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[Chalice] Our Compost, Ourselves [Chalice]

Presented November 3, 2013, by Sharon Buzzard

Listen to a recording of "Our Compost, Ourselves"
22:56 minutes - 21.0 MB - Our Compost, Ourselves .mp3 file.

Steve and I began composting several years ago--seems we consume an enormous amount of fresh food--so there are peelings, husks, cobs, scrapings, enough to fill a large scrap container at least once, often twice a week. In the spring, we add this semi-disintegrated gunk, a year's collection, into our garden soil, and then we plant our garden. I am an avid gardener--not a good one, however. So I fuss and bother over all my little plantings like a hen over her chicks. Apart from the peppers, tomatoes, and green beans that we grew this year, we also got one unplanned for potato plant that produced one offspring. And two volunteer squash plants, each dutifully at work now --one acorn and one butternut squash that I hope to harvest later in the fall.

The metaphor I want to work with, or work in, today is about our lives, our gardens I suppose you could say. When you think about it, we are ourselves compost. In the compost that is my life, for example, there are those relatives and friends who came before me. Some mere names on the ancestral wall, others that I think of several times a week. Others that are simply a part of the family lore as their stories get told and retold. As with many of you, there are lots of past lives in the mix, my friends, from first grade through graduate school, all the work colleagues I've had in 4-5 different states. All the friends that Anna has made through the years. And of course the many UU friends that are a part of our community--both the virtual ones--those who have moved away, the departed who we see occupying their regular spot in the pews even though they are not there. And, of course, those sitting right here before me now. The miracle is a conglomeration like the compost I described in starting. The accumulation of ancestors, all those colleagues, all the friends far and wide did not expect that I would arise from their far away selves. Yet, here I stand. I am the unplanned potato of their gardens.

Our minds are of course the ultimate compost bins. The tumbler of our minds is one messy place. Writers have tried to capture this process, not with much success. Writing is necessarily linear when there is nothing linear about the associations of the mind. "Psychological time," as some call it, differentiates itself from chronological time. We pass our days in minutes, hours, sunrises and sunsets, yet in any given minute, a mind can roam the planet, touch base with a memory from 10 years ago, and one from yesterday. Remember and feel loss, love, disappointment, sadness. Recall a line of lovely poetry, and the jingle from a television commercial. The trivial and the profound, spring up to the surface with equal speed and ease. This conglomeration is the composting in process. All that happens to us--the impossible to understand, or the difficult to survive, or the magnificent and marvelous moments are fermenting with the utterly trivial. Some so trivial that you feel equally abashed and astounded to think that several brain cells have been given over to storing it.

Let me give you one good example--I have a twin sister, not identical, but we led more or less identical lives until we were young adults. While we were growing up on our farm in Southwest Missouri we really had no separate lives. This may account for the fact that when asked anything about myself before, oh, say 25, I automatically begin to talk in the "we" voice. The plural pronoun is consistent for any question asked. Those who don't know about Karen might think of a double personality beginning to evidence itself. But as I said, we were we, and so I have a an actual external reality check on what's in that hopper of our mind. As youngsters, Karen and I often decorated clubs and playhouses around our farm in various sheds, where we held highly exclusive meetings. So, now, fast forward about five decades and find us now grown- up professionals, and I am on a visit to Karen in Springfield, Missouri. Out on a shopping excursion, we saw a sign pointing towards one of their high schools, Kickapoo, named after the native American tribe. At once we both said--"That wonderful kickapoo juice." Is anybody with me here? One of our playhouses, when we were about 10, was decorated with a picture from the back of a cereal box--one of those insert slot A into slot B things-- to make it something like 3-D--a man leaping out at you and shouting after having drunk the wonderful juice. "That Wonderful Kickapoo Juice" as some of you may know is from Lil' Abner but we didn't know it, what we knew was the picture on the wall, its words-- has been kicking around in our composting minds for 50 years or so and I guarantee you that we have not had conversations regarding Kickapoo juice during those in between years, yet it sprang out unplanned as naturally as the potato in my garden. The process of psychological time mixes good with bad, your youth with your age, your heart with your mind and I think it a good thing that it all goes in the bin together as each is, the trivial and the profound, equally important to who we are. Virginia Woolf has to my mind does one of the best jobs at capturing the self that psychological time creates:

But what could be more absurd? It is, in fact, on the stroke of six; it is a winter's evening; we are walking to the Strand to buy a pencil. How, then, are we also on a balcony, wearing pearls in June? What could be more absurd? Yet it is nature's folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June?"

I like her words "streaked" and "variegated" as visual images of those ever blending selves I described earlier.

Walt Whitman was kind enough to write a poem that helps me with my theme today, called "This Compost"

This Compost
By Walt Whitman

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper'd corpses within you?
Is not every continent work'd over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv'd,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through
the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form'd part of a sick person--yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on
their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch'd eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the
colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato's dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in
the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata
of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which
is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited
themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that
melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once
catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.

Whitman identifies a notion of time that is neither psychological or chronological, both centered as they are in the human consciousness, His time is a geological time--the processes of the earth which makes human time exceedingly incidental. --"Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient." Millions of years. Millions of lifetimes go into the earth's compost. Horrified as he was at the sight of so much death during the Civil War, he centers especially on his amazement that the Earth is not ruined by the rotting bodies; he also recognizes the miracle the earth performs--"What Chemistry! It grows sweet things out of such corruptions." That calm and patient earth has a perspective much different than that offered by either a clock or a calendar, or even one lifespan. Whitman's agitation over death turns to what he calls being "terrified," and by that I think that he may have had one of those transcendental moments--when a truth of the universe has been revealed to him. He seems finally to understands the miracle that given time the earth can create, and he is brought into a new notion of time, perhaps one that supersedes dying as the trees blossom, the plants grow, even the potato. That no matter what, it is all clean forever and ever!

Whitman's romance with the miracle of nature recycling itself, is, I believe, yet another way for us to understand the processes of ourselves and our lives and our place in the universe. Fermentation produces an energy, heat, the discrete elements are gone, but the process itself echoes the larger process we are part of--the energy and spirit of life that connects us to more than what we are. Stop to think about that for a minute--not your lifetime, your memories, but the entire earth's inhabitants, all into the same bin, composting together. I am reminded of the wonderful line from Our Town, when Emily, now dead, "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you." And then she asks the narrator if anyone ever realizes life while they are living it--his reply: "No. Saints and poets do some."

Time is an interesting concept---as a pundit said once--time was invented to keep everything from happening all at once. Time flies, time crawls, goes by in a flash, lasted light years, seems at a standstill. On a given day of the year, we add or subtract an hour to or from our lives. When I was a child, a 45 minute church service seemed an torturous eternity, and now, well, those 45 minutes are fairly tolerable. The spiritual practice required to realize the wonder that is our lives takes some perspective and perhaps some deliberateness. Whether it's the busyness of a humdrum week or a week when life's drama may have gotten the best of you, or when multi-tasking has hit an all time high, it is good to take a step back, and reconsider the your life. Twenty years, fifty years, eighty years----people, events, places---all making you the "variegated" person you are. It is pretty much too wonderful to realize. The miracle of the earth's' chemistry that Whitman celebrates is our own chemistry writ large-- Our minds and bodies jumble, process, review, reconsider and restore, and then with time, the "divine materials," as Whitman terms them, spring forth. According to this analogy you would be the "divine materials." Now, I am going to guess that you haven't spent much time considering your own divinity lately, so perhaps thinking yourself a potato makes it easier. But realizing is what we need to do--one day you're a potato and one day you're a part of a system, large and unfathomable that connects us all forever and ever. Either way we partake of the miracle so it is good to give some time to remembering that.

©2013 Sharon Buzzard

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Buzzard, Sharon 2013. Our Compost, Ourselves, /talks/20131103.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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