4: Eulogy for a Compost Pile

4: Eulogy for a Compost Pile

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

Eulogy for a Compost Pile

Compost: Because a rind is a terrible thing to waste.

~Author Unknown

When I was twelve years old I helped my dad build the Cadillac of all compost bins in our back yard. This majestic edifice was made from twenty-four full-sized alfalfa hay bales. It may not have been the world’s most beautiful building material, but when we finished stacking the bales together like overgrown toy blocks, we had a large, sturdy enclosure that held in moisture and held off frost. I will always remember the first time my dad successfully got the pile to “heat.” He came running into the house with a soil temperature thermometer in his hand, inviting the entire household to come “take his pile’s temperature.” For the rest of that summer, any visitors to the house were required to visit the compost pile as one of our home’s main attractions.

(Yes, my adolescence was an eccentric one. But very satisfying, all the same.)

For the rest of my teenage years, that composter did its duty. I do remember occasionally resenting its existence, particularly when Dad assigned me the chore of emptying food scraps into it after every meal. But as I lived with it season after season, I eventually began to understand my dad’s enthusiasm. Everything we grew in our family garden either became a part of our bodies or went right back into that composter, to miraculously dissemble itself and eventually become a part of the produce I ate the next year. To quote the teenage me, “How much cooler can you get?”

In due course, I grew up and began a life of my own… but the composter stayed right where it was. It was a fixture of life at my parents’ house, and I visited it at least once during every vacation home. However, eventually the day came when caring for a large house and garden got to be too much for my parents, and they decided to move to a smaller home in the city. Many things about the old place needed sprucing up to ready it for sale, but the real estate agent was the firmest about one of them. The composter needed to be disassembled, ASAP. “Rotting vegetables don’t sell houses,” she said.

Accordingly, the next sunny weekend Dad and I assembled with pitchforks in hand, ready to take our old friend apart. It felt oddly like a funeral, and we were both very quiet as we tore apart the bales, setting them aside for a neighbor who wanted them for mulch. Then we started on the remaining compost itself, pitching it into a wheelbarrow so we could give the garden one last top dressing.

As we got closer to the bottom of the pile, my dad’s pitchfork made a loud clink. Frowning, he reached into the soil… and pulled out a china plate, unbroken and perfect. I recognized it as belonging to a dining set we’d had when I was still a teen. “How on earth did that get there?” I asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine. But if I had to say, I’d say that once upon a time some butterfingers were scraping something into the pile from the plate, lost hold of it, and then decided the plate wasn’t worth rescuing.”

“I never did that!”

“Now, who ever said that those butterfingers belonged to you?” Dad answered with a grin. “They could just as easily have been mine. Butterfingers tend to run in the family. Come on. Let’s see what else we can find.”

As we worked to the very bottom of the pile, we discovered many other “butterfingers” finds: a paring knife, a fork, several corn-on-the-cob holders, and a truly staggering number of vegetable peelers. (“I thought we’d lost a few more of those over the years than was normal,” my dad said mildly.) Other less explainable items included a cat collar (we’d always been dog people) and a Frisbee I couldn’t even remember owning, let alone playing with. When we’d finished destroying the pile and had rinsed the final item under the hose — a green plastic yo-yo that I did remember and was very glad to have back (it had disappeared when I was thirteen, after the string had broken during a particularly exuberant ’round the world) — my dad cradled the old toy in his hands. “Lots of history in this compost pile,” he said reflectively.

It was a very sad moment. I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded. Dad was quiet for a little while longer, and then he went to the house and returned with a large one-gallon canning jar. I watched while he solemnly scooped some of the compost into it, then, less solemnly, retrieved the long-buried fork and tucked it into the jar as well. “To start the next one,” he said with a grin.

My mom and dad now live in town with a much smaller compost pile tucked into one corner of the yard. Contained by chicken wire, it’s hardly the Cadillac Composter of days gone by, but it’s still perfectly suited to the small, made-for-two veggie garden they now maintain. I sometimes wonder what will happen when the property eventually moves on to other owners and they discover a fork along with who-knows-what other “butterfingers” artifacts in that part of the garden — but it doesn’t really matter. The whole point of keeping a compost pile is to be in touch with the cycles of nature, to understand how the leftovers of the past become the crops of the future. And in that way, our old composter will always live on.

~Kerrie R. Barney

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