My Evolving Relationship with Weeds, Poo, and Rot

Our chickens poop a lot. Like, a lot. It is insane the amount of poo that three birds can generate. Every. Single. Day.

Chickens were one of the first to arrive on the ol’ homestead. We had had a small garden for years, and a fire pit if that even counts, but the chickens were kind of a turning point, and I blame it on their poop.  At first, I was overwhelmed by the amount of waste they produced. I mean, seriously. SO MUCH POOP. What was I supposed to do with all of it?

At first, I just dumped it in the woods. We have woods enough on the property that it wasn’t an issue. But then I was thoroughly scolded by other chicken keepers in my community for wasting it.

Wasting it? Wasting poop? I mean, isn’t waste pretty much what poop is?

Apparently not. Thus was born my compost heap. I shoveled soiled chicken bedding in there along with grass clippings and kitchen scraps, poking it uncertainly with a pitchfork every now and then. And it all magically turned into soil! What wizardry is this??? Over time, the compost heap became my gateway into vermiculture. And then the worm bin became my gateway into creepy crawlies. And now I have a beehive too and who knows where that’s going to lead? This is getting out of hand!

Vegetable scraps. Dead leaves. Moldy bread. Weeds. Poop. Grass clippings. Ash. When I was a kid, I wouldn’t even have blinked to toss these things in a plastic bag and haul them to the dump. They weren’t good for anything! Trash! But now these things all get mixed, aged, and then tossed into the garden, where they (hopefully?) morph into yummy vegetables for my family to eat. Now that I’ve more or less stopped using synthetic fertilizers, I can’t seem to get together enough compost by the end of each year. In fact, I found myself gleefully accepting some spare horse manure from a friend this spring. Who gets that excited about poop? What has happened to me?

Oddly enough, my reading habits have taken a similar journey over the years. When I was a kid juuuust starting to get into reading, I didn’t really want to read much that wasn’t light sci-fi or fantasy, preferably sci-fi. As I got older, I would occasionally read other genres, usually as prompted by some school assignment, but I still clung pretty hard to my sci-fi/fantasy schtick. (See The Books of My Youth for more about my gateway books!)

I can’t really remember exactly what it was that started the shift into wider pastures. By the time I got into college, I was more or less forced to explore nonfiction more deeply, and that cracked open quite the chasm to fall into. There is sooooo much wackiness in the world to be explored that it can be hard to explain why we even need fiction, haha. Once I graduated and was finally free once and for all to make up my own reading lists, I was a dedicated dabbler, still primarily consuming fantasy and light sci-fi, but dipping my toes into more and more genres. Crichton sci-fi eased me into thrillers and historical. Frankenstein proto-science fiction lured me into classics, horror, and supernatural. Memoirs and biographies, mysteries, nonfiction of all topics, one after another, all tucked neatly into my library bag.

Chicken manure puts nitrogen into my soil and increases water retention. Wood ash provides potassium and phosphorus and raises soil pH. Worm castings have phenomenal mineral contents as well as improving soil structure with no risk of burning tender young plants. Grass clippings, food scraps, leaf mulch, fish tank water—each of these things adds vital nutrients and qualities to the soil in my garden. Likewise, each of the varied genres I read feeds my creative brain, which allows me both a broader range of thought-provoking entertainment and a wider array of ideas to draw from in my own writing.

If you find yourself in a reading rut, I encourage you to reach out a little wider. If you’re a romance junkie, try reading a steampunk romance next time to stretch yourself a little further. Instead of sticking with your usual crime thrillers, maybe reach for a historical crime thriller. You might dip your finger into these other genres only to realize that, no, you really don’t like literary fantasy, and cyberpunk surrealist horror is not your thing. But at least you know now, and you might even be able to subvert the things you didn’t like about those books into something fun and funky in your own worlds.

Right now, I’m nibbling my way through Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil; An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth; and Le Petit Prince. None of them are my beloved fantasy or science fiction. But that’s okay! I don’t always know what I like until it’s in front of me. So I’m on a one-person mission to get as many books in front of me as possible until I am dead. It’s good for my brains, and my writing, and my soul, and I can’t think of a single person on this earth who wouldn’t benefit from having their minds expanded just a little more.

Until next week, happy reading and writing! Stay safe!

PS- Can cyberpunk surrealist horror be a thing now please? Man, can I even handle that? Someone write this and let me know. Thanks, bye.

Rotten Ideas

P1050964I am the world’s laziest composter. Half of winter, I don’t even hike it out to my heap and instead throw the trimmings in the trash. And when I can be compelled to hoof it over to the wire enmeshed pile of rot, a bin of whatever is unceremoniously dumped on top. I have never considered the ideal balance of greens to browns to scraps. I have never stirred it. I think I may have watered it once a couple years ago. Maybe.

That said, I didn’t have the highest hopes for my heap. (After all, this is Alaska and composting conditions are ever less than ideal.) I mean, I’d never done anything with it. But then I made the mistake of reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (which is a wonderful and terrible book- read it with caution), and furthermore, I read it right during spring garden prep.

Usually, I just sprinkle some synthetic fertilizers in my garden and call it good. Voila! Instant fertility! But Michael was staring over my shoulder. And probably Gaia, too. *shudders* So with trepidation, I made my way to the compost pile, pitchfork in hand, to see what Nature had in store for me.

After scraping away the crust of slimy kitchen scraps, litter from the chicken shed, and last summer’s grass clippings, I paused. Stunned. Crumbling out of a loose and homogenized core was glorious, dark, rich soil. It had worked? Something I had done had actually worked?

What sorcery is this??P1050966

Elated, I cleaned out the fish tank and poured a bunch of that delish green juice on top, stirring it into the magical soil. (That pond water was potent because, coincidentally, I am also the world’s laziest fish owner. In all things, I strive for excellence.) This glorious mélange is now happily married to my garden soil, just waiting to get some mad vegetation on. (Don’t even think about it, weeds. DON’T EVEN.)

This is much how my writing brain seems to work as well. I get a lot of writing ideas. Thank goodness, I get more than I have time to write, so I have the luxury of writing the best ideas, and jotting down a few notes for the less good ideas. Those notes get tossed in a shoebox somewhere and left in my grandma’s attic or something. (AKA- I tend to loose them and never think about them again.)

But occasionally, I’ll come across one again. Or I’ll see something and remember it. Or someone will say something that reminds me. And surprisingly often, it is suddenly, inexplicably, magically workable. What was once rotten garbage is trash no longer.

So what is going on?

Fortunately, I am an entry-level expert on rot because of my son’s science fair project and the Magic School Bus. Whether they’re rose bushes, lettuce leaves, or your Aunt Sue, living organisms are wicked complicated. When they die, the careful balancing act is over and they immediately start breaking down. (Think of a tomato right when you pick it… and then after four weeks of sitting on your damp counter-top.) This breaking down process can messy, stinky, and ugly.

But this process is absolutely vital to all life on earth. Rotting releases the water, nutrients, chemicals, proteins, and more impressive science words, that were all trapped in the living organism. And once they’re free, they can be used by other organisms again in their own efforts to not die for as long as possible. Nature is all about recycling, again and again and again.

Giving your messy, stinky, ugly ideas a little time to ruminate lets your brain pick it apart. It lets you get at the deep down, basic parts that are at the core of every idea, good or bad, and put them to good use in an exciting new way. It lets you pick out the bits ready for recycling and pass over the parts that need a little more breaking down.

P1050968As a final note, remember that not all things break down. Take, for example, this piece of pristine plastic, untouched by time and decay, sitting pretty in the middle of all this glorious topsoil. A little rinse and I could probably convince you it didn’t just spend the last three to five years at the heart of a rotting mass of vegetative leavings. I do not know how it got there and, turns out, it’s just garbage, and will ever be such. Not all ideas will magically metamorphose into world-shaking flashes of brilliance. Some ideas are just garbage. And that’s okay.

Use what you can, till that rich, raw earth, and watch your garden grow.

Happy writing!