Composting as Holy Sacrament

In my family album, there is a picture that my mother took of me in 1945 as a two-year-old “helping” to hoe vegetables in our family’s southern California Victory Garden. This may have been where my love of home gardening began. I also think back to childhood visits to my grandparents’ home in eastern North Carolina. I can still picture the backyard garden patch and rustic chicken coop that had helped them weather Great Depression scarcity and wartime rationing. I can almost taste the delicious, fragrant, home-grown strawberries and other home-grown produce that graced their table.

As the first Earth Day in April 1970 was sounding alarms over the ecologically unsustainable direction the world was taking, I began to long for sanctuary in a simpler, less-polluting, more spiritually-rewarding way of life. I dreamed of moving to the countryside, planting seeds, getting dirt under my fingernails, feeling sweat run down my temples, and savoring the earthy smells and flavors of foods grown with my own hands.

As I pored over real estate catalogs and devoured back issues of Organic Gardening & Farming magazine, I realized that I had never paid much attention to what, if anything, my grandparents had done to maintain the fertility of their garden soil. From the organic gardening gurus at the Rodale Research Center, I learned that the kind of soil conservation promoted in the 1930s Dust Bowl years had been only a desperate holding action. In our time, with population ever increasing and prime farmland ever shrinking, industrial agriculture will inevitably lose the race to maintain per acre and per capita food production. Smaller farms based on composting to restore natural soil fertility tend to be more productive and therefore seem to hold the only hope for the future.

It’s true that much of the hunger in the world is due to poverty and political situations that prevent fair distribution of food, but the evangelists of composting, quoting from Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament, reminded me that, “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture.” Writing to a rapidly industrializing world in the early twentieth century, Howard argued that in the long run, feeding people means feeding the soil microorganisms that feed the plants and animals that feed people. Synthetic chemicals only give the illusion of fertility while steadily depleting the soil.

Another vivid childhood memory underlay my awakening concern for how the world would be fed: In the early 1950s my family and I were living in West Germany, where my father, an officer in the U.S. Navy, was stationed as part of the Allied occupation forces after the Second World War. One day a well-dressed but gaunt-looking man came to our apartment door asking for food. (Later my mother said she thought he might have been a refugee from East Germany or one of the other Iron Curtain countries.) I watched with curiosity as my mother brought him a chunk of dark rye bread, then with astonishment as the man turned his back and noisily wolfed down the food and then disappeared down the stairwell. I come close to tears now as I recall that poignant moment when, for the first time, I felt ashamed of my own security and comforts.

Food was still scarce then in many parts of Europe. Ever since the process of turning atmospheric nitrogen and natural gas into ammonium nitrate was developed in Germany in the early twentieth century, farmers had increasingly relied on these synthetic materials to supplement local manures, cover crops, and imported guanos. However, immediately after the Second World War, chemical fertilizers weren’t generally available, and food production slackened. Our American community in Germany was shielded from this reality, since we bought most of our groceries from the Post Exchange (PX) on the naval base at U.S. government-subsidized prices. My mother sometimes ventured out to farmers markets, but we were allowed to consume local vegetables only if we soaked them in a special sanitizing solution because it was known that some farmers had resorted to applying raw manures, even human wastes, directly to their land in a desperate attempt to prop up sagging soil fertility.

Those temporary shortages turned out to be just a preview of the more serious, permanent shortages that the world faces today. The natural gas used in making chemical fertilizers will soon reach its forecast peak of global production and then enter a period of irreversible decline. For this and other reasons, the world’s food supply is becoming less and less secure. Regions that are not blessed with good soils, suitable climates, and other favorable circumstances may have even greater difficulty feeding themselves due to the rising cost of transporting many foods over long distances. It seems clear that the best hope of alleviating mass hunger and poverty is a crash program of rebuilding the planet’s natural fertility by fortifying soils with lots of rich compost.

As an aside, another soil-enrichment method that is receiving a lot of attention today is biochar. It is a fairly simple way of turning various organic materials into a form of charcoal, which when plowed under increases both the moisture-holding capacity of the soil and the availability of nutrients to crops. Because it also captures and stores carbon that otherwise would end up in the atmosphere, biochar may play a significant role in the mitigation of global climate change.

Returning to my dream of getting back to nature, I eventually became one of many “back-to-the-landers” who spent the ’70s and ’80s in the Missouri Ozarks. During that time, I devoted much of my limited resources to the care and feeding of steaming heaps of rotting organic matter, guided by visions of my 40-acre homestead’s thin, acidic, and gravelly soils being transformed into dark, rich loam for large-scale, organic food production.

The glades and hollows of the Ozark highlands didn’t offer much natural fertility for a novice homesteader to work with. Looking on the brighter side, I told myself that if I could get crops to flourish in such marginal soils, it could be done just about anywhere. I industriously scoured the countryside for any organic materials that The Rodale Complete Book of Composting listed as possible ingredients in compost. I loaded and unloaded countless tons of hay, oak sawdust, cow manure, bedding from chicken-raising sheds, droppings accumulated under rabbit cages, wood shavings from the local furniture factory, fishing worm bedding, and bagged leaves and grass clippings that city residents had deposited at the curb.

All that driving around in a 15-mpg pickup truck made partial sense only because gasoline was still cheap and I got much of the organic materials free. Yes, free. Most of what I had to pay for were pricey, packaged amendments like bone meal, cottonseed meal, and rock phosphate.

Later that year, I was boasting about my recent scavenging successes at a monthly meeting of my local organic gardening club. A visiting farm couple from Norway who were guests that night raised their eyebrows when I mentioned that local farmers had been giving me all the manure I could use in exchange for mucking out stalls. No self-respecting Norwegian farmer would be so careless of such a valuable resource, they said.

Meanwhile I had been noticing many other examples of regrettable abuse of precious organic materials: My photo of huge watermelons growing in an undisturbed corner of the city dump was used in the organic garden club newsletter to illustrate how vital nutrients were being dead-ended in landfills when they could with little effort be returned to soil. While hauling manure-soiled straw from the livestock barn during the county fair, I was vexed when people walking by my pickup assumed I was there to dispose of the “trash” and tossed their empty soda cans and food wrappers into the bed.

My first compost piles were very elaborate, by-the-book affairs. I sifted and stirred my carefully selected ingredients into a neat square of stacked hay bales. It was a lot like mixing the batter for a holiday fruit cake—only this “oven” was inside this cake. Spurring my determination to have this experiment come out right was a photo of Scott Nearing, patriarch of the modern homesteading movement, using a long iron rod to gauge the temperature inside compost piles that he had made out of locally-gathered seaweed at his seaside homestead in Maine.

A few days later I was trembling with excitement as I watched steam begin to curl out of the top of the compost pile like the venting of a dormant volcano. But this tentative wisp petered after a week. Tunneling into the pile with my hand, I found the center to be only warm—and dry. After consulting the composting book, I realized that since steam is just escaping moisture, the pile needed to start out wetter and, like a houseplant, get recharged periodically to keep the reaction going. It also, the book reminded, needed to be turned regularly to let in fresh air.

This was the occasion of a great epiphany, the beginning of my gradual awakening to the true meaning of Composting (with a capital “C”): I now understood that this brooding mass of organic matter, seething microbes, and fungi needed to be fed and hydrated; was inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide; and was hungrily breaking down plant fibers and biochemical compounds and metabolizing them into new forms of energy. Why, then, it must have been . . . alive!

If that was true, I was witnessing a three-billion-year-old mystery in which Mother Earth miraculously transforms death into life. I began to see that building and tending an active compost pile and later returning it to the soil as nothing less than a holy sacrament performed before an ancient altar and that we profane Creation when we live in ignorance and isolation from its primordial cycle of growth, decline, death, decay, transformation, and rebirth.

Discovering and living that truth didn’t stop at the garden fence. It cast new light on flush toilets, industrial feedlots, hermetically sealed caskets, and countless other manifestations of linear thinking in what I came to see increasingly as a circular world. I heard a prophetic warning of plagues and disasters of biblical proportions that our pride and self-declared exemption from life’s rules are bringing upon us. I knew it was time not only for a new way of gardening but for a new way of thinking and being on Earth.

Part four of the goals statement of Friends Committee on National Legislation reads: “We seek an earth restored.” This can be understood to include stewardship of Earth’s basic biological processes, a stewardship that is essential to realizing Friends testimonies on peace, justice, equality, and community. Raising the priority of soil health doesn’t seem to be on the current national agenda, however. Public officials tend to see only as far ahead as the next election, while the soil that took nature hundreds of years to build can be washed or blown away in just a few months or years.

But there are important steps that Friends can take in their meetings and communities to support local composting programs (including for-profit composting operations), to raise awareness of the imperative to honor God’s creation by building soil fertility, and to give hope to future generations. (See sidebar on the composting advocacy of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont.)

My experiment with Extreme Composting in the Ozarks was a qualified success. On terrible soils, I was able to raise far more food than my family could use, and so I was able to let alternating halves of the garden go fallow each year. But times were changing. By the mid-1980s, the tide of latter-day homesteaders was beginning to ebb. After more than a decade of rewarding struggle, I declared victory and moved back to the city. I continued to grow vegetables in my backyard, where I habitually collected grass clippings and kitchen scraps. However, it was hard to maintain my former zeal for Composting as a spiritual calling when turning over the pile might have given the neighbors a whiff of rotting vegetable matter and have gotten me reported to the health department!

But today I am happy to report that large-scale composting (unfortunately, with a lower-case “c”) has gone mainstream. It’s finally getting some respect. There are now many communities in which wholesale quantities of reasonably-priced compost can be tipped into your garden. (Yes, lots of sustainable stuff can be done in the city.) Laws and regulations are being updated to make this easier for producers. Polluting feedlots are being told to clean up their act. Many cities are providing curbside pickup of food and yard waste and turning a high percentage of it into compost, often redistributing it free or at low cost to residents.

An inspiring account of an agriculturally- and socially-ambitious composting business in Hardwick, Vermont, can be found in a wonderful new book, The Town That Food Saved—How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, listed in the references below.

The most important thing to remember, whether you’re a compost maker or compost consumer, is that true composting isn’t simply an agricultural technique. It’s about radical transformation, which is our only hope for our uncertain future.

  1. 0-SIDEBAR:

The Earth Stewards Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont has a helpful pamphlet titled, Composting by Faith Communities—From a “Straight Line” to a “Closed Loop.” The authors state that when faith communities compost food scraps along with their garden and yard wastes, they are doing more than keeping organic material out of the landfilll: They are bringing their organic waste to the altar, in thanksgiving for all that God has provided for them. “A closed loop means that we take from the abundance we have been given, use it graciously, and return what we cannot use so it can be used again. . . . Composting means making new soil, not treating it as trash.” The pamphlet urges all congregations to make recycling and composting part of their stewardship program by following these guidelines:

  1. Emitting zero waste
  2. Shifting to reusables
  3. Recycling everything possible
  4. Pre-cycling by choosing products with minimal packaging
  5. Identifying organic matter and directing it to appropriate handling
  6. Deciding how they’re going to compost—on-site or off-site
  7. Deciding how the finished product will be used

The pamphlet also encourages congregations to be partners with the creation cycle; to be active members in the whole of creation; to shed the mindset of living apart from creation, which has no beginning or end; and to share their commitment with other faith communities through news articles in local newspapers.


Other resources:



Print resources:

Campbell, Stu. Let It Rot! A Gardener’s Guide to Composting, 3rd Edition. Storey Publishing, 1998.

Hewitt, Ben. The Town That Food Saved—How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food. Rodale Books, Inc., 2010.

Jenkins, Joseph. Humanure, A Guide to Composting Human Manure, 3rd Edition., 2005.

Martin, Grace and Gershuny, Deborah L., eds. The Rodale Complete Book of Composting. Rodale Press, Inc., 1992.

Quaker Earthcare Witness. Food for a Healthy, Just, and Peaceable Planet. Free quad-fold pamphlet, 2011.


Louis Cox

Louis Cox has been Publications Coordinator for Quaker Earthcare Witness since 2001 and is a member of Burlington, Vt., Friends Meeting. He and his wife compost in Charlotte, Vt.

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