Monday, October 25, 2010

Composting for Glory

This summer, spurred by the Gulf oil spill and an encounter with a sea turtle, I did a lot of reading about climate change and peak oil (probably the most influential books for me were by Sharon Astyk). I peered into a brave new world of bullseye diets, recycled graywater systems, and yes, even humanure-composting toilets, and recognized that I wasn't quite ready to go to that world--at least not yet.

But I did try to make a few life changes--I planted an apple tree, a currant bush and a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, fertilized not with human poop but good old cow manure; I rode my bike and the city bus more, hung more loads of laundry to dry on a clothesline, and started composting much more consistently. I also had low-flow faucets and shower heads installed in our house, converted all our bulbs to CFLs, and had weather-stripping installed on our doors, courtesy of our local Home Energy Squad. Small steps, but it was a start. Today I want to reflect on some of the major things I've learned so far--to begin digesting some of the raw material I threw on the steaming compost heap of my life.

I think one of the most surprising things I learned this summer was how helpful composting itself really is. I didn't know that food thrown out and buried in landfills produces methane, a major greenhouse gas. Learning that definitely made me stop and think before I tossed food scraps in the trash rather than composting it. I also hadn't realized how much industrial agriculture is based on fertilizers made from petroleum products, and how using compost to enrich the soil can actually help sequester more carbon.

In terms of gardening, I still have a lot to learn about growing food in our backyard. My squash plants leafed out gorgeously, spreading rich green tendrils all over the place--then withered within a few days thanks to squash vine borers, something I hadn't known enough to expect and try to prevent. Next year I'll plant marigolds and nasturtium near my squash to try to deter the little buggers. My corn didn't really turn out, probably because I didn't plant enough for proper pollination (or so my CSA farmer friend Patty Wright surmised). My peas, beans, and tomatoes, however, were quite prolific. I'm grateful to have the luxury of making gardening mistakes and learning from them now, knowing that these veggies aren't something my family needs for survival.

There are many thinkers out there who believe that there may very well be a time when our families do depend on backyard gardens for survival, and that this time may be much sooner than we think. This, too, was a new discovery for me this summer. I had never really encountered the concept of peak oil, or at least if I had, I'd brushed it aside and not let its scary possibilities seep into my consciousness.

This summer, as I learned about peak oil, I began to transition from thinking that if people would just take action to save energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases, we might still be able to stave off major, cataclysmic change. I've stopped thinking that way. I think change is definitely coming, in fact is already here, and what we need to do is start learning now the skills we'll need to face those changes. This is no longer about trying to change the future, but about how to adapt to it.

The encouraging part is that the life changes needed to face climate change AND adjust to peak oil also lead us toward a kind of life that sounds healthier and more connected than the current way we live. It's about eating food grown in my backyard or on a nearby community farm or garden instead of eating food grown thousands of miles away under inhumane working conditions, wrapped in plastic, and then shipped across oceans and continents to spew out pollution that's poisoning our children's futures. It's about finding out if a neighbor has a tool I can borrow rather than buying my own, and about taking soup over to a neighbor when they're having a hard time. It's about learning to love staying home more and not searching for diversion by jumping in the car on a whim. It may be, sadly, about seeing far-distant people I love much less frequently, but it will likely also be about knowing people who are geographically close to me more deeply.

A recent commentor on this blog named Laureen beautifully expressed the mental shift we need to make:

"I've found that a lingering mental time-bomb of Industrial thinking is the idea that *we ourselves* need to relearn all that stuff. Our great-grandmothers knew a lot, but they didn't know everything. What they *did* know was how to leverage a community. How to be friendly with the people who had skills that they didn't, and how to make themselves useful to those people, so that everyone got what they needed and no one had to make themselves insane trying to know everything."

For now, I'm ready to settle in for a fall and winter of learning more, while this summer's leaves and grass and food scraps decay into rich, fertile compost for next year's growth.

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