Story Collected by Lucia Whalen
The seed of my romance with compost was planted in my grandmother’s garden around the age of six. One of my first memories is a five second clip of my aunt, my mother’s sister, lifting the top of an old-time compost bin, exposing me to a foreign world where worms and orange peels live side by side. I knew little about the purpose of the bin, only that it was dirty and smelly. That same garden is where I learned that snacks are best when eaten straight off the vine and that sunflowers have the power to evoke feelings of happiness within the human body. However, I had little interest in gardening until my freshman year of college, when I developed an existential guilt when throwing away banana peels.
Previously to enrolling at UIC I attended a small school in Washington state, where I was lucky enough to live in an environment with heavy focus placed on living with sustainable practices. On the floor of my dorm was a small compost bin, and I quickly got into the habit of composting anything that had the potential to biodegrade, even going as far as composting stray hair and toenails. I lived in a sort of sustainable ivory tower, as I had the privilege of living within a sustainable system without needing to exert much extra effort on my part, besides walking a few feet and disposing. I happily let the dirty work go to whoever was removing the compost, and I left the rest up to my imagination.
After moving back home to Chicago, I became a sort of sustainability tyrant, demanding that my family quickly catch up to the new habits I had formed at school. Control issues aside, I truly was worried about the lack of environmental awareness I felt in the Midwest after living on the West Coast. Mostly, I missed the compost. At that point in my composting career, I knew little factually about compost. What I did know was that food had a life beyond our human consumption, and that compost was a way of drastically lessening the number of trips outside to the trash bin. After composting, my relationship with landfill trash shifted drastically. I no longer feel able to mindlessly throw items away. I see compost as the afterlife of food, a cycle of death and rebirth that involves taking food from the earth and then giving back what is left to biodegrade so that the soil is replenished with the nutrients it needs to grow more healthy food. When composting, I feel a sense of ease in knowing that my disposal is not the end, but is part of a loop.
Each time I throw things in the trash now, I feel a pang in knowing that, compared to my immortal compost, whatever I am throwing away is simply going to sit somewhere with no purpose. The compost angels descended when I learned that our lovely neighbors have a giant compost bin in their backyard. My family’s composting began with baby steps, and we used old plastic tupperware and metal bowls to store the food. I took on the job of compost delivery woman, and every few days take a trip down the street to drop off the pot of gold. The compost sharing opened the doorway to deeper neighborhood gardening connections, and beyond compost we now share seeds, plants, and gardening tips. The lineage of my grandparents’ garden continues on, even through the broken ties of my parents’ divorce and their deaths. Although my grandfather passed away before my birth, I have met him through his raspberries, which we transplanted into my mother’s garden. In my grandparents’ garden is where my father learned to garden, and in my father’s garden is where I am learning to garden. Just as compost is the regeneration and recycling of life, my grandmother respected and encouraged life, both in her garden and through the sharing of her knowledge. My grandmother’s garden was a point of convergence and place to share tradition, knowledge and love. My grandmother’s garden was her way of giving life and love, and through the garden she passed down the traditions of her own farming heritage.