An African tribal teacher from my annual men’s conference in the Midwest talked about a set of beings, gods, one might say, called filth eaters. At least they come with an unambiguous name, these spirits. Even better, a clear and focused job description. I am utterly in sync with filth eaters. On a regular basis, I think of the compost tumbler by my back fence, the months of kitchen waste that have accumulated there…with room for more. And the next stage, I think of that a lot too. More than the annual turning under of my cover crop, although this is in the realm of filth eating too. The two things converge actually. I think of how the current crop of fava beans and ryegrass, now approaching green swaying maturity in the January summer, how this will shortly go underground. Becoming ground. A cycle I have helped sustain for years. And once this happens, time to dig a hole or two…a job for someone like my volunteer helper, Paul…then bury what is in the compost tumbler. That is to say, hand months of ‘filth’ to the filth eaters. And what makes this legitimately a matter of the spirit has to do with its charge. A preoccupying thought, this matter of the compost tumbler and the garden. Stuff going into the ground, a primal preoccupation of mine. A frequent thought, a recurring image.
Actually, the African shaman’s description of the filth eater gods varies from my own. In his account, they are there to consume our personal nastiness. Hate, cruelty, pettiness, and so on. So they have their ritual purpose, these eaters of our psychic filth. And while the bacterial compost eaters in my garden may be spiritually aligned with the African gods, something is different. For one thing, there is the powerful sense of the seasons, the cyclical. The stinking contents of my compost bin may stand in for evil in a psychic sense, but there is more. The stuff feels old. Sometimes evil, sure, but mostly old.
Then, there is what happens underground, a downright alchemical process. The old/evil becomes good/new. This being the oddest discovery of all. Tomato growing is one of those annual endeavors that define my life. As do the attendant difficulties. The latter boil down to a couple of types of soil diseases. ‘Wilt,’ actually. Anyone who looks into tomato growing learns about these soil problems. I half expect to see the leaves of my plants begin to curl halfway through the season, a sure sign of disease. But not last year. The only difference in 2010 being, you guessed it, the compost tumbler. Its half-digested contents buried in one of my raised beds. The one with the tomatoes. The latter being not even disease-resistant, but all too vulnerable to wilt. But not to worry. The plants burst from the ground, sailed through the summer with nary a botanical complaint. A good thing, decomposing half a year of leftover lettuce, discarded teabags, onion skins, coffee filters, broccoli stems, and on and on, a carbon and nitrogen festival, according to the web. A very good thing, a world bacterial congress. Hosted by me, no admission, refreshments free.
Thing is, I need renewal. Surely we all do. Last year’s filth, or last year’s anything, needs to go. Buried, transformed, eaten. How else to withstand life? Marlou’s gray ash remains spreading from a muddy stain to an oceanic sparkle. Sadness sinking, dolphins leaping. Another day in Monterey Bay. That coupled with the general futilities of a year, any year. Although this is tricky. Ten years after working for a gun control organization, the nation more armed and dangerous than ever, the sense of failure palpable…well, what is there to do but trust in decomposition? Although, one must not be passive. Important to watch as the stuff gets buried, the garden swallows…and if one is attentive…burps.
This is my own contribution to the Way of Compost, or as some of my disciples will term it, The Decomposition Path…books and seminars to follow. No, the ground burps. And I am here to tell you it burps up wisdom. Vapors, emanations, or if you must be a pedant, methane. Methamphetamine of the soul, that is my contention. Speeding us toward action. What to do? For I am not giving up, but I am giving out. Just as the teabags and broccoli stems and all the rest have. I age. Things age. And what to do? Guns. I am not done talking about them. Even to Americans. It is old, after all, the firearms fetish. Surely the gun cult has its own cycle. I am an elder now. It is my job to point the way. And to keep pointing. No excuses.