While we were raking leaves yesterday, I kept stealing glances at the compost bin. I really should empty that thing, I thought. What a failure it was. We bought the bin a year or two ago--it's plain and rectangular, made of black plastic. (You can see it in the background in the picture above. It's between the bush and the garage.) It came with instructions, which were fairly simple, but which were, of course, beyond me: you need green (fresh clippings) and brown (dead leaves) to make dirt. Also, oxygen, heat and water. Layer in the clippings, brown, green, brown. Keep it moist. Don't pack it too full. Turn the compost from time to time, to give it air. Try to place it in a sunny part of the yard, for extra warmth. When it's working, you'll know: the whole thing will heat up.
So of course I did none of those things.
I hid the bin under a bush in a dark chilly part of the yard, and then I stuffed it full. Jam-packed full. Weeds from the garden, dead leaves, twigs and small branches, more weeds. I tried to turn it a few times, but it was too heavy and dense. And because it's deeper than it is wide, there wasn't room for my pitchfork to do much; I kept scraping my knuckles against the sides. I did squirt the hose into it a few times, but eventually I just slammed the lid shut and forgot about it, except for every now and then when I opened it up to cram in more leaves.
It sat all summer, something for Riley to hide behind and that's about it. Every now and then I'd glance at it and see the sticks and twigs and leaves poking out the side and from under the lid, and I'd just roll my eyes at myself. (Which is fairly hard to do.)
Years ago when Doug and I were on the Aran Islands, we went to the visitor center and watched the movie "Man of Aran," which showed what a hard life the early settlers had there. How the land was so rocky they had to make their own dirt in order to grow a few taties. They'd haul baskets of seaweed up from the shore and spread it in the fields with sand, and wait for it to break down. Such patience and diligence. And then there's me, can't even make dirt with a modern contraption that was invented to do just that.
I decided to put the whole thing out of my mind and just keep raking. But then Doug spoke up: "Shouldn't we empty out that compost bin and haul some of those old leaves with these?" He was thinking like me; if the thing weren't so jam-packed, it might actually do what it's supposed to do.
So I went over and lifted the lid. There was black dirt on top; probably from some flower pots I'd emptied last year. I dug down. More dirt. Dug down farther. More dirt. It was dirt! It was dirt all the way down!
I cannot tell you how overwhelmed I was at this, how overjoyed. It worked! It actually worked! I did it all wrong, and yet nature prevailed and did what I had been promised that nature would do: It took leaves and clippings and twigs and grass and it turned it all into lovely black dirt. Oh, yes, there were a few small twigs and some leaves still mixed in, but dammit it really was dirt, glorious thick black dirt.
I leaped around the yard a few times in exultation. And then I got out the wheelbarrow, and I started digging the dirt out of the bin, and I trundled it across the yard and dumped it on my garden. I left the compost bin about a third full of still-composting mass. Then I gathered up a few armfuls of newly-raked leaves and tossed them in. Ran to the garden and pulled up some still-green-but-dying flowers and tossed them in as well. Brown, green. Poured in a big watering can full of water. And shut the lid.
I'll open it again in the spring, when all things are new--including, hopefully, the dirt.