The earth never forgets

For humans obsessed with quick growth, the fantastical slow transformations of composting offer valuable life lessons

Illustration of a man growing flowers (Illustration: Vidya Gopal)
Illustration of a man growing flowers (Illustration: Vidya Gopal)

Lalita Iyer

For someone who is hands-on in many ways, I have always shied away from growing plants. Perhaps my reputation as a serial plant-killer precedes me, what with forgetting to water my mother’s tulsi or kadipatta plant whenever she was off travelling, or in a fit of spring cleaning, dropping the deodar bonsai that an art director colleague had gifted me in my advertising days.

So, what on earth would I do with my new garden?

I had no clue. Perhaps the best place to start was by composting my kitchen waste. At best, I would generate some nutrient-rich soil for other friends who were avid gardeners. At worst, I would have an accidental garden myself, as friends who compost have told me that “all sorts of things start growing miraculously”.

And then, there was a sign that confirmed the ‘perhaps’ growing in my head. A friend handed me down a set of three Daily Dump compost bins (referred to as khamba).

The bins actually travelled all the way from Bombay to Vikramgad to Bangalore where I met them, bundled them into the back-seat of my car for the onward drive to Palani Hills, much to the displeasure of my son who was looking forward to a snooze undisturbed by bins competing for space in an already overcrowded car.

For the uninitiated, composting is the process of recycling leaves, twigs, vegetable and fruit peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, leftovers, meat scraps—anything organic really—into a soil-like matter that is nutritious for plants. This breaking down of organic matter—or conversion of ‘icky’ waste into a pleasant-to-handle substance—is done by numerous living creatures, chiefly earthworms assisted by maggots and microbes, fungi and bacteria along with microarthropods.

Together, these elves or facilitators decompose organic matter, consume what they need for their own nourishment and excrete the rest, thereby returning nutrients to the soil. This is the basis of regenerative gardening: an approach to growing food in a way that enriches the habitat, rather than stripping it of resources.

At this point, I cannot stress enough on the generosity of the earthworm. Of every hundred units the earthworm consumes from the soil, it gives back 80 units of rich nutrients. (Here’s a factoid for perspective: termites take 80 and give back 20.)

Much like lesson plans from my days as an English teacher, the waste had to be broken down, i.e., chopped into tiny bits so they would become easily bioavailable to those working on it—keeping in mind that the smaller the pieces, the greater the surface area for microbes. The goal of composting is a brown, almost chocolatey soil. And while you can still see bits of aubergine and cauliflower stems and the occasional avocado pit, mostly it’s just dirt with a wonderful, earthy smell.

“Look, earthworm!” exclaimed Appa as he went about preparing a small pit for the plantain sapling we had procured from the local nursery. I didn’t realise the reason for his joy was because we had the world’s greatest soil biotechnologists and solid waste managers lounging in our garden. (Aristotle called them the ‘intestines of the earth’.)

For the rest of the afternoon, Appa was very tentative as he dug, lest he harm the Perionyx excavatus in some way or inadvertently cut through them. For the next few days ‘We have earthworms!’ could well have been a sign on our gate. The verdict was passed. My soil had native earthworms. I was good to go.

In my early years at school, I remember learning to classify things into ‘living’ and ‘non-living’, and wondering how so many things, for example, water, soil, air always went into the wrong column. If I had to do that exercise now, compost would certainly be a ‘living’ thing. It is, after all, the source of many new lives.

I also remember reluctantly dissecting earthworms in grade 11 to study their digestive system, locating their collar (or clitellum), marvelling and then proceeding to draw diagrams featuring clitellum and ganglions, and chuckling a bit when the professor mentioned that earthworms were hermaphrodites.

Now that they had declared my own garden soil as the ‘living’ thing I intuitively knew it to be, I felt sad to have rewarded all their hard work with dissections, diagrams and chuckles. I felt for Kichu Kenchua (Kichu, the earthworm) from a childhood storybook who goes on an adventure despite warnings from his mother, and has to dodge a family of mean mynahs and clucking chickens before finally being rescued from the mouth of a frog.

I lost myself in videos of Sultan Ahmed Ismail, the renowned soil biologist in India, who is a champion of earthworms, as it were. In his picture book Our Wiggly Friends, Earthworms (illustrated by Veda Thozhur Kolleri, Eklavya 2022), Ismail describes it thus—in a huge restaurant called soil, earthworms work as a team, some are cooks, some are waiters and some are cleaners, depending on how far they are from the surface of the soil. Each one is a different species with a different food preference.

I started looking forward to my morning routine, when I would chop the previous day’s waste into small bits and then go out to my compost bin, line it with these bits, some dried leaves and twigs, some soil, and then give it a good turn.

I began to see my waste as art, as life, as a composite of living things, colours and textures that will soon coalesce to create a whole new web of life. Nothing looks all that different from one day to the next, but in a healthy compost heap, the microbes are always at work. I like to call them my compost fairies as I think what is happening there is nothing short of magic.

Apart from the fantastical, yet slow transformation (it takes at least four to five months), composting illustrates the deepest and most meaningful cycle of life and death. In a sense, these minute wonders that recycle death are actually more important than the largest living organism the world has ever known, immensely more important than humankind itself.

It made me marvel at how we are all connected in such a simple way, and how the mightiest actually need the tiniest to eventually break them down and return them to mother earth.

We can stand in awe of the process, but what truly happens in the compost bin isn’t all that mysterious, and it is possible to control the process in significant ways. For example, I now know that for best results, I should place the composter out of direct sunlight and dry hot winds.

The microorganisms that do the work need the right balance of oxygen, water and nitrogen, so a good turn once in a while and a splash of added moisture goes a long way. Good compost is a 50-50 blend of greens and browns (food scraps and garden detritus), layered in and mixed regularly.

In the end, it’s all about balance. Compost is a living thing that doesn’t tolerate neglect well, much like us humans at the top of the ‘living things’ pyramid.

Sir Albert Howard, the father of organic farming, refers to the wheel of life as “an ever-recurring cycle, a cycle which, repeating itself silently and ceaselessly, ensures the continuation of living matter. This cycle is constituted of the successive and repeated processes of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay. Death supersedes life and life rises again from what is dead and decayed”.

But as humans, we are obsessed with only growth. There is a pervasive disgust about anything that rots—an ‘eewww, I don’t want to deal with that! feeling. Only when we shed this cultural baggage and get our hands dirty will we learn to respect nature in all its mightiness and minutiae and make choices so as not to violate that delicate balance of life.

I can almost hear the earthworm in Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss, who says, “People sometimes forget we are here. But the earth never forgets.”

As humans, we are all self-composting as we grow and age (at least I hope we are). If we do things right, we may end up coming out of the composter looking and acting a whole lot different than we did when we first entered. And that is why ageing is rejuvenating, at least for me.

(Lalita Iyer is an author and journalist)

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