Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My Secret in the Backyard, Part II

It was a Sunday afternoon. I went out to look at the compost pile I started six months ago. About three feet high, the pile was covered by a mix of leaves – oak, maple, hackberry, and grass – in various states of decay. Also, littered here and there were: peelings from an avocado; weeds yanked from the yard; the scatterings of coal and hickory ashes from our tenant’s smoker; shuckings from corn we cooked with MGreen’s dad; green beans we bought at a premium organic price from Whole Foods but never cooked; bitter melon our friend Nicole bought us but that we were afraid to eat; curled tulip blossoms; and half an onion, its layers thrown in high relief from having dried out, separated, and pulled back, as if onions are tulips’ dark sisters, blooming as they decay.

I wasn’t back there looking at the compost pile for nothing. I had with me half a pot of brown rice and a container full of mashed yams, both too old to eat. Time to turn the pile, long over due actually, and add some new matter. I was excited to unveil the pile, not only for the physical labor my office body badly needs. Perhaps the sloughings and detritus from our lives -- MGreen's, BabyG's, and mine -- would reveal something to me, whatever it is I search for by light of day and never find. Each artifact brought back traces. An avocado sandwich MGreen made me, snatches of conversations from my in-laws’ visit, and an inane argument I tried to make-up for with flowers. Perhaps turning the compost pile would be like peering into the hippocampus and poking at memories unmediated, rummaging through the jumbled scraps of the past before they get reorganized into the Past and my Memory.

With the first scoop of my shovel, I saw a black beetle the size of my thumb tip scramble away. Then innumerable, tiny bugs (are they infants?) moving in every direction, their white bodies set off against the black rot. They disappeared. They seemingly dissolved back into the mound. I dug down deeper and there were dozens of white and tan roly-polies. The sweetness of the rot was in the air. The leaves lost all trace of shape, the rot had a consistency of its own. But even towards the bottom of the pile, I would encounter the occasional intact stump of a cabbage, a whole lime still deep green, or a cross-section of a sweet potato. Deeper down – where the rot was the rich black of mature compost – I came upon something astonishing. I didn’t know what it was. My heart raced. I rushed to the house with a clod of dirt on the shovel blade to show MGreen.

MGreen wasn’t even showing when I started that compost pile. BabyG weighed less than a pound. Composting was just one task in our greater effort to become green parents living responsibly in the urban beast called Houston. However, the compost became something more without my really expecting or understanding it. The expecting parent who does not carry the baby (i.e. the father, the other mother, the non-receptacle person, or what have you) carries the psychic burden of expectation and fear, but has no embodiment of that stress, no physical growth in the womb to focus on. The compost pile became my substitute womb. Baking cookies in the oven, remodeling the bathroom, building a crib – parents do all kinds of things to project their desire to control an uncontrollable process onto something that can be controlled. Compost has the advantage over these other activities of being biological in a way that is both scientifically explainable and yet mysterious, much like pregnancy. Compost incubates. Nine to ten months, in fact, is a typical length of time for maturation.

Parenting guidebooks usually acknowledge the stress that the non-pregnant parent(s) experience, but stop there. Some books and magazine articles tell you that it is your duty to work out your baggage for the sake of the baby. But an expecting parent can’t always be expected to work it all out in forty weeks. What if there is a history of incest, abuse, divorce, death, difficulty conceiving, or multiple miscarriages? What if one or both of the partners is in the middle of a crisis? Will the mother and child have a safe place to stay after the delivery and money during a time when she cannot work? But even when there are urgent matters to focus on, expecting a child has a way of turning the psyche. The mental exhumation is overwhelming. Memories unearthed. The fear of reproducing everything you loathe in relationships. Worst of all, the truths are always scurrying away into the recesses of your mind like tiny albino bugs. Your psyche keeps turning on itself even if you try to will it to stop.

When you turn a compost pile, you don’t figure the compost out. Compost is, after all, a mass of decay, not a time capsule or an analyst’s couch or a laboratory experiment. The unknowability of the compost’s totality does not keep you from turning the compost over. You turn it regularly, once a month if you don’t want the heat at its center to fizzle out. You turn the compost if you want it to become rich fertilizer for a garden. In the process, you might come face to face with the creatures that commonly live in compost piles – beetles, roaches, mice, rats, possum, worms – animals that will not kill you but that you might fear. You get over it. The possum and the rats move away if you keep the compost moist. The worms are good for garden soil. They leave casings. For me, the compost pile became a useful embodiment of what for me could only be an idea. An idea that I was to smile about at all times but that threatened to eviscerate my sense of self. Compost was an alluring metaphor for me precisely because of its productive darkness and mystery.

When I got back to the house with my shovel and clod of dirt, I opened the door and called for MGreen to come quick.

“I found something at the bottom of the compost pile and I don’t know what it is,” I said.

MGreen rushed over and looked down at the shovel blade. We were in the kitchen. In the middle of a black chunk of compost, there was a shining white ball about the size of a marble. It unfurled. The thing looked like an overfed, albino caterpillar as long and thick as my finger. There were many more where I found it. I was delighted that throwing my refuse in a pile could make a habitat for such a fantastic thing, but I felt bad exposing it to light. Could I be killing a future butterfly? Even a moth? MGreen took digital pictures and googled around the net. After some time, she shouted out, “I know what it is – beetle larvae.” The little white bugs were probably mites, which are actually arachnida and often thrive alongside beetles.

Was it disappointment that I felt? Wouldn’t it have been better if the larvae were meant to become beautiful creatures, not the hard-backed survivors of millennial ruin known as beetles. MGreen said she was terrified of beetles. She’s afraid of the compost now. When she said that, it became clearer to me that when I unearthed the shining larvae, I had experienced the sublime. Sublime in the sense that Edmund Burke had meant it -- the astonishing union of terror and beauty, danger and excitement, fear and awe. And what could be better preparation for the (hoped for) resurrection of the self that is called “becoming a parent”?

1 comment:

marcia said...

wow. this is an incredibly thoughtful post. you need to publish it elsewhere so that more, more, more people get the chance to read your thoughts, discover your backyard secrets.