Blogs > Jim Loewen > The History of Composting in America

Dec 16, 2013

The History of Composting in America

tags: composting

Composting first appears in the historical record of what is now the United States in 1621, when Squanto showed the "Pilgrims" how to put a fish in each corn hill, so the maize and squash would thrive. Even that statement is contested, however. Some Wampanoags today say their ancestors never dedicated entire fish to the role of fertilizer; they only used the skin and guts. Some historians agree. I think the primary sources got this one right, however, partly because Pilgrim authors were hardly squeamish about discussing blood and guts, had that been what they had used for fertilizer. As well, when the little fish -- variously called "alewives," "herring," "menhaden," "pogies," and "shad" -- came upstream in the spring, they were so plentiful as to be catchable en masse. There was no need to save and savor their edible parts.

Moreover, the languages themselves offer evidence. Narragansetts called the fish "munnawhatteaûgs," which means "fertilizer" or "that which enriches the land," a word the English corrupted into "menhaden." The Abenakis of Maine called them "pauhagens," which also means "fertilizer," a name the English shortened to "pogies." i

Like dogwoods further south, "shad blow" trees flower before their leaves appear. Their blossoms signal that the shad (or menhaden or alewives...) are running in nearby creeks. They were incredibly numerous. Not only the Pilgrims (and of course Native Americans) used these fish as fertilizer. So did farmers on Long Island, for example, at least as late as the early nineteenth century. In the second half of that century, menhaden oil outstripped whale oil as an American and worldwide industry. Even today, American fishing boats catch more menhaden than any other species. ii

Squanto was the first compost expert that European Americans consulted, but he was far from the last. In the twenty-first century, composting has become a pastime if not an art form. All kinds of people proclaim themselves experts at it and advisers on how to do it. Unfortunately, and unlike Squanto, many folks today don't know what they are talking about.

One such authority held forth on NPR not long ago. Asked if she was a purist who only made vegan compost, she replied, "Oh, no." She included "crushed eggshells," she went on, although she always rinsed them out first. Presumably unrinsed eggshells might offend the maggots, bacteria, worms, and larvae that convert table scraps to compost.

At our house, we put everything in our compost. Well, almost everything. No bones, except fish bones -- they take too long to break down. No industrial "food" (like Coca-Cola).

House guests are horrified. "You put milk in your compost?" one asks, as I rinse my cereal bowl and put the results in the compost can.

"What do cows eat?" I reply. "Ashes to ashes and grass to grass."

They remain unconvinced.

Our current composting mythology is a triumph of theory over experience, or rather, of theory over lack-of-experience. Those who follow the vegan rules wind up with compost, to be sure -- a bit inferior to mine but perfectly useful. Thus they are confirmed that the vegan rules are right. Those who simply make compost out of everything don't often write about it.

The compost rules include:

-- turn it ("ideally every day or two," according to "Compost A to Z");

-- layer green and brown ("the brown and green components should be layered throughout the bin," according to "Composting Rules" at;

-- "avoid fruit as it will tend to attract fruit flies" (ibid.);

-- ban cooked food ("can attract vermin and should not be home-composted," according to Garden Organic, "the national charity for organic growing" in the U.K.);

and of course

-- no "oils, grease, lard, meat, bones, fish, dairy products..." (typical municipal composting ordinance).

Ages hence, historians of family life will look back on all these rules with wonder. Staffs at historic houses of the late twentieth century will show open-mouthed visitors kitchen shredders with "super-robust crank arms" for "pre-composting," special plastic bags that consumers bought because they would break down right along with the compost placed inside them; and "Tumbling Composters" to ensure that the top and bottom of the pile all compost evenly.

The butter churns and chestnut roasters that furnish historic nineteenth-century kitchens embody skills most of us have lost. These twenty-first-century items are just the opposite: they exemplify no skills, indeed, no understandable purpose. "People bought rotators for their compost?" visitors will ask, wide-eyed. "They pre-shredded their garbage for the worms?" The loss of common sense from one century to the next will be palpable.

Possibly, like the future anthropologist who wrote "Body Ritual among the Nacirema," iii historians of the future may conclude that the compost movement was a religion. They will discover uniform clothing worn to annual days of sacrifice like "Earth Day" -- such as T-shirts saying "A rind is a terrible thing to waste" and "I heart composting." They will note that after every meal we performed a thanksgiving ritual, giving a portion of our food to the compost god at its kitchen shrine. They will learn that we took the temperature of our compost pile as if it were alive and sought professional advice if it was "too hot" or "too cold." iv We gathered at community colleges and garden stores to listen to experts lecture on composting.

To thwart such misperceptions, historians need to get busy now, writing the history of compost for ages hence. ProQuest lists some 219 theses and dissertations with "compost" in their titles. Not one is in history, American studies, cultural studies, or any related field. Considering all the dissertations on food, cooking, and eating, it is surprising to find not one on our treatment of uneaten food.

The sheer volume of expertise on compost is enormous. 216 of ProQuest's 219 dissertations and theses turn out to be in biology, plant and soil science, and similar fields. v They bear titles like "Suppression of Rhizoctonia solani and its interaction with Trichoderma hamatum in bark compost container media." Then another massive industry popularizes these findings for the public. Rodale distributes one tome, Compost Gardening, that runs 350 pages long; each page is 8 1/2" x 11" and has two columns. Among its suggestions: sift your compost, so it looks better, and because "sifting compost is fun." vi

Sifting compost is not fun, however. Therefore, the main impact of these composting rules, gadgets, and books is to deter composting, except among those in desperate need of a time-consuming hobby. Even among the faithful who don't give up, the rules deter composting of about half of the stuff that could be composted. That's too bad, because composting is good for the planet. It's surprising, how much stuff can go into a compost heap and how compact the dirt is that comes out. No need to truck all that stuff away!

As well, the rules serve no purpose. I live in an urban neighborhood with a small back yard. I violate all the rules. I never turn it. I never water it. I never take its temperature. I just put stuff in on the top and take dirt out from the bottom. Yet my compost composts fine. (What else might it do? It has no other skills!)

Banning fruit to avoid fruit flies is particularly wondrous. Fruit flies are exactly what you want! Fruit flies turn fruit into compost. It's their job, after all. The rule about cooked food is almost as silly. Cooked food is already partly-digested, for heaven's sake, ready to break down the rest of the way into compost. And dairy ... well, let me tell you how I learned that even bad dairy makes great compost.

It was 1964. I was a college student, working summers at Region Seven Explorer Canoe Base near Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. By now, my fourth year, I had worked my way up to "Service Director," in charge of the operation of the base itself, including the kitchen and dining hall. Like many summer camps, Canoe Base got "government surplus" -- food commodities bought and processed by the United States Department of Agriculture. This program was supposed to maintain good prices for farmers' products while helping nonprofit organizations.

Most of these commodities we wanted. We got hundreds of pounds of cheese, sacks of flour, boxes of frozen ground beef.

Then there was the milk. Powdered nonfat dry milk. Each box weighed four pounds and made five gallons of "reconstituted milk." "Reconstituted" it may have been, but milk it was not -- at least not milk that any self-respecting lad would ever drink. Reconstituting it hours ahead of time supposedly allowed its disgusting medicinal odor to dissipate. Not so. Pouring it from one container to another from a height of several feet supposedly aerated it, making it more palatable. We never found a palate for which that worked. Fifty years later, the government still distributes this stuff, and it suggests: "Use nonfat dry milk as directed in recipes requiring dry or reconstituted milk or as a substitute in a cooked product when fresh milk is specified." Perhaps it was a failure of our imagination, but we never came up with "recipes requiring dry or reconstituted milk." Our cook refused to risk her reputation substituting this powder for fresh milk in anything she cooked.

What could we do?

According to government regulations, we could not sell commodity foods. That would undercut local grocery stores. We could not give it away. We could not even store it over the winter -- we had tried that the previous year, and a USDA inspector had come by in February, found the milk, and fined us. All we could do was, turn it back to the government. But the rumor among food recipients was, if you do that, the government will not only cut your allotment of milk for the next year, they will cut all your government surplus proportionately. We could not risk that.

I had a brainstorm. Why not line the volleyball court with it? The twine we tried to use to line the court broke. Marking just the corners led to arguments. So another staff member and I measured carefully and laid out two-inch lines of dried milk on each side of the net.

They worked perfectly, for two days. On the third day, it rained. The lines were still there, a bit yellowed perhaps, but functional. However, the entire court now smelled like spoiled milk. Not bad enough to deter play, but it does explain why Wimbledon prefers titanium dioxide.

I had thought we would have to reline at regular intervals, but almost immediately it became clear that we would not. A streak of deep green grass, taller and thicker than the rest, soon grew along every white line we had put down. This richer grass continued to mark the court for the next two summers.

The volleyball court proved the value of milk as soil enricher. But it used less than two packages of our massive supply. We still faced the problem of what to do with the bulk of our milk. Arlo Guthrie had not yet composed "Alice's Restaurant," but the crime scene in that song (and later, the movie) -- a roadside dump -- was hardly unique to western Massachusetts. I asked two staff members — "Moose" and "Little John" — to take all the rest to a dump in a ravine alongside a road about a mile from Canoe Base. There they were to dump it, but unlike Arlo, they were to leave no incriminating evidence. Instead, they were to bring back every carton, every box, even every plastic bag, for proper disposal. We wanted to bring off the perfect crime.

Moose and John loaded up a vehicle which, like its contraband cargo, was itself government surplus. A carryall painted olive drab, the Army had condemned it years before and given it to the Boy Scouts. Its steering was so loose that in a wide area like a parking lot, the driver could hold the wheel steady and the truck would lurch from left to right as it "caught" first on one side, then the other. Driving in a straight line required a certain Zen-like concentration: one had to anticipate which way it would next lurch and move the wheel several inches to the opposite side until resistance was encountered, then apply a tiny nudge before returning the wheel to the center. I reminded Moose to drive carefully.

Moose and John returned safely later that afternoon. I was told to come see them upon arrival, and the sight was unforgettable. At 6'5", Moose was our tallest staff member; at 5'5", John was our shortest. They stood before me, one Mutt, one Jeff, entirely white. It seems that merely slicing open each bag and emptying it into the ravine had grown boring, so they developed a more interesting routine: they whooshed each bag's contents at each other. They now gave new meaning to the term "white folks." Their lips were white. Their eyebrows were white. Their eyelids were white. Of course their shoes, socks, belts, and all items of clothing were white. Only when they spoke did glimpses of their tongues provide the only speck of color on their personages.

Fearing prosecution, I've never told this story before. Canoe Base has closed, however, so it is safe. Surely the statute of limitations has expired, so I too can safely risk prosecution for violating USDA regulations. I fear, though, that I have veered off my main point. Like some ovo-lacto-vegetarians, I have let lacto dominate.

I learned from the movie American History X that all good essays need to end with a quotation. So I spent almost an hour searching for a good joke, to leave you smiling. To my sorrow, I learned that all the compost jokes were rotten.

* * * * *

i.On pp. 15-17 of his engaging book, The Most Important Fish in the Sea (DC: Island Press, 2007), H. Bruce Franklin tells of the various names and species involved.

ii.Franklin, pp. 56-57.

iii.Actually by Horace Miner; see American Anthropologist 58:3, 7/1956.

iv.Admittedly, a compost pile is a system of living beings.

v.The other three are in English. Two treat poetry.

vi.Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin, Compost Gardening (no place indicated: Rodale, 2008), 220.


Copyright James Loewen

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