Image credit: Sami Grover
I was observing the heat rising from my compost heap this morning, the one inspired by my review of Gene Logsdon's guide to managing manure, when I was struck by a particular insight—what I was actually witnessing was the cumulative body heat of billions upon billions of tiny little beasties. To anyone familiar with the composting process, that observation is pretty elementary. But it got me wondering—maybe we should stop thinking about composting as simply "recycling", "waste reduction", or "soil improvement", and start thinking of it as a form of animal husbandry. But what difference would it make?On one level, probably very little. As we've seen before, one person's soil is another person's dirt, and terminology can mean a whole heap (pun intended) of things to different people. Nevertheless, I think there is an important distinction to be made here.
First off, recognizing that composting—whether we are talking about hot composting, cold high-fiber composting, or worm composting—involves stewardship of living creatures should, in theory at least, result in better composting techniques. Whether it is providing enough air and water for the creatures to live, insulating your heap to keep temperatures up, or making sure the mix of food is just right, the better understanding you have of the process, the better compost you will make.
But there is also, I believe, a more profound paradigm shift involved in this redefinition. Because once we start to see our compost bins, heaps or tumblers as the massive store of biodiversity that they are, we get a deeper understanding of the vast, mostly invisible networks of plants and animals that make life on earth possible. Indeed, what we are talking about here is really just an extension of the notion that organic farming or gardening is not a collection of techniques and technologies, but rather a philosophy that puts the life of the ecosystem, and as part of that, the life of the soil, at the heart of ensuring well-being for our crops, animals and ourselves.
Of course, the term "animal husbandry" probably doesn't have the same positive connotations for the vegans among us. But even the negative sides of animal stewardship are relevant here—because we have to face the fact that composting, certainly hot composting, is really about creating some pretty artificial conditions so that certain species of animals and bacteria can thrive to the point where their populations are way above long-term carrying capacity. (You only have to observe the rapid heating, and then cooling, of a typical hot compost heap to realize that this is a massive process of both life and death.)
I've already been blasted by some for asking whether a truly vegan vision of the world can include manure as fertilizer, so I am not going to argue that hardcore vegans should give up hot composting. I can certainly see the difference between a micro-beastie in a compost pile and a more complex creature with a central nervous system, like a chicken for example. But I do think it is important we recognize the techniques we advocate for what they really are. And composting is so, so much more than recycling.
I've come to develop quite a sense of responsibility for the little dudes in my heap. Now if you'll excuse me, it's feeding time.
More on Composting and Soil Care
Make Hot Compost in 3 Weeks with a Hot Composting System
Vegan Organic Agriculture: Is Your Carrot Really Vegan?
Dirty Movie Reveals the Secrets of Abundant Soil (Video)
Is Male Pee Better Than Female Pee? The Compost Conundrum
Build Your Own Compost Tumbler
Moving Your Compost When You Move House