Soiling the World

compost bin
On a cold morning after a winter storm, I start my day by putting a green bin at the top of my snowy driveway. Walking the dogs a few minutes later, I observe the pattern of brightly-colored containers in front of houses as if they were signs, green symbols of allegiance to compost, an ancient and contemporary environmental practice. Why do only some homes put out their scraps on Monday mornings? I look for a pattern – do the green containers cluster in front of homes near the water, or those nearer to Route 142? Do bigger houses seem more likely to sprout a green addendum to their weekly garbage? Does the completeness of the snow shoveling, which shows the results of very recent labor in the twelve hours since the storm, indicate a higher likelihood of composting? It’s hard to make sense of all these signs.

I know many of these houses, since I’ve lived here on the Connecticut shoreline for over twenty years. I discern no clear pattern. But – since I’m an eco-theorist, a literary historian, and even sometimes a poet – the mosaic of green squares on black asphalt or white snow makes me wonder about what we think we’re doing, or not doing. What does composting mean? What are we making from the coffee grounds, avocado pits, scraps of lettuce and zucchini, grapefruit rinds, and stems of fennel and basil?

Scientists, engineers, and the excellent composting start-up Blue Earth that’s running a pilot program in my neighborhood have different answers. I go to the poets to help me understand.

Compost from Shakespeare to Ovid

food-waste-compostCompost, the poets say, names a process through which organic substances decompose to become soil. Even in winter, the business makes me think about the smelly bits of my garden, about last night’s dinner, and also about my own body. Corporeal soil is filled with the humus of humans and other creatures. That’s what Donna Haraway means with her theoretical joke about about how the humanities should be re-named the humus-ities. “We are compost, not posthuman,” quips Haraway. When I die, hopefully not soon, my body will decay, and my flesh will return to the ecosystem as nutrients in soil. The process through which decaying organic matter fertilizes soil is known as composting or composture. As organized intentionally by humans, this practice is probably as old as large-scale agriculture, though the earliest written account in Europe comes from Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura, written around 160 BCE. Proponents of a “long Anthropocene,” the argument that humans have been modifying our planet’s climate since the dawn of farming twelve millennia ago, treat composting, along with burning, as key technologies in the human restructuring of the nonhuman environment.

In addition to being both compost and a composter, I’m also an eco-Shakespearean, so when I put my scraps out each week I subvocalize a favorite passage from Timon of Athens:

The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she steals from the sun;
The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol’n
From gen’ral excrement; each thing’s a thief. (4.3.439-45)

These lines present ecological connection as universal theft. Each celestial body preys on each other one. The vision is gorgeous, dizzying, and shocking. It’s no wonder Vladimir Nabokov loved these lines so much he swiped them for the title of his novel Pale Fire.

Timon outside Athens

Timon outside Athens, John Gilbert, 1867

Shakespeare’s lush verse highlights the violence in decomposition. Timon howls defiance at the world that wants to churn his body into “gen’ral excrement.” For the Elizabethan playwright the word “excrement” means not just bodily waste, though it does mean that, but also a broader sense of things that emerge from other things, as hair and nails emerge from human bodies. The “gen’ral excrement” of the physical world “feeds and breeds” through composture. That’s the process that soils the earth and makes the soil. Things change into other things. It’s an ecological vision, centuries before the world “ecology” was coined.

Shakespeare learned his poetics of composture from the Roman poet Ovid, whose Metamorphoses, published in 8 CE, over a century after Cato the Elder, represents the master-text in Western literature for physical transformation. The opening lines of Ovid’s epic emphasize that his subject is physical change – and all other kinds of change. My favorite translation of Ovid’s Latin are the gloriously overflowing fourteener couplets composed by Arthur Golding, in his 1567 English version, a favorite text of poets from Shakespeare to Ezra Pound:

Of shapes transformed to bodies straunge, I propose to entreate
Ye gods vouchsafe (for you are they ywrought this wondrous feate) (1.1-2)

Ovid’s opening lines insist that physical transformation connects humans to the gods. We know nonhuman powers, the poet tells us, because we recognize the mutability of our bodies and environments. He’s not quite writing about soil, but soil and plant growth overflow in his epic. Early in Book 1, Ovid burrows down into the smelly mulch. Here’s a little more from Golding’s translation:

As soone as that the moisture once caught heate against the Sunne,
And that the fat and slimie mud in Moorish groundes begunne
To swell through the warmth of Phebus beams, and that the fruitfull seed
Of things well cherish in the fat and lively soyle in deede,
As in their mothers wombe, began in length of time to grow (1.497-501)

You can feel the muck between your fingers, “fat” and “slimie,” heating and growing, moist and generative. Ovid’s soil brings forth life through male heat, this case the sun-god Phebus’s beams, entering into female moisture. Growth and change arise from eroticized conflict. So far, so productive. Ovid makes compost sound pretty good!

Daphne Changed Into a Laurel Tree, Hendrik Goltzius (1589)

But the Latin master’s poetics of transformation also has a destructive side, the most arresting image of which occurs when he describes the nymph Daphne, unable to escape the pursuit of the lustful god Apollo, becoming transformed permanently into a laurel tree. She escapes her would-be rapist, but at the cost of losing her human form. This disturbing episode makes two points about the poetics of compost. First, the violent combination of heat and moisture that for Ovid is the master-trope of generation functions through sexual violence. Ovid tells stories of change through patterns of male pursuit and female flight. Laurel trees are born from attempted rape, as the god Apollo chases the nymph Daphne through the woods. Not all of our change/love/pursuit stories are quite this violent, but many are – and they all grow out of conflict-ridden Ovidian soil.

It’s also true, however, that the story of Apollo and Daphne represents the birth of art as well as the creation of soil. The laurel tree into which the nymph gets transformed becomes the favorite symbol of the god of music and poetry. Apollo uses laurels to crown emperors, athletes, and poets. To wear the laurel means to bear the god’s message of clarity, order, and perfection. The laurel emerges from the transformed body of the terrified Daphne. It’s an ugly origin for an artistic ideal – just as the composture of decay is an ugly origin for the generation of soil. Beauty grows from violence, from death, and from irrevocable mixtures.

Poetics of Compost

It’s mid-day now, the snow is melting in the sunshine, and the green bins have been emptied. Mine sits on my back porch, outside the door to the kitchen. Into its vacancy will go next week’s vegetable ruins. Tomorrow I won’t be able to trace the pattern of composters and non-composters on my morning walk. But before the moment passes – can the poets help us understand the urge to compost?

Here’s what I think. We’re looking for something from the inside of that smelly bin. Compost provides an alternative form of aesthetics. Not only beauty but also generation; not white marble but dark soil; not erotic connection but violence; not the transformation of nature into quantifiable resources but a mixing of human humus into and alongside other strains of flesh and matter.

What do we want from the soil when we make it? Not the techno-Anthropocene of computer networks and deep-sea oil rigs but an intimate and entangled Anthropocene of skin and salt and death and moisture. Making this soil requires abrasion, engagement, immersion. It’ll get us messy. It’ll smell bad. We might not end up with Apollonian aesthetics, but perhaps we won’t have to see the world only through Apollo’s rapacious eyes. That’s a trade I’d happily make.

Even in the suburbs, we live in a composting machine. Each thing’s a thief.

[Some parts of this discussion were previewed in a Zoom-talk to New York’s Urban Soils Institute in Fall 2020.]


Steve Mentz (ORCID: 0000-0002-7118-798X) is Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City. His website is www.stevementz.com.