There is something deeply spiritual about composting. For years I’ve had a compost pile, really just a refuse heap confined by pig wire. It was almost impossible to turn or to get at any of the finished compost. The flies were very happy though. With my sacred space, where I like to celebrate the Wheel of the Year, just a buzz away from my compost, I thought it was time to do something different. I decided to finally get some worms and start using the vermicomposter I bought a couple of years ago and to seriously upgrade my conventional compost bin, which thanks in large part to my wonderful spouse is now made of cedar fencing with a removable door.
Before I got my worms, the red wigglers who now live in my vermiculture bin, I composted because I knew it was the right thing to do and because I wanted that black gold gardeners are always talking about, but I wasn’t really emotionally engaged with the process. I hadn’t yet felt the calling.
Charles Darwin in his delightful examination of the behavior of worms, published in his book The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations on their habits, found that worms possess the ability to discriminately direct their attention and at times to over-ride reflexive reactions. In other words, worms are not automatons, but exhibit conscious awareness and individual willful discernment directed toward those things that worms care about. I doubt many modern scientists would interpret their data in this way, not because it is somehow an illogical conclusion, but rather because it is not in line with materialistic philosophy. Anyway, I think of my worms rather like pets with which I have a mutually beneficial relationship.
Worms are not fussy, but worms that live in plastic bins do require some attention. Like us, worms prefer moderate temperatures between 40° and 80° F. Keeping the worms happy and healthy requires getting the right balance of greens (high nitrogen fresh scraps) and browns (high carbon fibers- mostly shredded paper in my case). High nitrogen materials can really heat up as they decompose. Worms also like their food cut up in small pieces, the smaller the better, so I have been running a lot of my scraps through a food processor before mixing it with paper and feeding it to the worms. As a high produce consuming vegan, I am producing too much kitchen scraps for my current population of worms to handle, and so the overflow, as well as those things worms don’t really like to eat (citrus peels, onions, spicy stuff), and my lawn and landscape clippings are destined for my newly improved backyard compost bin, where another species of worm likes to hang out.
There is something about composting and feeding my worms that just sparks a feeling of connectedness in me that recycling doesn’t. Recycling is also very important to me, but the benefits of recycling are kind of abstract – happening at a distance, at a large scale – but composting is something we can have a direct relationship with. Almost any kind of non-animal origin organic material, appropriately shredded, can become worm food or otherwise composted, including paper and natural textiles. I find myself looking around my house and wondering: “Could the worms eat this? Will this be safe to compost?”
Of course as a devout naturalistic pantheistic pagan, I believe that all of Nature, everything in Nature, is sacred, but it doesn’t always feel that way especially on garbage day. Sending things to a landfill is just not a spiritually uplifting activity. We send to the landfill those things which we don’t want and don’t know what to do with, those things which are no longer useful, no longer valuable.
Composting just feels sacred, like making an offering to a chthonic deity. I don’t think I can define just what I mean by sacred. It is this feeling of humble gratitude in the presence of something special, something important, something meaningful. Composting reminds me that this too, the leftover scraps of life, is Gaia, belongs to Gaia and should be given back to Gaia to be transformed once again. What is sacred at its end is also sacred at its beginning. It feels so good to be connected with what is sacred. It makes everything feel meaningful, valuable.
So many of the problems our world faces are so big, everywhere, yet so distant, outside of our control. But one thing we all have a lot of control over is our household ecology; what we buy and what we do with it when we are done. Connecting with my compost has got me thinking more about this, asking myself: “Where will this be, what will this be in 50 years, 100 years, 500 years?” If I can help it I don’t want to buy those things destined for the landfill, those things which can’t be or won’t be composted or recycled.
There is just something about garbage, about the waste disposal industry and landfills in general that just feels polluted, like a miasma, that which is unclean in a spiritual sense. It is not necessarily the stuff itself or the fact that it is buried. It is the way it’s treated; the fact that it is garbage. Or maybe it is the stuff. Garbage just invokes the feeling of disgust, which according to Jonathan Haidt is at the bottom of religious pollution. I want to be cleaned of this miasma as much as possible. I want even the landfills to somehow be brought into right relationship, to be made clean, to be a suitably abode for deity, even if she wears the face of Medusa.
Death is a gift to life. Without death the spark of life would burn out. Composting is a small but powerful way to witness and to engage with the transformation of death into a source for life. And for me, there is just something special about caring for my worms that helps me bring it all together, to feel connected to the cycle of death and birth, which I celebrate in the Wheel of the Year and participate in everyday in my own backyard.