God in the Rot

Esther Graff-Radford with her daughter, Sophia

By Guest Contributor Esther Graff-Radford

Y’all meet my fellow Southern Urban Homesteader, Esther Graff-Radford. Esther and I connected through a mutual friend who thought we ought to know each other. Her instincts were right on. Esther lives in Atlanta’s Ashford Park neighborhood with, she says, her ever-patient husband, Daniel,  two children, Sophia and Ethan, one dog, one renegade tortoise, and eight chickens.  Her many passions include hatching chicken eggs, jellymaking, reading pop economics, and gardening. Esther educates families and children about sustainable urban farming and serves as pro bono legal counsel for the Chamblee Farmers Market.

Recently Esther and I met up at a little tea shop called Zen Tea in Chamblee, Georgia (I swear your heart rate will go down just walking into this place!), where my pal and neighbor Tom Godfrey was playing with his jazz trio one Saturday night. We were chatting about our respective urban homestead endeavors and stuff on our minds, and ever the editor, I invited to Esther put her thoughts to the page for a guest post for this blog. Read on, then help me persuade her to be a regular contributor.

A volunteer melon in Esther's compost

One recent morning, I grabbed a paper bag full of eggshells and coffee grinds off the kitchen counter and headed to the compost bin.  Cursing the folly that had prompted me to dump moist scraps into a paper bag, I tried not to strew trash all the way down the path to the bin.  My slimy burden was poised in midair, ready to become the latest addition to the rotting heap, when I suddenly encountered God.

I shouldn’t have been surprised; I often meet Her in my garden. But this time, like every time, I was filled with quiet wonder as I knelt before Her latest manifestation: a healthy squash seedling sprouting voluntarily out of the compost.  Suddenly, the whole pile with its rolypoly bugs and earthy smell shone beautiful.

This is my Easter Sunday, my moment of awareness that death giving way unto life is an ongoing quotidian miracle. In moments like this I celebrate not the absence of death, but the endless recycling of death unto life unto death unto life.  I celebrate the complex dance of soil and microbes and pitchfork and fallen leaves and bugs that takes my kitchen scraps and turns them into food again and, eventually, into my children’s brown skin and crazydazy laughs. After years of gardening and composting, I look at that paper bag on my kitchen counter and I see beauty and purpose on a level of complexity that can only be called holy.

I’m not subtle about my embrace of rot.  I take home the grinds from the coffee shop and the pulp from the juice bar. I bring restaurant scraps home for the chickens. When my business installs gardens with children, we build compost bins before we plant anything.

Over time, I’ve developed a theory. A person’s attitude toward backyard composting is a good litmus test of attitudes toward lots of other things. Conservation and consumption, for example. Ecology and abuse. Long-term stability versus short-term gain. Like any theory this one has its holes, and like any quick test subsequent observation may reveal contradictions.  But as an initial diagnostic tool, the compost test is beyond compare. If a person is disgusted by the idea of composting, chances are that person is suffering from blind consumption in other areas of life, too.

Esther's chickens feast on insects in the compost

Esther's chickens feast on insects in the compost

As a culture, we have become accustomed to vacuuming Stuff into our lives and heedlessly spewing waste in our wake. We worship youth and despise aging. We deny death and fear birth. We hide our garbage out of sight and out of mind. And we are suffering the consequences of ignoring ecology and failing to walk humbly on the dirt.

Recently, a client was put off by the idea of letting her child pile up apple cores in the back yard.  “Can’t we just buy organic dirt and have it shipped in?” she asked.  “Sure,” I answered.  “But you’ll waste $500 and miss out on countless benefits.”  Not the least of those benefits is training ourselves to use what we have instead of rushing out to buy instant gratification.  When we compost, we call ourselves to account for how much waste we produce and how we treat it.  We learn to look closely at aging and imperfection and see deep beauty and renewal. We learn to commit to stewardship of a place, replenishing what we take and more. And we learn to kneel humbly before the bugs and microbes and know that there is something greater and more complex than our understanding, and that no amount of money can create it or replace it.

In my family and in my business, I believe that a good compost bin, and time spent digging through it, is priceless medicine for what ails us.

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1 Comment

Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening

One response to “God in the Rot

  1. This is so beautifully written, and the critique of our culture’s fear of aging and death really resonates with me. I found Esther’s description of the beauty in life’s natural cycles really inspiring.

    However, I’ve got to write a word in defense of those who have a little trouble getting past the yuck factor of the stickier, slimier, stinkier aspects of re-connecting with the natural world. Many of us were, by no choice or conscious effort of our own, born into a family and community culture that was mostly isolated from not only death, but the natural world in general. It’s not that we are at our core squeamish, post-modern consumerists. It’s just that once we decide it is time to reconnect with the rhythms of the earth, we have to overcome years of messages about hyper-clean homes and the supposed superiority of modern conveniences. This takes a lot of will-power and commitment, overcoming fears of losing social status, control, and even mortality. For some, this comes naturally and quickly; for others it is a long journey.

    I agree with the essence of what Esther said about using one’s reaction to compost as a litmus test: people who are grossed out by compost probably haven’t had much exposure to it; and more exposure could probably be healthy and transformative for them. But I also think that if we want others to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, we must be careful not to leave the ‘uninitiated’ feeling judged. We have to have patience with them as they learn, as Esther has, to see beauty in the decay and natural cycles of life and death. I think Esther’s description of “God in the Rot” is a wonderful way to share that beauty and nudge people to re-think their preconceptions and lifestyles. But, though I’ve been composting for 5 years now, and find the process fascinating and useful, I still loathe the chore of carrying out the soppy, stinky, gelatinous kitchen scraps bucket to the pile – and try to manipulate my husband into doing it whenever I can. :-)

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