‘Can You Kill A Compost’ and Other Gardening Metaphors

“Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,

It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,

It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,

It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,

It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,

It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.”

“This Compost”

Walt Whitman


My roommate left a trash heap when she moved.

It’s a tale as old as time. How often is it really a pile of trash, though?

Currently, I’m hovering over a fly-infested nettle of dead leaves, newspaper, egg shells, and bugs, wondering what comes next. She’d made this poetic statement on composting being a “form of alchemy,” and it hooked me into caring for it after she moved out. “This is a living organism; a life.”

Then I saw it in person. A rotund, stinky mound I likened to a Garbage Pale Kid and could almost envision breathing, making noises like Jabba the Hut.

“Can I call it something like ‘Gross Gus’, or ‘Dumpy Dan’?” I asked enthusiastically.


It’s about 4:30 pm in the afternoon on a Monday, and I’m staring into the eyes of my dumpy, smelly child. It wants to be fed todays scraps. My other roommate Lucero and I are standing outside wondering what exactly we’re looking at when she starts snickering at it;

“Oh my goodness, this scene.”

 It’s strange to the noob composter, all the flies buzzing about. She asks;


“can you kill a compost?”


“I don’t think you can kill what’s dead; unless we’re dealing with some kind of zombie-vampire compost pile. Then again [I point] it’s surrounded by stakes and has chunks of garlic in it. I think we’re good.”

I grab the pitchfork, impale it for good measure, and start doing my version of ‘turning’ it as we both laugh at my maniacal pitch-turn-toss of large chunks of rotting cauliflower, avocado rind, and bug.

“Look– I’m ‘la bruja’ stirring up my pot.”

We’re new to composting, though I’ve seen vain attempts in the past. This pile is made into usable soil, which then grows vegetables on the side of the house that we eat. What we eat goes through its own various cycles: more seeds for the garden, waste for the sewer, green matter for the compost; physical energy for work to be completed out in the real world, fueling the various machines.

That whole alchemy thing finally begins to sink in.

As though by divine timing, this trash baby found me at the perfect moment, to be a metaphor for my situation. I’d been nursing wounds, internal and external since being injured on a bike last fall and spending some more of my life alone, rotting away in the hospital.

This compost is like a secondary physical manifestation of me.

In a couple weeks, I’ll have my second surgery.  I’m no stranger to being ill– or dumped on for that matter, and I consider what’s inside the heap. Where it began, the hope of what it can become and grow from it, and I’m reminded of my own strength.

“Can you kill a compost pile?”

Yes, yes you can. I go inside and look up information on keeping one, finding a lot of connections between the compost and my own emotional state. There’s been this absolute pleasure in having the useless parts of myself decay, or die off so that something new may grow. Things like despair, and learned helplessness.

I read that when it’s right, things break down, as earthworms come through the pile, the center of it will become a crumbly, sweet-smelling ‘black-gold.’

That’s pretty profound when you think about it and consider your own bitterness, suffering, and the joy that breaking down can bring you. I finally understand why so many writers got into gardening, as it’s helping me to ground myself and the roots of my experience– even if I’m currently terrible at it.

Though I know I should be working to understand Gross Gus,  and how to keep all his PH levels balanced, I’m turned to the flowery language of poet Walt Whitman’s “This Compost”  instead:

“That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease, /Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.”

I turn it over in my mind, like the dingy, smelly Earth on that pitchfork, while considering my illnesses. The poison each might have been  to my soul had I left it to pile up, and how it has served as fertilizer to an enduring sense of optimism, the more I’ve learned to shift the weight of the decaying parts of me. (I know, stop with the metaphors, already!)

My current shit heap doesn’t quite make sense in the short term, except that I can see all these little earthworms breaking through a hardened heart and turning what once was black for a spell, into black-gold, planting seeds for future growth. More importantly, I’ve learned that all-important lesson chronically-ill people need to learn:


You may have an illness, but it doesn’t have you.


I think of the promise in both situations; the compost I’m attending to and the wounds I’m always working to heal. They could go one way or another.

All bodies sour eventually.  It’s a beautiful, disgusting fact of life. A lot like this compost pile!

Things must decay, and we will die in a million different ways in one lifetime. Walt and gardeners are onto something, working with this form of spiritual alchemy, because we as humans are a bunch of  upright walking compost piles. 

We’re all waiting to for the right ‘hands’ to turn us, change us and break us down, as we rebuild and grow into something new.  Whatever those hands are. If we know how to shift the weight, break down the pieces of the material inside us, we can use all these parts of ourselves to feed something else entirely and grow something completely new from what was once thought of as ‘waste.’

Or maybe we’re laying back, collecting scraps, and not shifting anything at all. In this case we really do become a big, smelly, useless pile of trash, even though we’re all filled with the same things. 


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