Ye

I recently started the documentary “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.” I’ve been into “Love Death + Robots” lately, but I was in the mood for something different and the trailer drew me in immediately. I hadn’t heard anything about the documentary so I didn’t have any expectations. I’ve been an off-and-on fan of Kanye for so long I was interested to learn more about his story.

It goes without saying that in recent years, Kanye has taken his reputation in some surprising directions. Starting with his interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs and culminating with his association with Trump and that bizarre conversation in the Oval Office. Many people have cancelled him or they forgive his actions and are mostly concerned for his mental health. I was ready to let him go. I loved “The College Dropout,” but hadn’t really spent time with much of his more recent work.

While I and many were moving on from Kanye, two things happened. First, a friend of mine posted a video about Kanye’s extensive contributions to hip-hop and I was moved to respect and appreciate his work. A year or so later another friend told me about his song “Waves” from The Life of Pablo album and how much it means to him, especially when he’s missing family members he’s lost, especially these lines:

“That’s just a wave / waves don’t die”
“Even when someone go away, the feelings don’t really go away”

I listened to the song that night for the first time and have returned to it on occasion ever since. I had gotten caught up in the cancel Kanye sentiment, albeit with more ambivalence than outrage, but I started to wonder if I was complicit in something more insidious than I had realized. Kanye had overcome so much to earn his legacy and “Twitter America” was ready to throw him out. It suddenly felt more haute bourgeoisie, not progressive, to snub someone like Kanye over a faux pas, associating himself with a social pariah and being generally uncouth. Similarly, when he interrupted Taylor Swift he was disrupting the gentility and respectability of the night. While everyone else in the room politely accepted the results, Kanye (likely under the influence) couldn’t hold back.

Even still, I didn’t know how to feel about the Sunday Church album and Kanye’s acceptance by the evangelical church. I was caught off guard by his connection to folks like Joel Osteen who I generally try to imagine don’t exist. Kanye’s membership in this new club became more personal for me when, while attending my grandfather’s funeral at First Baptist Dallas, the senior pastor and Fox News contributor Robert Jeffress mentioned Kanye West by name in his eulogy. He said that Kanye and my grandad were similar because they were both going to heaven when they died. I wasn’t offended by the theology of what he was saying, but I was offended by what appeared to be a name drop of a celebrity friend during a sacred moment for my family. It’s not Kanye’s fault his name was mentioned, but he did make the choice to be associated with that world.

I remember watching Kanye perform “Ultralight Beam” on SNL and thinking that he had completely lost his mind. At the end of the performance he lays down on the ground and is sort of preached over, but then he jumps up and starts talking in an incoherent way that even made the preacher furrow his brow. Eventually though, “Ultralight Beam” became one of my favorite of his songs. I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, but the music is beautiful. Earlier this spring, I listened to the entire Donda album on a long drive to Philadelphia. That album is a work of art. There were a few moments that stood out to me while I listened, especially from the songs “God Breathed,” “Hurricane,” “Remote Control,” and “Moon.”

Having just acquainted myself with his latest album, I was primed for a documentary that would reveal more of his story. The footage featured in the film is incredible in terms of the intimate access it provides. You feel like you are in the room for every significant moment in the early career of Kanye, a musical genius demanding to be respected for his art and consistently dismissed for his persona — the industry didn’t see him as a star. He obviously has talent, but is only appreciated once his music is heard. He is constantly correcting people who refer to him as a producer and reminding them that he is a rapper. Without an album, he was claiming something that others couldn’t see. Probably the most beautiful moments in the trilogy are between Kanye and his mother, Donda. In the first episode the group visits Kanye’s mom, Donda, in her Chicago apartment. She is incredibly encouraging to Kanye and clearly a source of love and confidence. She seems to be an incredible, beautiful influence in his life and specifically, as an English professor, a source of his lyrical strength. She’s a college professor, chair of the English Department, and she has nothing but support for his first album “The College Dropout.” In another moment, she leaves with Kanye after a performance laughing and repeating specific lyrics to him as they walk.

I’m glad to have come back around to Kanye. He is unpredictable, philosophically confusing, and often unrefined, while also incredibly talented and hard-working. The documentary, filmed and directed by Coodie, was a reminder to me that the antidote to cancel culture is intimacy, friendship, and appreciation. Coodie carried his camera from city to city, record label to record label, because he believed in Kanye. I would imagine that he made this documentary because he still appreciates him and wanted others to know his story. It reminds me of the lyrics of “We don’t care” in the sense that Kanye continues to reinvent and reclaim himself. “We wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-five / Joke’s on you, we still alive.”

Thoughts on The Spirit of the Disciplines

I finally took the time to update my personal bookshelf page. The first book I read after college was The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. This book came to me by way of a yearlong internship with a Christian tutoring and mentoring non-profit.

I have a new appreciation for this book in retrospect. I have a fuller understanding of the need for self-control as I take on more responsibilities. I see that self-control also limits exploitation, preserves relationships, and enhances experiences (as opposed to overindulgence deadening them). I understand that our habits and character are shaped by daily decisions and that our integrity is tested by stress, power, and fear. I appreciate that this book attempts to be more practical and specific than just spiritual. In the instance of solitude, it’s so eye-opening to consider the spiritual discipline in this current era of hyper and constant connection. Our solitude has been taken from us more completely than he could have ever imagined. How much more so then do we require it.

While looking back, I also have a more coherent critique of his message. I read this book already having a sense of my body as primarily an instrument of spiritual discipline. I can’t say I enjoyed it obviously, but I did sometimes feel superior because of it. So it’s possible that this book fed something in me that was already a little over developed. I wasn’t coming to this book as a hedonist, but as someone already at war with themselves and distrustful of their own heart and mind.

Willard writes that as we begin to understand ourselves as sinful (he calls the self “the old person”) we are to “disassociate ourselves with him or her.” Reading this a decade later, I thought this was an astonishing bit of advice considering the context of trauma and dissociative disorders. It reminded me of a time I was talking to my therapist about a semi-traumatic moment years ago where I sort of sat in stunned silence. He asked me if I thought I had disassociated. I said I didn’t think so, but that I couldn’t quite describe why I was so stunned. In retrospect, I had the realization that what had really happened is that I had associated rather than disassociated. I had actually been pulled into the moment in a way that was too vulnerable to bear for someone who had been trained to be divorced from it.

Thinking from the lens of power, the spiritual disciplines promise a higher level of spiritual maturity and integrity in exchange for relinquishing control of one’s own body. Behavior is modified according to external priorities rather than internal desires. One’s own thoughts and feelings are often considered a threat to the higher calling and higher purpose of our lives. You can say that the individual has chosen to relinquish this control out of free will and undeniable love, but the threats inherent to the faith such as eternal death, being publicly shamed, and excommunication mean that to some extent these decisions are also being made under duress. If you believe in the proposition, there really is no choice. At the same time, there are undeniable benefits to living a life of discipline and if this is what it takes to achieve that discipline then for many it will have been worth it. In a world that is chaotic, Willard suggests a framework that one can stand up under while they bring order to their lives.

I think that Dallas Willard would be disappointed to see how the faith has become an instrument of political power in recent years. On the other hand, coming from a Quaker background I’m surprised to see his opinion of the faith as apolitical considering the Quakers longstanding work to end slavery. It’s hard to know whether the Quakers were acting “out of their faith” vs. using their faith to pursue their own goals in the abolitionist movement. Even within ourselves, we are often clueless to our motives. Additionally, he presents the disciplines in a “battle ready” sort of way that sets the individual in opposition to our society in a way that may make them feel like they have been left out. Is it possible to love others if you are constantly defending yourself against them?

Willard hoped that this book would allow individuals to shape their lives to align with their faith through simple, daily habits. I so appreciate his wisdom and insight. He understands that we can be held back by our weaknesses and that spiritual disciplines are a way for us to ground ourselves, protect ourselves, and minimize self-destructive choices. Unfortunately, at the time, I read the book through the negative inner monologue of “never enough.” It isn’t that the ideas of discipline or restraint necessarily inspire self-condemnation, but as we consider spiritual formation, especially for younger people, we may want to also encourage people to trust themselves and listen to themselves.

That it isn’t all just a “haunted abyss” beneath the surface.


Some quotes that I underlined at the time:

“A successful performance at a moment of crisis rests largely and essentially upon the depths of a self wisely and rigorously prepared in the totality of its being—mind and body.”

“Some even believe that by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle.”

“Yet, I must do one of the other. Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. There is no middle.”

“And a thoughtless or uninformed theology grips and guides our life with just as great a force as does a thoughtful and informed one.”

“And so it was, more than anything else, the religious seriousness the spiritual disciplines injected into the whole of our lives that made them attractive.”

“More than anyplace else it originates from failure to recognize the part our body plays in our spiritual life—and this is, of course, where the disciplines enter the discussion.”

“They cannot do so because we tend to think of the body and its functions as only a hindrance to our spiritual calling.”

“Once we forsake or cloud this meaning of “salvation” (or “redemption” or “regeneration”) and substitute for it mere atonement or mere forgiveness of sins, we’ll never be able to achieve a coherent return to concrete human existence.”

“The sober truth is that we are made of dust, even if we do aspire to the heavens.”

“The locus or depository of this necessary power is the is the human body. This explains, in theological terms, why we have a body at all. That body is our primary area of power, freedom and—therefore—responsibility.”

“The small reservoir of independent powers that was resident in their bodies continued to function as it does in “living beings” generally, but the connection to God through which those powers would have been properly ordered and fulfilled was broken.”

“But the essence and aim of spirituality is not to correct social and political injustices. That will be its effect—though never exactly in ways we imagine as we come to it with our preexisting political concerns. That is not its use, and all thought of using it violates its nature.”

“The fact that a long course of experience is needed for the transformation is not set aside when we are touched by the new life from above.”

“All his most sincere and good intentions, even though specifically alerted by Jesus’ prediction and warning of a few hours earlier, were not able to withstand the automatic tendencies ingrained in his flesh and activated by his circumstances.”

“In an important sense to be explained, a person is his or her body.”

“‘Spiritual people do not play.’ That is the usual view. For one thing, they are too serious ever to play. It is a test of their spirituality that they never let up from their special spiritual activities…And while spiritual people can have joy, they probably should stay away from just plain pleasure. While it is not in itself bad, it might ensnare them. Or so we seem to think.”

“The true effect of the Fall was to lead us to trust in the flesh alone, to “not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (Rom. 1:28) because we now suppose (like mother Eve) that, since there is now God to be counted on in our lives, we must take things into our own hands.”

“But such thinking is far from the truth. It’s an illusion created in part by our own conviction that our unrestrained natural impulse is in itself a good thing and that we have an unquestionable right to fulfill our natural impulses so long as “no one gets hurt.”

“But his words are really guideposts to direct us in our personal struggle to over come the evil that reigns in our world.”

“So we bring the “old person” before our minds and, with resolute consciousness, we disassociate ourselves from him or her.”

“If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made out nature our ally.”

“If for any reason we are not fully exercising and enjoying the right to “freedom” and “happiness” as popularly conceived, then we automatically assume that something is somewhere wrong.”

“Somehow, the fact that ‘mortification’self-denial, the disciplining of one’s natural impulseshappens to be central teaching of the New Testament is conveniently ignored.”

“In the Reformed branches of Protestantism, with John Calvin as the chief inspiration, discipline became identified with something that the church exerts over its members to keep them in line.”

“The Greek philosophers from the Sophists through Philo and Epictetus included ascetic practices in their views of all proper human education or development.”

“Asceticism rightly understood is so far from the “mystical” as to be just good sense about life and, ultimately, about spiritual life.”

“One of the greatest deceptions in the practice of the Christian religion is the idea that all that really matters is our internal feelings, ideas, beliefs, and intentions.”

“Solitude frees us, actually. This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines.”

“[Solitude] opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us … [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted.”

“How rarely are we ever truly listened to, and how deep is our need to be heard.”

“Roughly speaking, the disciplines of abstinence counteract tendencies to sins of commission, and the disciplines of engagement counteract tendencies to sins of omission.”

“Condemnation and guilt over mere possession has no part in scriptural faith and is, in the end, only a barrier to the right use of the riches of the earth.”

“He even suggests that ‘true, scriptural Christianity has a tendency, in the process of time, to undermine and destroy itself.’ It begets diligence and frugality, which in turn make one rich.”

“We do not have to own things to love them, trust them, even serve them.”

“So to assume the responsibility for the right use and guidance of possessions through ownership is far more of a discipline of the spirit than poverty itself.”

“One way to gain such understanding is to experience the life of the poor in some further measurethough we must never give in to the temptation to act as if we are poor when we are not.”

“Fear and wrath mingle to form the automatic, overt response of the ‘normal, decent human being’ to any person or event that threatens his or her security, status, or satisfaction.”

“Almost all evil deeds and intents are begun with the thought that they can be hidden by deceit.”

“The highest education, as well as the strictest doctrinal views and religious practice, often leave untouched the heart of darkness from which the demons come to perch upon the lacerated back of humankind.:

“It will not be by force, but by the power of truth presented in overwhelming love. Our inability to conceive of it other than by force merely testifies to our obsession with human means for controlling other people.”

“The local assembly, for its part, can then become an academy where people throng from the surrounding community to learn how to live.”

“Faith grows from the experience of acting on plans and discovering God to be acting with us.”

Insects spring to summer

When my dad was growing up in Dallas, he remembers a truck fogging his entire neighborhood with DDT. One time, he was killing hornets with a tennis racquet in his front yard when the truck drove by and most fell to the ground before he could kill any more.

After nearly a century of ruthlessly effective pesticides and the steady march of habitat loss, many insect populations have been devastated, a fraction of what they once were. I have heard stories of fireflies numbering in the thousands on a summer night while now there are maybe a dozen if any at all. When I search online for a blog post like this, I frequently get websites for exterminating the insects that I’m trying to learn about. Of course, there are insects I don’t like. I started an organic mosquito control program this year and I spread carpenter ant bait around my deck every once in a while. I’ve never had a roach problem, but if I did I’m sure I’d call someone. I like to think the active centipede population in the basement keeps them all in check.

I was raised to appreciate insects and in recent years I’ve started to care even more. I do what I can to help out by plating beneficial plants and offering decomposing waste in the compost. For the most part, I just enjoy these creatures and appreciate all the crazy shapes and personalities that insects bring.

***

May 2 – This was the first time I’ve ever seen an eastern eyed click beetle. The false eyes as a defense mechanism definitely made me look twice and feel like it was watching me as much as I was watching it.

June 1 – The earliest major pollinator show of spring around here is watching honey bees and bumblebees swarm a pair of Verbascum chaixii ‘Wedding Candles’ (aka Mullein). I first noticed this burst of activity last year and was very much looking forward to it this spring.

June 10 – It’s been a long time since I was this excited about an insect. When I first saw this hummingbird moth on some English lavender I was confused in the way that whomever named it obviously was as well. It hovers and flits just like a hummingbird and has what looks like the beak of a hummingbird, but it is actually a moth with a long tongue for drawing nectar.

June 11 – I let some parsley flower this spring. It’s the first time I’ve seen a parsley flower before and it was interesting to notice which insects were attracted by it. I’m hoping it goes to seed and brings back a whole flower bed of parsley next year. Below is a cool, black and blue false wasp.

Here are two Margined Leatherwing beetles ensuring future generations.

June 15 – In the next two photos, a metallic green sweat bee and a bumblebee forage on the earliest Echinacea blooms of the season. The sweat bees are especially beautiful to watch in the sun.

June 20 – Catnip is actually a great pollinator. I planted this last year and it really took off this spring. I’ve been watching all kinds of bees and hover flies swarm around.

June 24 – This next one might gross some people out – feel free to skip

I was recently cutting back suckers on a Crape Myrtle when I found a whole civilization of millipedes (Apheloria virginiensis, I believe) living in a crease in the stump underneath. I took a photo then also a video because the way they were all moving at the same time was completely mesmerizing.

June 27 – This is Euthyrhynchus floridanus, the Florida predatory stink bug, holding its prey. It’s a native stink bug that sometimes travels in packs to hunt other insects.

June 27 – A false wasp on English lavender. I think false wasps are some of the coolest looking flying insects in the garden.

Yarrow universe

Compared to other varieties, I have not been very impressed with yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as a plant for attracting pollinators. That changed this weekend when I looked more closely at our (much-expanded) clump of yarrow and noticed it swarming with a variety of insects. I planted it in spring 2020 and I imagine that for the past two growing seasons there wasn’t enough of it to attract the insect life I’m seeing today.

When I find some time, I would like to transplant some to the edges of my vegetable beds which are basically empty at the moment. I am not feeling particularly motivated to do veggies this year and I’m also dealing with a pretty overwhelming gastropod situation. Yarrow grows so densely it might deter the snails and slugs (and/or provide a sacrificial meal) while also attracting beneficial insects and apparently accumulating nutrients in the topsoil.

Flowers bloom in a world on fire

We are just exiting spring in Richmond. There are flowers on asters, peas, Spiderwort and mullein. Buds on the coneflower, beardtongue, yucca, and yarrow. And by the afternoon today and tomorrow, the temperatures are expected to approach triple digits, twenty degrees above average. Texas recently struggled to produce enough energy during a heat wave and in India birds fell from the sky. When I got home yesterday, with the weather and everything else on my mind, I was gifted a visit from a Luna moth.

Whenever I start to think that the garden is my responsibility, weeding, watering, and (unfortunately) overreacting when my toddler accidently tramples plants, I am reminded how fiercely nature is already fighting for itself. You can only take so much credit.

In a sort of baptism, I watered everything last night that I worried might be affected by the temperatures. I told the plants that rain with cooler air was on the way. I also wondered briefly if covering plants, typically something done to protect against a freeze, might soon become a summer-time protection from the heat.

I love the beauty and symbolism of gardens, but I also worry that the climate will change faster than we can adapt. I try to give what I have to give and hold on to gratitude for every bud and bloom.

Ajuga buzz

I have a few patches of Ajuga reptans in the back yard that have been swarming with carpenter bees for the last couple of weeks. It’s a great match because both the bees and the plant are so aggressive. I got buzzed by a few bees while I watched and they were constantly fighting each other. The plant is spreading so quickly that earlier this spring I contemplated digging it out, but after watching the bees I’ve decided I’m going to let it go for now. It’s also an attractive evergreen groundcover and, for now, there is plenty of room for it to spread.

Dogwood save

When I first moved in to the neighborhood, a man named Ly Hia walked over and talked to me about the plants on our property and how it had changed with previous owners over time. Whenever he drove by he would wave and smile and I spoke to him if I saw him outside. One time, a car with a flat tire pulled over near his house and the two of us worked trying unsuccessfully to change it.

A year ago, I learned that he had died. A post on NextDoor drew over 50 comments and neighbors shared stories about the man who had immigrated from Cambodia and made a life in Virginia. He had been an avid gardener and guerrilla tree trimmer around the neighborhood. I didn’t realize until he died that he had been keeping English ivy off of a Dogwood near his house. As the weather warmed, the ivy saw an opportunity and by last fall it had completely enveloped the tree, hanging low over the road.

On Election Day last November, a new work holiday, I decided to try and trim the vines. I didn’t have enough time to finish the project, but I cut them at the base of the trunk so they would gradually die off over the winter. Even the small portion of vines I removed filled an entire supercan.

This spring, I spent a few hours on a ladder removing all the remaining ivy and smothered limbs that had died. It was more work and way more dead plant material than I had expected. The tree suffered, but survived. A few weeks later I got the reward I had been hoping for: flowers for Lei, in memory of his energy and life.

Fothergillia

In the summer of 2019, my mom connected with the family of her birth father, Bill Fothergill. We learned that he was a fun-loving man with fair, British skin and dark, brown eyes. He had met my mom’s birth mom in New York City after college. It’s fun to imagine that my mom’s newfound origin story might somehow be tied to my irrational love for the city.

After learning about her birth family, I moved into a new house and began obsessively researching plants to fill the property. One shrub that I came across was Witch Alder, aka Fothergillia. I love the look of this shrub. The leaves are dark, shiny, and irregular. The flowers come before the leaves, starting as chartreuse buds (my favorite color) then blooming into clouds of white. In the fall the leaves turn a rich red-orange.

I feel a special connection to this plant because of my heritage. I don’t know if we are related to Dr. John Fothergill, the English plant collector who brought the plant back to England, but it seems plausible enough. Because of the connection and a general interest in the plant, I ordered two Fothergillia gardenii (dwarf witch alder) the second fall we lived in the house. I’ve watched them grow for the past year, one doing much better than the other, and started to recognize it in other settings beyond my garden.

This past July, while we were in Tennessee, I saw the familiar leaves and branches of Fothergillia. The shrubs were beautiful, large, and well-established. They were also putting out suckers all around. I told my sister about them and we talked about snagging some before we left. The last night of the trip, before dessert, we walked over to the flower beds and unceremoniously yanked as many suckers out of the ground as possible. We went back to the cabin, wrapped them in moist paper towels, and put them in plastic bags for the journey home.

I felt a little like Dr. John Fothergill, collecting specimens for my personal collection. I potted them, put them in a place with morning sun, and essentially forgot about them for the next few months.

Three of them survived and I planted them in the easement along our property where I hope they will thrive and spread for many years. I can’t wait to see the blooms in the spring after establishing their roots all winter and I hope to eventually have suckers to propagate and spread.

As my mom has learned about her birth families I have felt more drawn to the maternal, Italian heritage we discovered early on: the wine, the pasta, the crowded plazas. This reflection has helped me embrace my English heritage: gardening, walking, observing, and my growing collection of information, plants, and ideas.

Some compost strategies around the neighborhood

After writing the last post I went for a couple of walks around the neighborhood and started noticing other composting systems I wanted to save for future reference. Here are two plastic systems, one in a little bit better shape than the other. I like how the one on the left has a spot to pull out compost from the bottom, but I’m not sure the compost is able to breathe as much as it might want to. The stackable system would be cool since each element looks light enough to carry around the garden. I see what looks like avocado leaves growing just behind.

Next to that is a nice, simple, leaf compost system similar to mine just smaller and more vertical. It saves a lot of space in this little alley spot and still accomplishes the goal.

Here’s another leaf compost system that looks nice and doesn’t require any set up. Both this one and the one above could be replicated in the corner of a smaller patio or urban-scale garden.

Here is the view from above of the leaves with my Crocks making a cameo in the corner — the official shoe of COVID.

My neighbor across the back alley is serious about his composting. He told me that their ground was hard clay when they moved in years ago and they’ve built up a great topsoil with leaves and kitchen scrap compost. He mows his leaves to chop them up which accelerates the process. I definitely want to mulch my leaves somehow, but I just don’t have the time or energy so I take the slower route.

Speaking of the slower processes, I appreciate the vines growing into the compost. Even though they’re an invasive species, it’s a good reminder to me that the compost can provide nutrients for plants at every stage. I might try to work in smaller little compost holes into the middle of my vegetable garden beds next spring. If I sink the five-gallon bucket into the ground and fill it with compost I could also water the vegetables by filling the bucket and letting those nutrients seep out with the water and spread the compost in the same bed once it’s ready.

The Fonticello Food Forest has a solid system going in order to make use of the leftover donated food that spoils before it can be given away or is left unwanted. I love this kind of system because the slats can be removed for very easy access to the entire pile and like the slats double a signs that can be moved around as needed. The one on the left is just for leaves that are composting and also providing dry matter from the other piles. I need to incorporate some kind of sign that tells me which bucket to add scraps to along the same lines as the “FEED ME” sign on the far right.

For the record, bagging up leaves is still a composting system. The leaves in the bags below will decompose into beautiful leaf mold eventually, we just won’t have easy access to it when it’s ready. When I was young, we stacked bags of leaves like this probably 20 feet down the sidewalk. I loved how tidy the yard looked and it was so satisfying to the bags piled up when we finished the job. I think it’s safe to say this is still the norm. For now 🙂

Compost

I think about compost all the time. From food scraps to humanure, we discard, bury, sterilize, and burn some of our most fertile resources. Decomposition of organic matter happens naturally, we just have to set simple public health boundaries for rats and transmissible diseases.

Growing up, my parents kept a couple of compost piles in the back yard and it was very normal for us to save food scraps in a plastic bin under the sink. I think the bin was actually a drawer from the freezer that we didn’t need for some reason. My interest in composting went to a new level during Thanksgiving break in the fall of 2008. I decided not to fly back to Texas and instead I visited my older brother at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, a community devoted “to caring for people and the Earth by learning and demonstrating a holistic, sustainable culture.” I had never been to such a place and I soaked it up. There was so much to see everywhere on the property. It felt like a place where every mundane aspect of life had been reimagined. Most important in the context I this post is that this was the first time I ever used a composting toilet. I will always remember my time at Earthaven as a formative, positive, eye-opening experience. Over the next couple of years I realized my role could be connecting with the culture and innovations at places like Earthaven and helping to translate them to the mainstream. In my mind, that involves making these practices beautiful and functional.

A year later, I started a composting program on my college campus. Digging up some of that pristine grass and installing the composting system at UR was one of my favorite days of college. It was my small attempt to make the place more interesting and feel connected to the soil.

It was a special project for me. I loved seeing friends carrying bags of compost from their apartments. Like many college programs, the compost system fell into disrepair and the boxes were removed a few years after I graduated.

My first year out of college, the brother who had lived at Earthaven moved in with me. He started a compost pile in the backyard and it was fun to get back into that routine. Of course, composting can sometimes be a little like a cast iron skillet: everyone has their own way to do it and sometimes they are hard to share. One time, I was doing something that my brother didn’t like and we got in one of the biggest fights of the year together. We’re passionate composters 🙂 My main issue was that I wanted composting to be a low-stress activity. Things break down. I don’t want to think too much about it. A few years later we moved into a different house and I felt the energy to get it going again. I bought a plastic tumbler, pictured below, because we had just a small garden in the front and patio out back. This is a picture of it in its current, discarded state.

This tumbler served me well for a couple of years. I like how easy it is to turn, how sturdy it is near the ground, and how it collects compost tea in the reservoir below. My main complaint is that it is difficult to get the compost out. It gets stuck in the corners, the opening is too small, and the compost can tend to get too wet even with the drain holes in the bottom. It was also not enough room for us. After it filled up I started supplementing with five-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom and sides.

My current composting system is a little more ambitious. We have more outdoor space now so lots more room to experiment. A couple of months after moving in I noticed that one corner of the back yard had a steep slope. The soil had washed down the hill and left the area eroded and also created a gap under the sidewalk above. I had read about contour lines and thought that I could set up a fence sort of perpendicular to the slope to hold my leaves, collect rain water, slow erosion, and start to build up the soil. As a bonus, I had somewhere to put my leaves every year. At some point in the process I also learned about leaf mold (composted leaves) and it has been incredible to dig to the bottom of the pile and find loads of this soil amendment to spread around the garden.

During the summer of 2020 I planted a wildflower seed mix around the top edge of the leaf pile. I like the flowers and also wanted the roots to help with building up the soil. I also added two natural wood terraces on contour, the top for planting and the bottom for walking around and reaching everything.

Around that same time I made a connection: if I was piling all of my dry matter in one place, it made sense to do my kitchen scrap composting there as well. I started to prefer the five-gallon buckets to the store-bought tumbler and I moved them over to the leaf pile to try it out. Once the buckets filled up, I let them compost until I needed the room. For the next stage, I dug holes into the clay farther up the hill and put the compost there to finish. Whenever I have the motivation, I dig it out and save it or spread it around. The photo below is from the summer of 2020.

And this is from the most recent fall, 2021. This photo was taken after the first major raking effort in the back yard so the pile finally started to fill back up. I love the look of leaves.

At one point I spray painted the buckets a camo grey color to try and help them blend in. I think it helped, but the paint is also chipping which is not ideal and eventually I just dug the buckets into the ground so they could be more easily buried in the leaves.

I really do love having the leaves so accessible. Not having enough dry matter has always been an issue for my compost so this is a real significant win-win.

I also like that with the compost more connected with the soil there is room for volunteer plants to sprout. Here is a spaghetti squash that unfortunately did not survive, but added some nice greenery.

These tomatoes at the top of the hill are all volunteers from the compost. They were prolific, producing far more than the tomatoes I planted “on purpose.” I wrote about them already in a previous post.

Here is a more recent view of the leaf pile after raking all the leaves from the back yard, front yard, and street. It is more than it looks.

Here is the same pile after doing a little grape stomp to keep it from blowing away.

I’ve filled it this much at least once more since taking these last two photos and I think I have one last large batch to rake before my full leaf harvest is complete. It may look like just a leaf pile, but it is an entire universe of worms, millipedes, ants, fungus, and an occasional salamander. Birds love to pick through the leaves for food. Here is some compost I recently turned out to make room for the next batch.

Composting is definitely a lifestyle. It can be messy and it usually involves interacting with rotting material at some point in the process. It’s also just so much easier and quicker to throw everything away. Even though I like my system, food scraps can pile up quickly. This is an aesthetic and time-consuming aspect of composting that can sometimes be a turn-off.

At this point in the process, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve become the “difficult composter” I wanted to avoid. In making this system that works so well for me I have also made it difficult for other people to participate. I want to work on the user experience so that anyone could take out the compost bucket and know what to do. In the spring I also want to plant some native honeysuckle around the fencing. I personally don’t mind the appearance, but I’ve received some negative feedback. Like I said, I want people to leave with a positive impression of compost and I want composting to be beautiful as well as functional so I’m happy to make the change. If friends and family associate rotting food with the sweet smell of honeysuckle then I will feel like I have done my job.