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.
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.
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.