Tuesday, January 10, 2012

composting: the whole truth and nothing but the truth

For years I wanted to compost.  After all, why should we send our biodegradale trash away on a gas guzzling truck? Every time I read about it, however, the science overwhelmed me (it doesn’t take much science to curdle my literature minded brain). 

If you want to do it right, it’s all about balance:  nitrogen, carbon, brown stuff, green stuff, water, sun, shade; turn it, stir it, shovel it, layer it, love it. 

Forget it.

Then one day someone gave me their old composter.  Taking it as a sign, I threw my composting caution to the wind and started tossing stuff in there.  My only rule: no animal protein. 

What could go wrong?

Nothing, really.  Well, except the smell.  Oh, and the rats.

This particular composter had no bottom—it was just a dome you secured over the ground with a lid on top.  For several years, I happily watched our food-waste dissolve into the earth.  Granted, the smell would blow your hair back, but only when you opened it—so we did that with lightning speed, not daring to breath as we tilted the lid and slid our potato peels in, like slipping a raw steak into a lion’s cage.

Thankfully, I didn't have to go up there often.  I could always find a child who deserved to take the compost out.   I just deemed it an educational experience: a learn-to-be-green-in-a-hands-on-small-house-big-picture kind of way.
My neighbor had a similar experiment percolating in her backyard; only her composter was self-contained.  Without the benefit of an earthy bottom to help gobble things up, hers eventually filled and required: emptying.  One fine day, her fearless husband dumped that wretched container into their backyard where it released such a stench that another neighbor came over to inquire if perhaps a septic line had burst. 

She told me this in a hushed whisper over the backyard fence—how mortifying, we agreed, to have created such an odor as that, no matter how you went about it!  We laughed and blushed and layed our hands across our chests.  “Oh my! “ she exclaimed, “I’ve never smelled anything like it in my life!”

“Perhaps,” we speculated, “it has something to do with that layering thing we were reading about?”

Meanwhile, my family continued with our proven method of coordinated exhalation.  Then one day, I noticed a big hole in the muck. 

“Hmmm…What could that be?” I wondered moronically.

I shifted the debris around with a stick, shoving a grapefruit rind into the hole as a plug.  The next day, the grapefruit was gone.  The hole: round and clean.  And I knew.


I also knew that word about this unattended cornucopia would travel fast among our slithery intelligent friends.  Still, we thought we’d try to trap them “in case” there were just a few.

I set a trap that night.  The next day? No need to explain. 

What do you do with a dead rat?  Remember, no animal protein in my composter (unless it’s in there having breakfast, of course).  I had to get rid of the revolting thing, and quick, before the neighbors discovered me.  No one wants to be the one who invited the rats to dinner. 

So, with a combination of stealth and nonchalance (think Robert Hanssen stashing a package under a bridge for the Russians) I tied my secret rodent friend up in a newspaper bag and snuck him into my trash for collection. 

Then I reprimanded myself, thinking, “let me get this straight: it’s offensive to send leftover carrot sticks to the landfill, but it’s totally ok to tie dead rats up in plastic and throw them out for pick up?”

How is that green? 

Several days and the same number of rats later, I couldn’t take it anymore.  We clearly wouldn’t "get them all,” and an aura of ghastly macabre had settled around our composter turned  death chamber.  Given such fodder, Edgar Allen Poe would have produced another classic for sure.  I began to imagine movement in the shadowy bushes surrounding it; I could feel my gag reflex flexing as I approached it.  I feared I might hear a tapping from inside it in the dead of the night, or find a raven perched upon it in the morning light.  

Finally, I said to myself, "Nevermore!"

For the next and final trip, I sent Steve.   

He undertook his secret mission reluctantly, trudging into the backyard armed with work gloves and another plastic bag.  I waited with consternation, mulling over our next move.  This trapping plan had clearly failed.

A few minutes later, as I washed the breakfast dishes, I sensed something out of the corner of my eye.

I turned.   There stood Steve, pressed against the picture window with a grin that said both “ew!” and “wow!” as one gloved hand pointed victoriously to the other, where dangling stiffly from its tail, hung the biggest rat I’d ever seen (and by then I’d seen a few).   Steve held it up to the glass like a prize large-mouthed bass, poised on the stringer for a photo op.

I gasped in horror--and not just because it was nearly the size of a racoon. Did he walk all the way from the back of our yard holding up his catch ? For all the neighbors to see!?!

I think I said something like “Oh dear mother of god!!” and I’m not catholic—never have been.

He just said, “What?”  like he’d done exactly as I’d asked. 

Needless to say, we quit composting long enough to send our unwelcomed guests away.  While they searched out a new buffet, we saved and bought a new, rat-proof composter. 

Feeling seasoned, we also started mixing nitrogen and carbon, layering green and brown.  It’s not such a big deal! Every time we dumped food, we threw in a handful of weeds, twigs or leaves.  No smell!  

We managed this for a few years, until this past August, when somehow, we ran out of brown stuff.  No more weeds. How could that be?  Things started to fester in the August heat.  I tried to get leaves into it as they began to fall from the trees, but a sort of futility had come over us; it was happening again!

Since nothing really decomposes over the cold of winter, necessity insisted that we empty the bin now.  Otherwise, it would overflow before spring. 

So, if you happened to drive by this past Sunday, you may have noticed that another sewer line apparently went blotto in our neighborhood.   

If anyone asks, we know nothing.  We just walk around casually, checking the mail and getting the paper (like the guy who cuts the cheese then insists he doesn't smell anything).

I’ve decided that composting is sort of like meditating.  When you stray, you shouldn't get discouraged.  Just bring your focus back and start again.

The moral of this story?  The truth?  You too can make a slimy putrid pile of goo! 

Or, if you're particular and would rather have a nice rich source of odorless organic matter for you garden, stick with these simple guiding principles: no animal protein, buy or build a rat proof container, and follow kitchen waste with yard waste (green stuff then brown stuff).

(and green).

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