Reframing the Narrative: A Compost Conversation

A pungent odor emerges when I turn the piles of worms and rotting scraps. No matter how many leaves and other materials I add, the smell lingers. My husband and children think I’m crazy, but they get it – it is here with the worms and this scent that I feel connected to life. The smell reminds me of being young and climbing into the dogwood tree near our family’s compost where I’d watch my mother in her garden. Who knew, when I was sitting in that tree, that compost would become my muse and mentor?

I love how pomegranates look on snow and discarded leek greens come to life when mixed with coffee grinds. Small red worms wriggling to escape light make me laugh. The contrasting colors and textures in my compost pile seem to say, “Look at us! Aren’t we beautiful?” I get my camera every time – it’s irresistible. My connection to composting is deep and satisfying.

It began when I made our three-bin system from scratch – milling the lumber from old cedar logs and using a power drill for the first time to assemble it – that was back in 2009. Three times a year, in April, July and November, I manage the pile. It is a messy, smelly job, my fingertips blackening as I sift. Where did all those popcorn kernels, pepper seeds and pomegranate skins go?  They can’t just disappear, and yet they do. Every time. Here among the slimy cucumbers and onion peels, they become something entirely new. The worms transform everything, decomposing the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen into “black gold.” They wriggle beneath the surface to escape the light and get the job done. No longer garbage, our former food waste transforms into a source of energy. When spread in the garden, the decomposed matter provides needed nutrients. It’s pretty amazing that since I built this system, we have diverted two and a half tons of food and other waste from the landfill.

Compost is like people wrestling with ideas, needing to be turned over, mixed up and mingled with others. I’m still in awe of the magic of biology and chemistry and can’t stop exploring with my camera. The pomegranates against the snow and the leeks mixed with coffee invite me to look more closely. At first it was an artistic celebration of light, color, and texture. Soon my attention shifted to the actual stories of what our bin contained: lemons traveling thousands of miles to our counter, each avocado needing thirty-six gallons of water to grow, the people who planted, picked, and processed these fruits and vegetables and how privileged and thankful I was to have such an array of food fill my body, my kitchen, and this bin of waste. Each scrap became more colorful, textured, and nuanced.

Hundreds of photographs later, it hit me – this is redemption. My hands dirty from sifting, my back aching from carrying – this is renewal. I moved past the structures and science and even the art and understood that really, this was all about love. My camera and the compost guided me. I love every aspect of the process, the product, and what it means. When I care for my own waste, I am, in a small way, taking responsibility for the enormous impact my life has on the planet. In a world filled with economic theories and political discord, the waste, the worms, and the soil are real. It makes me feel powerful – not in a dominating, “I have power over you” way, but in a collaborative, loving, “we can do this” way.

It is that power that inspired my most recent exploration – it’s called Two Degrees. In our attic, my two degrees gathered dust. Together, they weighed 10 pounds. More clutter and stuff in a cluttered world. What would happen if I composted them? As I used an exacto knife and pliers to take apart the frames, I wondered, “Am I crazy?” But when I tore the corner of my University of Virginia MBA, new shapes and textures emerged. I kept going. When I ripped my undergraduate Harvard Fine Arts degree, I noticed how much more interesting the paper became when torn and layered, strewn across the dismantled backing of its former frame.

“Isn’t this what we have to do,” I thought,  “not just see beauty where others see waste, but see beauty in remaking what we know?” A few weeks ago, at my 30th reunion, some classmates were shocked by what I had done. I wonder how shocked they are going to be when our planet surges past the 2-degree Fahrenheit threshold because we didn’t collectively have the courage to reframe our shared narrative, let it decompose a while, and then allow it to reemerge as something new and potentially more beautiful.

On a most fundamental level, there is power in the transformation of waste – it gets me every time. There is also power in the transformation of self. When I see the black gold in the garden and the harvest that results, I know it’s possible. I am grateful for this magical interplay between what I observe with my camera, what I experience with my compost and garden, and what I feel.

For more on food, see our Foodstuff series.

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Evelyn R. Swett is a photographer who is happiest mucking around with compost and comfrey. She has spent the past decade trying to figure out what it takes for a suburban family of four to live within the climate’s means. Evelyn’s photographs focus on this question, emerging from the dynamic interplay between her art and the people and places she loves most. For her, it’s about caring deeply and finding joy. You can learn more about her climate action on her blog, By Degrees.

3 thoughts on “Reframing the Narrative: A Compost Conversation

  1. There’s so much beauty in the process of decomposition. Life imitating art and vice versa. Beautiful photographs! I’m definitely sharing your work with colleagues and students 🙂

    • Adam – – Thank you so much! For me, waste, transformed, redeems. It’s been a process for me to get this place and I am honored to be part of the artists and climate change conversation.

  2. Great to read this – we call it the religion of compost and you are obviously a devote – keep up the good work. Where I live outside Melbourne was gold mined and the top soil eroded away. Just by making tons of compost we now have a sequencing orchard with over 160 varieties of fruit trees and there is some fruit all year round. Over 12 years we have added about 1000 wheelbarrow fulls of compost. At the beginning rain would sheet off the hard rocky clay and fill the dam quickly; now the dam takes much longer to fill because the water is soaking into the humus where the trees can feed off it. The dam at the bottom of the orchard valley has changed color from a yellow clay to a deep brown black. When needed, water is pumped up to a tank and gravity feed to each tree. We inoculated the soil with micro organisms which made a huge difference. Now the grass and weeds grow like crazy with each variety pulling up different minerals, but this is cut regularly and produces further organic mulch material. (weeds are actually a compost crop) The diversity of insects and bird species has also increased dramatically. Where the valley was hot and dry (sometimes over 45c) it is now much cooler and moist in hot weather. Now the problem is keeping the birds off the ripe fruit! Much credit has to go to the wwoofs who have helped us over this time.

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