(About Comfest, compost, identity, and transformation)
Compost and Comfest go together. I thought about this last month, when Comfest was passing through Goodale Park and our neighborhood, and passing through our lives. I checked the Comfest website, and sure enough, the food vendors are supposed to compost the organic waste in their booths.
I’m on board with this, too. Our family has been composting for about two years now, and our project beautifully complements the Statement of Principles of Comfest, which includes, “People should strive to conduct their lives in harmony with the environment.” I can imagine few activities more environmentally harmonious than turning my organic refuse into nutrient-rich soil that I can use for my garden and potted plants.
During the fall of 2014, I scavenged three wooden pallets from a pile of trash at a nearby construction site, and attached them to a section of fence in our back yard. I made a front panel from a piece of scrap plywood, and then I threw in our dead leaves along with our banana peels, spoiled spinach, shredded carrots, eggshells, coffee grounds & filters, and other debris. And I topped it off with a big shovelful of our garden dirt, which I hoped would contain the worms, beetles, mites, actinomycetes, bacteria, and other critters that do the heavy lifting.
After just two days, I saw beetles and tiny worms swarming over a dark banana, slurping up the rotting residue as the peel “went bad” (or for them, “went good”). As it turns out, my disgusting decomposing fruit and vegetable debris is their favorite food.
I continued to add organic waste each day, and within a month, I observed the beginnings of soil (bug poop?). They were methodically transforming my rotting food into compost.
I like the idea of producing and harvesting compost soil for my tomatoes and ferns, and I like the idea of reducing (albeit by an infinitesimal amount) the garbage in our landfill. But my primary motivation and deep joy comes from participating in the mystery of transformation. The worms’ work points to a much larger, ubiquitous, and universal phenomenon: the transformative interplay between chaos and structure. These are natural, complementary processes in our universe, sometimes referred to as the forces of Entropy (the tendency of all things toward disorder) and Life (the tendency to organize, grow and reproduce). All structures break down and disintegrate into chaos over time, and life-forces build this chaos into various structures over time.
The worms and other critters provide a powerful metaphor of mythic scale, an archetypal image of complementary relationships that appears everywhere. Abandoned houses rot and collapse, weeds destroy the sidewalks, iron fences rust and disintegrate, and of course, everything dies. Yet at the same time, more trees grow and new homes are constructed, new sidewalks and fences are built, and life continues to flourish; seeds interact with nutrients and with the sun to transform into vast arrays of fruits, vegetables and other plants. Whether falling apart or coming together, everything transforms all the time. Nothing is immutable. Even Mick Jagger.
Within living organisms, these two processes occur simultaneously, revealing two sides of the same living coin. Every organic transformation is a combination of this chaos and structure. The worms create new order (their own physical growth and reproduction) out of disorder (decaying and digested organic matter). So do we. Chewed and digested food becomes part of me, too, and I grow as new cells replace old cells. Even more amazing (as we discussed here last November), the roles blur between “the digested” (the masticated, swallowed apple) and “the digester” (me). An apple moving through my stomach and intestines transforms me, altering my body as I transform it. In a sense, we pass through each other. We interact. We merge.
From a philosophical perspective, every chaotic breakdown is accompanied by a change in identity, a metaphorical death and rebirth. Everything that transforms into something new passes through this “death” of sorts before it changes (literally re-incarnating, for those of us made of flesh) into a new “something”. Yeast literally dies as it transforms flour into bread, and barley into beer. And when we inhale, the oxygen metaphorically “dies” too, giving up its identity, and then transforming and leaving with a piece of us tagging along as carbon dioxide. An acorn falls to the ground and relinquishes its identity as it becomes an oak tree. When our son left our home to start the next phase of his life, he passed through the ending of one son-parent relationship with us, allowing a new relationship to develop.
So we join the composting worms and beetles and bacteria in this dance: much of the world passes through us, and we pass through our physical, biological, psychological and spiritual worlds, relinquishing some of our identities along the way in exchange for a transformed self. It seems that we must engage on some level with chaos and destruction to fully participate in the process of life. If we give up a part of ourselves, we might emerge in a much more interesting place. See you on the other side.