A Helping Heaping

Compost happens. At least it does at my house. I know its benefits. It has transformed my rocky clay soil into an Eden for vegetables and flowers. For years I have been stacking up my garden debris and letting the rains rot it to a brown mound in a neglected corner of the garden. Occasionally I have approached this heap in a systematic way, mixing it with droppings provided by a friend’s rabbit, watering it, turning it, watching it heat up and steam, and miraculously transform within just a few weeks. But this is a lot of work. The forces of nature will do the same thing for me in just a year. So I don’t sweat it. I just pile garden trimmings, dead leaves and kitchen scraps and let them rest in peace for a while.

This laissez-faire attitude has resulted in quite a sizable heap this year. Not yet reduced by winter rains, the pile has reached a height of about four feet and a diameter of six or eight. In an excess of optimism and zeal, I started watering the heap a few weeks ago with a thought to speeding up the process and intervening in a labor-intensive way. It’s been long enough since I’ve done it that way for the memory of how much work it is to fade.

Last week the little time I had to spend in the garden was used to plant garlic, a prized heirloom German variety, certainly something I needed to do more than turn compost. Suddenly as I was burying the garlic cloves, I became aware of a rustling or chomping noise in the brush. Puzzled, I looked around and could see nothing. Slowly and quietly I walked in the direction of the sound. It appeared to be emanating from the compost pile. As I approached, activity ceased. I stationed myself next to the heap and stood without moving a muscle.

A minute passed and another. Then tentatively the rustling commenced again. There was definitely something happening in there no more than a couple of feet from me at about knee level. I could see no movement, but I held my breath and waited, hoping to see a head emerge. Little by little the sound moved toward me until only a few clumps of dead grass separated me from the persistent activity. Was it a wood rat building a nest? Was it a mole, the one that ceaselessly aerates my garden leaving roots dangling in an underground abyss or causing flagstones on the patio to tilt? Was it looking for insects reactivated in the recently moistened pile? I was determined to be patient and learn its identity

But my patience was no match for a critter whose ceaseless activity insures its survival. It moved away from me in the dank interior tunnel it had carved. The brush moved almost imperceptibly as it started off on a new vector. I returned to my garlic.

Will I disturb the chambers it has staked claim to in my brush pile? Of course I will, that is if I work up the energy to indulge in active composting. But if I don’t, I can rest secure in the knowledge that my pile will be churned—and without my stirring a muscle—by other creatures more energetic than I who have as much claim to the heap as I do. And compost will happen.

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