For the first time in a while, I struggled with a topic for this week’s blog. Considering all of the hunkering down this past year, it is surprising that it’s taken this long. I just watched the Ken Burn’s documentary about Mark Twain and was frequently reminded that Twain always had his travels to turn to for literary inspiration. What do I have? My dog, my backyard, and a daily bicycle ride through the La Crosse River Marsh. Maybe I have been forced to become more reflective during this period of self-imposed sequestration, but like everything else associated with the pandemic, even my reflective tendencies are tired and want things back to the way they were.

This week I toyed with essays about flat tires on my bicycle and the short lives of daffodil blooms, but then settled on a short essay about my compost pile. I’d written about compost one other time three years ago, but in honor of Earth Day, I feel like bringing it up again.*

Alongside my garden I have a mound of brush and leaves. To call it a compost pile is generous, as I take none of the steps needed to promote decomposition. I do not maintain a proper blend of green and brown vegetation. I do not pay attention to the pile’s moisture level or temperature. I have never turned the contents with a pitchfork. I just throw whatever yard waste I have on top of the pile, and once a year I shovel out the bottom to see what is there. Last week was my annual dig, and in spite of my lack of effort, there was, as always, the miracle of compost. 

I do not keep a compost pile because I can’t get compost anywhere else. The City of La Crosse Yard Waste Site is only two miles away, and there sits a mountain of sifted compost that is free for the taking. If I drove there with a half dozen large buckets in the back of my Subaru, it would take me twenty minutes to load up as much compost as I get from my tiny pile. Obviously there is more to composting than the acquisition of soil nutrients. 

I know the real reason I keep a compost pile. It is the satisfaction that comes with actually producing from scratch the raw materials to improve the land. By land, I am not just talking about the soil, but the soil, the watershed, the plant life, the birds, and the half dozen rodents (voles, moles, chipmunks, gray squirrels, mice, and cottontail rabbits) I share my yard with. My compost pile is a tool to improve the quality of the one small area I am personally responsible for. 

Soil in La Crosse is mostly sand. The entire city resides atop an ancient riverbed. When the ice dams of the last Ice Age gave way, the Mississippi River was temporarily much larger than it is now. Most of the river towns along the Upper Mississippi, La Crosse among them, are in the river valley created by this dramatic geologic event. The resulting soil is sandy river bottom, and black dirt surprisingly thin. If I have any reason for digging a hole in my lawn (e.g., digging a posthole when the USPS required the residents on my street to put up rural mailboxes), I have only to dig through a few inches of humus before I run out of nutrient-rich soil. After years of annually sprinkling compost on the small plot that is my garden, I can now double dig down two feet and still not reach the sand. When I put the back row of my garden into sunflowers for the bumblebees and goldfinches, I feel like I’ve done something ecologically worthwhile. It all begins with the compost. 

*The prior blog about compost is dated May 21, 2018. In scrolling through my archived blogs to find it, I noticed how often other topics showed up. I often write about writing and about fishing, my daughter, my years living in Taiwan, and bicycling through the marsh. This probably will be my last entry about compost. 

Steven Simpson