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  • Writer's pictureSam Stoeltje

Death, Transformation, and the Virtues of Composting

Tim and I traveled to Irvine last fall for SLSA, an academic conference that played a role in the foundation of this blog project. In keeping with conference custom, upon registration, we were provided with a compact little schedule of events, and I saw that there would be that first morning something called a “compost ritual.” I made Tim come with me because I thought it sounded irresistible.

(There is a lot of crossover between those interested in, on the one hand, the occult or esoteric or magical or magickal, and on the other hand, the paranormal, the psychical, the super-phenomenal, so much so that I some time commit the error of thinking they are the same thing.)

We interdisciplinary, creatively dressed scholars met in a big, awful, sterile and soulless multi-purpose room on the campus of UC Irvine to conduct our ritual. It was led and imagined by Aja, part of a group called Amici Mortem (friends of death). There was a massive tarp stretched out on the floor and covered with deliberately arranged compostable matter. Before the ritual could begin, however, Aja spoke to us for a while about the science of composting and the state of soil.

The picture was bleak. She told us about the toxins and erosion and monoculture and species death, all of which are deeply bound up with the flows and demands of our “economy,” our pathological mode of housekeeping that has become its own autonomous all-consuming monster, the monster that is capitalism. (Some of this is my paraphrase.) Suffice it to say that the soil is dying, that if things do not change, before long, flowers will not grow.

Composting, in this light, becomes an act of almost miraculously potent healing. And so we would participate in this ritual, interacting with the materials Aja and her partner had arranged at the four corners of the tarp; four corners, representative of four elements. Water, dirt, leaves, feathers, shells, ashes, bone, even a glass jar of something called “blood meal.” We would, as a group and in silence, arrange the materials in the middle of the tarp, to be collected and brought home by Aja where she would contribute them to her compost pile.

It was, therefore, a mostly symbolic act of composting: a performance which we had been invited to join, essentially making the seemingly mundane task of contributing waste matter to a larger pile of waste matter into something, at least hopefully, beautiful. Which, I believe, it eventually became.

(Photo credit: aja rose bond)

I found the ritual quite moving, and ended up thinking about it in the weeks and months that followed. So much so that I finally resolved to make “composting” one of my new years’ resolutions of 2020, something I take semi-seriously. I live in an apartment, and gardening is regrettably not an option for me, but at my colleague Tim’s advice, I began bringing our compost to a local park that collects it and turns it into soil. I have yet to imbue this task with any overt ritualism; for someone that basically believes in magic, I am a woefully undisciplined magician. But I bring the plastic bucket full of eggshells, coffee grounds, and kale stems to Mandell Park, where I dump it into the larger, stinkier bucket, whereupon the flies buzz up appreciatively and I cover my waste with the provided dead leaves, which is as weirdly satisfying as the rest of the whole process.

The ritual, if it occurs, takes place in my mind, where I think about the things I eat, what I consume, and what remains of it. I think about how now, in 2020, I am taking yet one more small step to at least mitigate the damage my global northern, middle-class lifeway (deathway?) does to the biome. I think about my eggshells, coffee grounds, and kale stems as the bounty they are, relished by microorganisms, shimmering out of one form and into another, into rich black humus, into, eventually, a root system, into life.

When I went to drop off the compost a couple of days ago, I ran into a professor who sits on my dissertation committee. We had a brief conversation in which we spoke of another graduate student, and mutual friend, who had died quite recently. This friend who had died was very young, and I was, or had been, quite close with them. Their death was the first death of someone close to me in my life, close enough that I can feel the aching absence in my heart, in that space in my chest, when I think of them. The professor shared with me that, in addition to this friend of ours, his father had also died, around the same time in fact. I did my best to offer condolences, through the impossible boundary of our two facemasks.

He asked me where I was going, and I told him I was dropping off the compost. He was quick to affirm the virtues of composting, so I decided to give him the thumbnail version of the compost ritual we had performed at SLSA. Then we parted, and I continued on my way to the park. On the walk, I thought about death: about how it was in fact always everywhere, but somehow here, now more than ever, ubiquitous. I thought about my friend, and about what they had or had not become, since their leaving us, which in my metaphysical imaginary existed in a constant state of uncertainty; although I was certain that, even if only in the most psychological sense, they persisted within me, as I found myself talking like them, acting like them, dressing like them; in a word, channeling them.

I dumped the compost off and turned back home. I thought of my professor, who is also, in his way, a friend of mine. He was on his way back from the grocery store, hands full of food to be brought home to his children. He had been wearing a shirt with an image of, I thought, a buddha of some kind, smiling cryptically, which would be consistent with his fairly public image as a practicing Buddhist. It was funny that I had run into him, an unlikely coincidence, and so my pump was primed to notice when I passed a trash can on the street, out of the top of which poked a couch pillow. The pillow was printed with the image, more recognizable to me, of Siddhartha Gautama, someone’s model of spiritual development that they had, apparently, grown tired of looking at, or res(sis)ting against.

This is the part of the post where I am supposed to tell you all what I think that means, but I am not prepared, and I think it would be truer to leave it this way, unfinished, perhaps even something that looks like waste, but might become, for you, something else entirely. It is yours now.

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