The diary entries below were written for the edited collection Ecologies of Study: A Book of Secrets. In addition to the hard copy version pictured to the left (Hors d’Oeuvre, 2021), this collection will be part of the digital exhibition “After Progress,” run by Goldsmiths, University of London.
Ever since I found out that earth worms have taste buds
all over the delicate pink strings of their bodies,
I pause dropping apple peels into the compost bin, imagine
the dark, writhing ecstasy, the sweetness of apples
permeating their pores. I offer beets and parsley,
avocado, and melon, the feathery tops of carrots.
I’d always thought theirs a menial life, eyeless and hidden,
almost vulgar—though now, it seems, they bear a pleasure
so sublime, so decadent, I want to contribute however I can,
forgetting, a moment, my place on the menu.1
February 11, 2020
Years ago, I watched a Norwegian film called Kitchen Stories, in which two Swedish “efficiency researchers” observe the actions of two Norwegian men in their kitchens.2 In order to make recommendations for completing everyday tasks, such as doing the dishes, with greater efficiency, the researchers document the men’s movements in great detail: from the sink to the table, from the table to the kitchen cabinet, and so forth.
I had to think of this film today as I was struck by the manifold movements, operations, and manipulations involved in seemingly simple tasks, such as composting. I’m not interested in improving the efficiency of composting; composting is simply a way to combine two things we need: to reduce the waste that trucks and ferries need to take off the island where we live, and to build soil on our small patch of land where only a thin layer of soil – or none at all – covers the bedrock. The idea of “building soil” should not be misconstrued as a productive effort, an expression of homo faber. It is a profoundly reproductive labour, a form of “making do.”3
I will keep a diary this year to document the steps involved in composting, that is, moving and sorting matter to aid in its decomposition. Some will be literal steps, such as the repeated short walks from kitchen to compost bin and back again, while others will be the various actions and procedures that make up larger tasks such as aerating or harvesting compost. It will be my diary of “soil care,” in which I document the “mundane doings of maintenance and repair that sustain everyday life” and, in particular, that sustain soil.4 It will be a personal diary, as the particular mundane doings that work where I live may not be possible or needed at other geographic locations, in other ecosystems. “One form of care does not necessarily work in a different arrangement.”5
February 15, 2020
The compost bucket under the sink is full of coffee grounds, the limp remnants of a bunch of cilantro, avocado skins cut into pieces (those take forever to break down!), more coffee grounds, pumpkin guts, apple and pear cores, a banana peel, and yet more coffee grounds. I take the bucket to the back door and put on my garden clogs and gloves. Before I walk over to the big wooden compost bin, I take the three-tine cultivator we use as a compost fork off its hook in the carport. I put the bucket down in front of the compost bin, and prop the bin’s lid open. Instinctively, I scan the surface for any sudden movement of a mouse or rat, even though we haven’t seen any in our compost for years, and I know the bin is lined all around with a fine mesh that should keep rodents out. The compost smells earthy, not unpleasant. Pill bugs crawl on the top edge of the bin, hidden by the lid until just a moment ago. Eventually, the wooden compost bin will, itself, become compost.
I reach in with the cultivator and dig through the pile, so that drier and newer material is buried, and wetter, more decomposed material is exposed to oxygen. It hasn’t been too cold of late, so the earth worms are scattered throughout the compost, not clumped together in big balls, as they do when it is colder. I bury the compost from my kitchen bucket under the older, freshly mixed layer. Then I walk to the carport and pick up a bucket of shredded maple leaves. I cover the compost pile in a thin layer of leaf mulch and close the lid. The leaf bucket and cultivator go back into the carport, and the kitchen bucket comes back with me to the kitchen for a rinse.
March 8, 2020
I am happy to see that the bowl of rinsed eggshells that has been sitting on the windowsill is dry. The fir needles, arbutus leaves, and heavy rains make our soil acidic, and eggshell powder helps reduce the acidity. With the back of a wooden spoon, I crush the eggshells into small pieces. Then I transfer the crushed shells to a blender, which pulverizes them (loudly!) into powder. It makes less than I hoped it would. I tip the powder into the compost bucket under the sink. Unless we seriously increase our egg consumption, it doesn’t look like we will be generating enough eggshell powder to make much of a difference for our soil. Next time I take out the kitchen compost, I should remember to get the ash bucket from the basement and sieve some ashes onto the compost. I think we still have some dolomite lime in the shed as well, which should help.
March 16, 2020
A road-side farm stand is advertising nettle pesto, and I hear a local brewery even has nettle beer. It reminds me that the stinging nettles have come up, and I had better get out there and harvest some before they flower. Since nettles grow along creeks, there are none to be found in our own garden on the hill, but I remember a few spots where they grow along a hiking trail a short drive away. It is raining and windy, so I bring a waterproof bag rather than my woven basket, along with gloves and garden clippers. Fortunately, nettles are rhizomatic and grow in patches, so when I spot the first one, I quickly see several others growing around it. Clearly, I am not the first to be looking for nettles here, as some plants are already missing their tops, but there is enough for a small harvest.
Once home, I select the smaller tops to dry for tea; the rest, I chop up, put in a bucket with a lid, and add water from the rain barrel. I’ll need to go out and find some more nettles in days to come, or else add other “weeds” that I know are easy to find where we live, such as chickweed and perhaps some early yarrow. (Even though there is little formal research on whether these plants known as “dynamic accumulators” truly contain as many beneficial minerals as they are known for, they can’t possibly make my soil any worse, so it’s worth a try.) I’ll chop the other plants up as well, add them to the bucket of rainwater, and stir them once a day for a few weeks, until it starts to bubble and, I have been told, get pretty smelly. Then I will strain out the plants, add those to the compost pile, and dilute the “tea” as a liquid fertilizer.
April 23, 2020
The yellow flowers reveal the dandelions scattered in the grass. Some might consider removing dandelions a form of “lawn care” but that would be a misnomer on several counts. The grass does not merit the name ‘lawn’; in the summer droughts, it is not watered, left to yellow. In winter, it similarly has to fend for itself as pounding rains compact the soil. I have not yet acquired a taste for the bitter leaves, but have learned to appreciate the dandelion’s taproot’s ability to break up the hard soil. My harvest won’t eradicate them, as they self-seed vigorously. Since I don’t want the seeds in the compost, I must get to them before the yellow flowers turn to white fluff. I dig my weed puller as deep as I can along the base of the plant, and try to dislodge as much of the root as I can. I cut flower, leaves, and roots into small pieces. Before long, half of my bucket will be filled with dandelion pieces, and I can add them to the compost.
May 29, 2020
It’s time to take the kitchen compost out – again. The plastic compost bucket is one of the most intensively used household objects. The snap on the lid broke off years ago and the inside is scratched and stained. I cannot count the number of times a day we pull it out from under the sink. Empty the early morning coffee grounds from the coffee maker, put in the fruit peels from breakfast, empty the leaves from the tea strainer after a morning break, add an apple core or some wilted salad leaves after lunch, then more vegetable peels and trimmings when preparing dinner. The details change with the seasons – lots of broad bean and pea pods in the summer, lots of squash and pear peels in winter – but the bucket is emptied once or twice a week year round. Bring the bucket back in, rinse it, put it outside to dry, and start over.
June 11, 2020
The active compost bin is almost half full now and, the last time I aerated it, I noticed there is quite a layer or rich, black compost at the bottom. Harvest time! I move the bricks that keep the bottom hatch closed, and attach the hook on the hatch to the front of the bin to keep it open. After spreading a tarp in front of the hatch, and moving the more recently added material to the back, I shovel the bottom layer of compost onto the tarp. The worms aren’t happy to be exposed to light and will make their way as quickly as they can to the bottom of the pile, making it easier for me to sieve the compost without harming too many worms.
After a few minutes, when I don’t see any worms on the surface anymore, I shovel the compost from the tarp onto a large sieve that sits loosely on top of the wheelbarrow. After each few shovelfuls, I shake the sieve and rub clumps of compost over the metal mesh to break it up. Pieces that are too large go back into the back of the bin. I shovel and sieve until I’m tired and have a good amount of compost to spread around the plants. We will leave the rest of the compost to mature, so I start a new bin. I spread a thick layer of straw on the bottom of the new bin to absorb the nitrogen-rich liquid seeping out of wet, green materials. Next time I need to empty our kitchen compost bucket, I will do so in the new bin, then cover it with some compost from the old bin (making sure I move some worms) to get it started.
July 25, 2020
Every summer, we keep a large bucket in the back of the car, so that we can collect seaweed when on beach walks. Where we live, collecting seaweed for personal (non-commercial) use is permitted without a license up to 100 kg, and it is a great free resource.6 There is an abundance of rockweed on the rocks, but I will have bring a knife for that next time. Today I only take the seaweed that I can scoop out of the shallow water along the shore, and that the waves have already loosened from the rocks. I move my hands through the water, fingers spread, and rake out the loose seaweed. It is mostly bright green sea lettuce with some blades of kelp and bright red sheets of nubbly Turkish towel mixed in.
I try to steer clear of the eel grass, which is tougher and takes longer to break down, although some recommend it as mulch.7 When I have close to a full bucket, I drain off as much seawater as possible to lighten the bucket. After I get home, I rinse the seaweed once with fresh water to reduce the salt content, then dump it on top of the compost. In the summer heat, it will break down very quickly.
September 20, 2020
Last time we drove along Broadwell Road on our way to the Channel Ridge trails, we noticed a lot of dry maple leaves along the road. Today we have brought a large garbage bag. We stuff armfuls of large, dry maple leaves into the bag, crunching them down as much as we can. Once back home, we dump the leaves in the carport. I pull the larger leaves off their stems, as we have learned the hard way they are too tough for the shredder. Once we have a large pile of stemless leaves, I rig up the leaf shredder and put on my big yellow ear protectors. This machine is fast, but ridiculously loud. I unplug the shredder and empty the bag of shredded leaves into an old ice cream bucket. We go through multiple cycles of this – collect, strip, shred – before the heavy rain turns the leaves to mush. We always need more leaves than we have time or patience for, but I console myself with the idea I am involved in care work as “labors of everyday mundane maintenance, repetitive work, requiring regularity and task reiteration.”8
November 7, 2020
Having attended to my moving of matter, I now wonder how this matter has moved me. Has the labour of composting entered me into a “muddy ecological assemblage … in which the multiple heterogeneous participants that compose an environment render each other available to one another, laying out together the manner in which they and the environment come to exist”?9 Of course, there is an artificiality to this diary: I don’t normally photograph my eggshells or document the contents of my compost bucket. The technologies of representation have undeniably affected what is represented. And yet: the commitment to representation has also made my activities more deliberate, a practice rather than a habit.10 I have read about the benefits and drawbacks of taking materials out of one environment to add to another. I have attended differently to the changing of the seasons: the falling of maple leaves, the re-emergence of nettles. Still mundane but no longer just a chore, composting has become an encounter both studious and caring of the different sights and smells involved; the dandelions reminding me of my childhood, the dry leaf mulch amazingly sweet, even months later.
- Danusha Laméris, “Feeding the Worms,” in Bonfire Opera (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).
- Bent Hamer, Kitchen Stories (IFC Films, 2003).
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1984), 30.
- María Puig de la Bellacasa, “Soil Times: The Pace of Ecological Care,” in Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 170.
- Ibid., 202.
- Government of British Columbia, Aquatic Plant Harvesting.
- Jenni Blackmore, Permaculture for the Rest of Us (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2015), 20.
- Puig de la Bellacasa, “Soil Times,” 206.
- Martin Savransky, “After Progress: Notes for an Ecology of Perhaps,” Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 21, no. 1 (2001), 267-281.
- De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, xv.