In the summer of 1966 the United States government invited me to join the military, only to turn me down for having flat feet and asthma. By the time the army brass decided not to discharge flat-footed asthmatics, I was well on my way in graduate school, studying to become an entomologist. There would be no marching or bombing for me. Insects were my fate.
Oh, the ironies. Entomology stripped away my innocence just as surely as the atrocities of war would have done. Now, whenever I look out my kitchen window, I see at first what any person would see: the lawn, the garden, and the compost bin. But then my reality diverges. When I gaze over my lumpy, fibrous mat of St. Augustine grass, I am reminded of the Amazon Basin, with its equally flat, monotonous canopy. When I lie down and push that canopy of grass aside, I see the treacherous jungles of wartime Vietnam. I am in another world. Another universe.
It is a jungle down there in the lawn, or out there in the garden, and though not red in tooth and claw--because insects do not have teeth or red blood--this jungle is well equipped with claws, beaks, biting and sucking mouthparts, stingers, and other weaponry devious and cunning enough to be human inventions.
Having studied the brutal world of insects, I have gradually come to realize that life, reduced to its simplest principles, is a cannibalistic affair in which higher forms of life prey on lower forms. This philosophic truth is plain to see in a home lawn, but even more so in the garden compost bin.
Most of the plant life in my backyard universe will pass through this box, like energy into a black hole. It is where the process that we call decomposition takes place. Fetid, foul stench, slime, decay. And yet, is it really the vile ending of life, the awful failure to survive?
Lifting the lid of the compost bin, a cloud of vinegar flies rises up, followed by green bottle flies. Pill bugs scramble for cover, as do earwigs, centipedes, symphylans, and collembolans. These are just a tiny fraction of the organisms that thrive in the dark, moist heart of decomposition.
When I place my hand on the surface of the grass clippings and the wrinkled brown tomato leaves I can feel the heat. I thrust my hand down into the soggy mass and it feels even hotter. What is the reason for this heat, this energy? What does it mean?
It means the presence of life! It means that bacteria are gnawing away in delirious orgies of consumption. The heat released is the heat of their metabolism, and their metabolism makes the compost bin function as the stomach of the garden. Indeed, when reduced to its essential principles, the human stomach is nothing more than a portable, contained compost bin -- its microbes gnawing and reducing the dead into nutrients. Then our bodies convert the nutrients into a different living thing.
Somehow the word "decomposition" leads us to false mourning and notions of finality. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Decomposition is life at full, glorious throttle! The death of one is the beginning of another, and thus our concept of life and death begins to blur. There is no such thing as birth or death, there is simply molecular assembly as one life grows and thrives, and there is molecular disassembly as it dies and passes back into the living plasma that bathes the surface of this earth.
So why do we find death so fearful and decomposition so revolting? Because evolution wants to keep us motivated. Evolution has constructed our minds to strive for survival above all else, and a revulsion of decay is essential for keeping us off the compost heap. We all see life through our own agendas.
There is immense comfort to be found in this understanding of compost, that it is life burning at its most intense, that "compost" and "decomposition" are judgment words, connoting human values.
I think about this from time to time, gazing out over my lawn.
William Jordan is a collection of molecules currently assembled in Southern California.
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn
Article published on June 23, 2008.