Microbes are blowing my mind. Well, no: I can accept how active, ubiquitous, and adaptable they are. I get that. Okay. To my rational, scientific mind they make perfect sense. Give them the right temperature, moisture, and material, and they'll eat and reproduce like mad until their poop outweighs their food. Even then, they'll continue, calling in their cousins to work on the stuff left over. To my human parts, though-- my eyes, ears, and hands, which can never perceive the billions of microorganisms engulfing and supporting me every second-- microbes make magic. Take, for example, the compost piles. We have a few separate systems at the Laurel Valley Educational Farm, which sit in varying states of care throughout the year. The classic 3-bin demonstration compost is waiting to be turned this week. That's where I killed the baby mouse. Another is settling down in the lower field, likely to sit cold and solid for months before we muster the strength and time to churn the woody pepper stems and Brassica stalks that would have overwhelmed the top compost. The top compost. It is, as of Thursday, my pride and joy. I spent an entire day forking and raking and wrestling its three piles over on themselves, carefully layering the chunkiest pieces to the middle to ensure even cooking. The last, almost-ready pile started as a long woody mess when I arrived in August, and it's now been reduced to a cubic yard of straggling straw and stems now (hopefully) smothered amidst the sweet black of finished compost. The second pile had been turned a couple weeks ago by a rowdy group of students. Their style was impressively haphazard, which is generally a fine approach to making compost. Throw it in a pile, literally, and come back next season.
The problem with that, though, is that you come back to find a pile of debris with a bucket-sized chunk of finished black fertilizer steaming in the middle. The debris inevitably remains around the borders of any compost, so you have to keep turning the pile to digest every last leaf. On Thursday, I realized that the key to quick decomposition is simply a matter of habitat. My task is to create an ideal environment for the host of microbes waiting (who knows where?) to inhabit my piles, settle down, and eat themselves silly. If they're happy--lo and behold!-- the pile will quite miraculously melt into the ground. Just look what happened to the freshest pile (on the left) over the weekend:
I feel like a huge nerd for being so into it, but seriously. This stuff is incredible. The bottom of the newest pile has been sitting for a few weeks, and it had been fully soaked by rain and then covered by a deluge of spent summer crops. After raking the top few feet off the top, I finally came to the oven in the middle. It had become so wet and heavy that anaerobic bacteria took hold, letting off a stench that could shrivel even my wide and open-minded scent palette. When I stopped to lean on my pitchfork and catch my breath, I heard a dim munching sound from below. On closer inspection, I saw that the bubbling noise was emanating from a writhing, busy mass of maggots at my feet. They were insatiable and unstoppable! After just a few minutes, the population of macroinvertebrates-- clearly a gold mine to a serious compost pile builder like myself-- had already retreated to darker dinner tables in the sludge. I spent the rest of the afternoon carefully coating the fresher innards of my new pile with this pre-cooked nursery of decomposers. My imagination ran wild with the potential in that pile: the maggots would run straight to the middle, where I'd stashed all the toughest new material, and the whole thing would come alive for a precious few weeks with a lively succession of bacteria, fungi, and bugs. They would all be so happy.
So far, my fantasy seems to be running true. The pile was steaming furiously when I arrived at work this morning, half the height it was when I left on Friday. In my microbial imagination, the center of the pile is literally cooking with activity, scorching and digesting the plant material that we humans discard. I sit and eat tender lettuce leaves and sweet juicy peppers while the real world runs on slime and feces.
Really, it does. And so, of course, do we. Whether or not we want to admit it, our lives are utterly dependent on the poop and corpses of a bunch of invisible life forms. What a way to make us feel truly human: humble, lowly, of the ground.