The Far-Off Land of the Other Side of the Compost Bin

Isaac Hollander McCreery, 4 August 2016

It’s in these longer, somewhat open-ended, manual tasks that I see my full laziness manifest. I’ve gotten so used to getting the small jolt of reward from clearing my inbox that a more-or-less all-day task like building out new worm bins feels like quite a haul. I’ve been putting it off for months, now. (Given, without a car, there are some logistical hurdles of getting a bunch of large plastic bins back to my house, but I certainly could have hustled on that more.)

When I picked up the bins a couple of days ago, walking into Lowe’s was like entering another world. It’s been a while since I’ve been to even a proper mainstream grocery store. Our house does all of our shopping at the local grocery coop, which has low ceilings and lots of neutral colors like greens and browns. The white of the tall walls and the dizzying height of the ceiling at the Lowe’s were both shocking, especially given that I was looking for some five-dollar plastic bins in which I could foment compost in our basement. It felt weird to walk into a place so squeaky clean, stacked high with three- and four-digit price tags for laundry machines and bright white lawn chairs that practically sparkled in the blue-spectrum fluorescent lights. I hate places like that. But I do appreciate being able to buy plastic bins in which to raise worms.

Today, when I was getting ready to drill drainage holes into half of the bins, I found our house drill was missing. Another person in the house had been using it a couple of days prior, and hadn’t returned it. Fortunately, someone else had their own drill and was happy to let me borrow it. I brought everything, the bins and the drill, out onto the porch, and realized that it was going to be a messy project, with bits of plastic all over the place, so I moved everything back inside to avoid the wind blowing bits here and there. As I was drilling, I was happy I had made that decision; there’s no way I could have kept all the little bright green plastic shavings from ending up all over our garden had I elected to stay and work on the porch, so I was glad to have a windless basement to soil and easily sweep.

I’ve thought many times that I ought to judge a living space by how much I enjoy cleaning it. This thought originally occurred to me when I was staying in a cabin in northern California several years ago. After staying there the weekend, the hosts asked that we all clean up after ourselves, a reasonable request. I remember sweeping the bare wood floor, an easy and pleasant task, and eventually sweeping the dirt, dust, and brown pine needles directly out the door and back into the woods. It took maybe five minutes (it was a small cabin with six twin beds, just sleeping quarters, with a different building nearby for cooking and dining) and required no dustpan. Having grown up in a big house in Maryland, I had never thought it possible to sweep one’s entire living quarters in a matter of minutes, and be able to just brush the dirt out the door from whence it came. And now, living in a house with many other people, I’m blessed to have only a small section of the house as my responsibility, and let the whole house be cleaned, week over week, by my housemates.

When I was done drilling and sweeping up the little plastic curlicues, I up to the kitchen and out back behind the house into the ally to dig through our recycling bin for some old newspaper. Another blessing: we have plenty of newspaper to go around, since one of my housemates works at a local newspaper and brings home a copy every night. Mostly we take care of the crosswords with fervor and camaraderie, but occasionally we read the news too. Now, I was mostly concerned that it meant plenty of bedding for the worms. As I ripped up the papers, three or four sheets at a time, I watched myself slowly eviscerate a bold, full-color picture, from right to left: half a tree gone, then the whole tree, a shoulder gone, then half of a face and chest, then the other half of a face and chest, then just an arm remaining, then just a hand, then taking the next person’s profiled face, then the rest of their head, then their leaning torso, until all that remained was background and, finally, nothing at all except a pile of newspaper.

I shredded what I thought was enough paper, then dashed some water on it from a water bottle that had been living in my friend’s car for a month, and let the water soak in and disperse. I ate some lunch (I don’t recall what I ate) and turned over the bedding and added more water. I waited again, reading for a while on the porch, then divided the bedding into the two bins and brought them downstairs.

As I transferred the worms from our old bin to the new ones, handful by handful of compost, I quickly realized how important it was that I go slowly. Not for the worms—they can take it—but for my own appreciation of the task at hand. Here I was, doing a project I had looked forward to (with some concoction of dread and laziness) for months, and finally fulfilling a promise I had made to my house. Why not appreciate the act of fulfilling such a promise? And every handful made so much noise! As I scooped, the compost was wet and dark, and made a sort of tearing, slipping noise as I closed my hand around it. But each handful would continue to slurp and click with life, even as I held it totally still. And if I did hold my hand still, I could feel the worms wriggling around on my fingers and palm. What was alive in those bins were, as our food scraps container says, “worm friends” (as in, “FOOD 4 WORM FRIENDS” written in Sharpie on masking tape). I ought to get to know my worm friends better, I thought, so that I can care for them so that they can care for us for years to come. With each handful of compost, dozens—sometimes hundreds—of worms were coming up into my grasp. What power! Millions of years of evolution, then brief domestication, to take byproducts of feeding a dozen humans and turn it into soil rich with nutrients to help us grow food and beautiful flowers for ourselves.

I piled the new bedding on one side of the bin and the old compost on the other. The hope is that the worms will mostly migrate from the old compost to the new, so I can put the old compost in the garden without losing too much of the worm population. After I finished transferring most of the worms and compost, I took all three bins (the old and the two new) outside to let them sit in the hot sun for a bit. As I had been transferring, slowly, I had noticed many thousands of tiny white bugs crawling around. A bit of research told me that they were white mites, not harmful, but might eat more of the food waste and produce lower quality compost. Apparently, they thrive in wetter conditions, and drying the compost out would help.

I didn’t put any shoes on all day, but I rarely spend time barefoot, so the soles of my feet took a bit more damage than they are used to, carrying heavy bins of compost out across the gravel next to our house and out into the front yard. I’m still not sure how I managed to avoid getting any broken glass in my feet; maybe there is less glass than I thought. I hosed down the old lid and outside bin. The spray of the nozzle back on me from a leak ended up soaking me some, but not enough to be bothersome on such a hot day.

Later that afternoon, after I thought the sun had probably done a good number on the moisture in the bins, I took all three back inside, down to the basement. I went up to the kitchen, took the container of food that had been accumulating—“FOOD 4 WORM FRIENDS”—and brought it back downstairs. I sat on the carpeted steps, with dirt on my slightly damp ripped pants, and scooped food waste, largely coffee grounds, into the new bedding of the two bins. Crushing the egg shells one at a time felt like it might cut my hands, but didn’t. An old corn husk would probably have done well if cut up, but I just put it in whole. I had also fished out some watermelon rinds earlier in the day, and I knew those would attract plenty of worms from the far-off land of the other side of the compost bin.