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The Inner and Outer Gesture of Composting

Bruno Follador

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity
Simone Weil

Plastic flowers always struck me as being odd. It was not only that they are not alive and are often made from cheap plastic. There was something more about their artificiality that intrigued me. But I could not express it in words. Not too long ago, while I was driving south on Cardinal Avenue, in São Paulo, Brazil, I saw the following words written on the wall of a cemetery: “Plastic flowers don’t die.” This was it! The fact that fake flowers don’t die, that they are incapable of going through a death process, was what I could not express in words.

Compost has always fascinated me as being something profound — and not only because it can help increase agricultural yields and is a means of addressing major urban and agricultural waste challenges. I’ve always felt there was something more in it that I could not express in words. I never felt composting had primarily such utilitarian goals.

Reading Goethe, the great German scientist and poet, I was struck by the following thought he had on Nature: “Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.” This is what I could not express in words before. There, in the midst of decaying material — manure, moldy hay bales, piles of unwanted weeds, garden debris, food scraps — lies the wellspring of any farm. The compost pile is the bringer of life. A teacher of mine once told me an old saying: “If you would like to know the health of a farm, go to their compost yard — there you will see how resilient and alive or not a farm is.”

Tragically, compost piles on farms are becoming a rare sight. With fertility reduced to a matter of inputs, outputs, and cost-benefit analyses, the soil becomes little more than a medium to conduct plant nutrients. It is seen only as a physical platform for the plants to “stand upon.” The idea of making and turning compost piles is often ridiculed