Thursday, April 2, 2009

Of doo-doo and Doo-Dah

I hope to be back in blogging shape again soon, but a family emergency has occupied most of my energy and time of late. Even so, I can't resist calling your attention to this wonderful reprint (repost?) of Daniel Chamberlin's profile from a 2007 Arthur of "Sodfather"/"California compost wizard" Tim Dundon. The main focus of the piece is a wild tale that, "like any good gardening story, encompasses Hollywood producers, fires, suicide, PCP injection, a nude Quaker iconoclast, standoffs with city officials and a violent pet coyote." But just as fascinating--to me, at least--is the way Chamberlin interweaves an entire scientific/socio-political history of organic farming/gardening dating back more to approximately 2400 BC. The prose is both witty and informative, as we see in this passage that explains what all those creepy crawling things are up in my compost pile:

The first stage of decomposition in composting is chemical: microscopic organisms flock to the dead thing and start to secrete enzymes that break it down on a cellular level. As bacteria, saprophytic mushrooms and other fungi eat and digest, they give off considerable heat, causing compost piles to steam and occasionally even catch fire from the trillions of tiny post-dinner bacterial farts. ...

... As the chemical decomposers make the dead organic matter a bit more malleable, the physical decomposers start to show up. Millipedes, sow bugs, springtails and snails are happy to chomp up the plants. Flies arrive bringing more bacteria to the buffet, leaving behind eggs and maggots for spiders, centipedes, mites and beetles to eat. Ants replenish the fungi, transport minerals from within and without of the pile and eat plants and insects. But the most accomplished of all the decomposers is without question the earthworm. ... These original slimy alchemists eat dirt and shit out the organic equivalent of gold: castings, also known as vermicompost. Castings enrich the soil with nitrogen, calcium, magnesium and other minerals, in addition to increasing its ability to retain water. And they attract more earthworms, too.

Speaking of alchemy, Chamberlin begins his piece elaborating a connection that has long been implicit and intuitive to me:

Alchemists were up to plenty of things, many of them having to do with relating to the natural world—and understanding its processes of transformation and transmutation—in philosophical and spiritual dimensions that transcended traditional religious thinking, both Christian and pagan, and preceded modern scientific thought. The whole “lead into gold” thing was but the most lucrative of the alchemical —or hermetic—practices in the eyes of the monarchs and rulers. Alchemy’s material prima as Peter Lamborn Wilson writes in the recent collection Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology, “can be found ‘on any dung hill.’ Hermeticism changes shit into gold.”

In short, the article suggests bridges between all kinds of things I'm interested in (see the tags/labels below), and makes a perfect capper to my reading of Amy Stewart's earthworm book, which I've been intending to write more about--and which I surely will write more about when the time is right.

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