More than a few people are surprised that I genuinely love working with compost. Sure, it smells bad sometimes and is occasionally slimy when it gets out of balance. But I enjoy being part of creating fresh, rich earth from unneeded scraps of vegetables that would otherwise go to landfills.
It’s fun to think about the carbon-to-nitrogen (brown-to-green) ratio, to take the temperature of the pile and to turn it. The beautiful dark soil a good compost pile generates is a satisfying reward.
Yet amid the pleasurable parts of composting is the act of bearing witness to decomposition.
As we sing in the hymn “Abide with Me”:
Change and decay in all around I
O Thou who changest not, abide
In a world where there’s deterioration around us and within us, gardening in general and composting in particular remind us of the fullness of the life cycle, even the parts we’d rather forget. It’s difficult to welcome some of the changes we go through at any age. Yet seeing the process of other parts of creation come from dust and return to dust nurtures a sense of acceptance as we remember God’s presence with us in all stages of living and dying.
And so I revel and reflect as I work in my own garden and with our church’s garden ministry as we experiment with different methods of turning organic material into earth.
I use a metal composter for pieces of wood and thick stems that will take a long time to decompose and don’t need to be turned much.
Kitchen scraps and trimmings from the vegetables and flowers in the yard go into an open pile. While I enjoy turning compost with a pitchfork, I’m contemplating buying a tumbler to generate the natural fertilizer more quickly. Plus, while the neighbors haven’t complained, the open-air compost isn’t the nicest-looking part of our yard. But tumblers do tend to be expensive, so it’s worth thinking through the purchase.
Our church garden’s compost bins got a makeover recently with recycled wood pallets. At our last workday, two volunteers and I turned the piles and sifted the finished compost to put on top of tree roots and in our pumpkin patch. It’s satisfying to have made our own organic fertilizer for our plants.
In both locations, my fellow composters and I continue to ponder what’s best to add and what to leave out. Seasoned gardeners often advise not putting any weeds in compost bins or piles, or at least not weeds that might have seeds, which small-scale composting is usually not hot enough to deactivate. We also look out for plant disease and remove affected stems and leaves.
In this way composters attend to the decay, vulnerability to disease and damage, and unwanted growth that are part of any life cycle. The materials we work with mirror our own mortality. Not just the ultimate end of our earthly journey but the struggles along the way.
But even as we watch deterioration, we can catch opportunities to see the preciousness of life. And as we nurture new growth, we remember that all of creation is groaning toward its ultimate renewal by God’s power.
For while we are vulnerable to decay, we are also capable of revealing God’s glory in our time between dust and dust, and beyond.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.