Liana and I decided to try a collaborative literary experiment: choose a topic that we would both explore from our different vantage points in Detroit. Although we only live a couple blocks apart, we seem at times to be confronting entirely cities, communities, and cultures—and certainly from different sets of experiences. To further explore these differences, we chose to open our experiment by writing about gardening. If you’d like to participate, we’d love to read links to your thoughts, too. Just drop them in the comments below!
I don’t want to go into it all over again right now, so let me just start by saying that I almost died like 18 times last year from various complications resulting from a plethora of chronic illnesses, so I pretty quickly got used to thinking about death in a functional way. Not, like, as something through which I will personally be able to function. That would be ridiculous. Death as an aspect of existence, as a likelihood, even as a future, um, event. More interestingly, I had to grapple with it so often, I started thinking of death as something that might hold use value to me, now, while I am alive. Death as something that exists in the present, and isn’t wholly bad. Not that I am terribly eager to personally embrace it as a state of being, mind you.
What I am getting at is the idea that death—being inevitable—became at some point for me an intellectual banality, a daily consideration. And that’s when it got interesting. High-school biology classes teach that the cessation of life is the first stage of a whole other process, one that starts with decay, and then becomes nourishment, which is life-giving. Do you see where I am going with this? None of this Live every day as if it were your last business. More like: Live every day as if, at the end of it, you got to foster something new and exciting. I started preparing for death, then, materially as well as emotionally. Not mine, precisely, but in general.
In other words, I started a worm bin.
My move to Detroit in May presented an opportunity to re-establish the foundation of my life without inconveniencing anyone else through divorce, marriage, or birth. So I packed up my worms, drove for five hours, and started digging this new foundation in the unsolid principles of useful decay. This seemed an appropriate metaphor for that particular moment in my life, after several serious health crises, as well as for the city that has come to symbolize urban ruination around the world. Decay not exclusively as death, then, but as both the end of life and the future life that ruination fosters. That’s the part politicians tend to ignore when they warn constituents away from becoming "the next Detroit".
I became a gardener. Not merely one who plants a couple seedlings in some front plots of dirt to see what will happen, although I have the utmost respect for folks who can keep their hobbies in check. I planted seeds, invested in literature, and joined associations. I bought books—first one, now a small library. I eschewed my work—writing, I remind myself sometimes—for projects like stump eradication and research on companion planting. Of course from this emerged the lunch experiments, which quickly evolved from “I can’t wait until these seeds I put in the ground become vegetables I recognize and could buy in the store,” to “this sort of looks like food and did come out of my garden, so I’ll just pop it in my mouth and see what happens.” What’s the worst-case scenario here anyway, it could try to kill me? Runs a query in the back of my mind. Get in line.
Most significantly, I crafted a compost bin from a couple concrete slabs in my back yard, and then another slightly larger one next to it. I daily fill one or the other with food scraps and cover those with a thin veneer of soil. My chronic illnesses come with an array of food restrictions, so I’ve banned what I can’t eat from both my kitchen and my compost bin. Conversely, I’ve forged a pact with my co-conspirators in this life-cycle project—all microbes, insects, and worms—and have eliminated most of what cannot be composted from my diet as well. One should never feed anything to friends, single-celled or otherwise, that one wouldn’t consume oneself.
I have also recently added a third bin, about two feet wide by ten feet long, for turning yard waste into usable soil. In sum, then, I manage three distinct plots of land each devoted to meeting the distinct requirements for draining all vestiges of life from particular forms of organic matter for, ah, re-use. There is more physical space in my life right now devoted to enabling processes of decay than any of my other obsessions except “books.”
My composting habits are not even confined to the yard. Indoors, I keep my worm bin, a two-tiered contraption that, in theory, allows the European Red Wigglers I ordered from the internet to feed on fruit scraps in the top bin, safely nestled in some wet-newspaper bedding, until such time as their current home fills with waste and I avail them to move house. Then I fill the bottom bin with bedding and food scraps, and the worms—again, in theory—make their way through the holes I have drilled in each container to their new abode, so I can make use of their leavings.
In reality, however—and this is important to the process, I think—what we are talking about is worm poop, and the worms like living in it. So when I want to make use of the “vermicompost,” I scoop it out and place it directly under a seedling. After snuggling the worm waste in next to some food I’m trying to make happen, I pluck the worms out, one by one, with my bare hands, and place them in their proper locale.
The neighbors have screeched at this, the sight of me digging worms out of some poop that I have placed next to some vegetables, possibly because they know I will eventually try to get them to eat some of those vegetables with their mouths. I do not blame them. It is disgusting. There are ways to make this less disgusting, of course, but I forgo them. They are distractions from the process of ensuring that the beings I have enlisted in my agenda of useful decay are well cared for and enjoying their work. My worms are particularly important to the composting process: their waste is especially helpful for plants. I give them only the foods they seem to like, which I gauge by noting how many of them crowd around certain foods in a wriggling mass, the sight of which cannot be described as anything less than “stomach-churning.” Like the snake pit scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s playing out in my kitchen right now.
Indeed, it became clear over the last year that the world as it exists doesn’t support me, does not facilitate my survival. What I am doing in Detroit is nudging an entire tiny ecosystem to allow my participation, with the help of millions of other beings in a mini biome we’re all crafting together. My worms are the closest collaborators I have in this project; an added benefit is that they keep the process visceral. It is one thing to bury food scraps in the back yard, it turns out, and another to keep pooping worms in your pantry. The latter can churn the stomach, which is appropriate. A whole, new ecosystem should be felt in the gut.
Both backyard and vermiculture composting have captured the imaginations of a growing number of folks these days, alongside a rise in urban farming and the popularity of the sustainable food movement. It is not uncommon to heap a healthy dose of hyperbole in with the food scraps for the back-yard bin, either: composters tend to infuse their talk of rot and decay with grandiose notions of life-force sustenance and metaphors for Important World Events.
The LA Times predicted the trend, with a short piece of compost boosterism published in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall started to fall:
[R]ecent events in Eastern Europe notwithstanding—among the several things about which Karl Marx was right is the uncontestable fact that consciousness is determined by one's relationship to the means of production. And what finer method to approach the consciousness of one's garden than to partake in its death and regeneration.
Hyperbolic, maybe, but also true. “The rewards of composting are not only metaphysical, or simply horticultural, but also political,” the article notes. I’ve never felt more connected to the spiritual cycle of life than when I am when digging around in one of my several delightful piles of rotting gook and poop and death.
The experience may be visceral as all hell, but the effect is largely philosophical.
The metaphysics of compost, according to writer and researcher Kim Q. Hall, is a way of writing justice back into a mainstream food movement currently focused on sustainability and consumption. Consider for a moment the hoopla surrounding farm-to-table restaurants: they serve pure food, they source from sustainable growers. This, we’re told, is healthful. (Not that my regular attendance at several farm-to-table places last year did much to address my consistent health crises.)
Hall writes of eating, disability, and the myth of sustainability in a world in which everything must end in decay. “Food practices are sites where the meanings of community, identity, relationship, and food itself are materialized and negotiated,” she writes in a 2015 PhiloSOPHIA essay. A focus on justice, she contends, would hold the relationships forged by what we eat and how we acquire it as equally important to the nutritional properties of what is ingested. In real terms, this food politic would consider the labor practices at that farm-to-table restaurant as another aspect of your health. Is a restaurant that touts sustainability as nourishing of employees as the food is claimed to be for its customers? It should be.
A food politic guided by a metaphysics of compost, according to Hall, “understands bodies and food as … contested sites where boundaries are questioned, negotiated, and open to transformation, not fixed.” She urges us to consider food as a complex of relationships. Between my worms, for example, and my neighbors; between me and the microbes that live in my backyard. “There are no pure bodies,” she writes. “No bodies with impermeable borders.”
More and more, the science is catching up to the theory. Critic Jonathan Weiner writes in a New York Times book review just last week:
[A]s you read these words, trillions of microbes and quadrillions of viruses are multiplying on your face, your hands and down there in the darkness of your gut. With every breath you take, with every move you make, you are sending bacteria into the air at the rate of about 37 million per hour—your invisible aura, your personal microbial cloud. With every gram of food you eat, you swallow about a million microbes more.
Science has finally moved beyond “germ theory”—the presumption that all microbes cause disease—and is beginning to understand that important bodily systems depend heavily on microbial support. The immune system for example, a malfunction of which is the cause my own ongoing ailments, turns out to rely almost fully on what Weiner names “immigrant microbes.”
“According to the latest estimates,” Weiner writes, attesting to the fact-based nature of Hall's call to recognize the fundamental impurity of humans, “about half of your cells are not human—enough to make you wonder what you mean by ‘you.’”
There are material reflections of the metaphysics of compost in Detroit, a city filled with friendly people but linked internationally only to images of ruin and decay. Particularly on my block, largely inhabited by immigrants, whose backyard near-farms are filled with herbs and vegetables from home countries that must certainly foster microbial life forms new to my system. Consider, too, that a food movement—or any politic—reliant on sustainability isn’t likely to embrace the reminder that all processes end that this city is often called to represent.
But what we know in Detroit, and what I am experimenting with in my compost bins, alongside a million friendly helpers, is that decay is often useful, and quickly allows new life to flourish.