worms also improve the soil's texture and its ability to hold water through a dry season.

If the pile gets sloppy and rotten toward the bottom, you'll need to get some oxygen into the mix. A common method is to pound a few stakes into the pile. Sharpened broom handles, two-by-twos, or two-by-fours will do. Some practitioners recommend sections of PVC drainpipe, a plastic pipe that comes with holes in it. Leave the stakes or the pipe sections in the pile and wiggle them back and forth once in a while.

If you are among those who believe that nothing will happen unless you spend money, there are ways to do it. Prefabricated bins, "inoculants," and special thermometers for taking the pile's temperature from time to time are available. Next summer there should be lots more of these devices on the market.

In the meantime, all you need to do is rake up a pile, dump in some coffee grounds, and mark it with your flag.

Composting simply harnesses a natural process that has been going on for a long time. With few exceptions, it ceases only where human engineering triumphs, as in the case of the 20th-century landfill, a technological marvel that previous eras could not have imagined: acres of land on which a cycle of decomposition and regeneration that took four billion years to evolve is stopped dead in its tracks.

You don't have to do much to get it going again except throw a few ingredients in one place and mostly leave them alone.

Remember, you read it here first.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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