Call that profit. Prophecy such returns.
Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.
Why is it that I so resist beginnings? Yet again, stories stir around me, rustling on the cusp of being told, though never to be told in their entirety. They are like autumn’s last leaves, now barely hanging on to naked branches; when they fall, it is an end and a beginning. Transformation. To tell a story is to transform, the story from the original experience, ones self through the story, occasionally, the reader through their own encounter with it. A falling leaf is also sun and rain, rhizome, breath… To isolate it from all that has participated in its becoming makes me uncomfortable. And yet, to celebrate it in its once-in-a-lifetime dance to the ground is intuitive, inevitable.
So, as Bilbo says, hovering above the blank page, mind full of stories, “where to begin?”
I feel a bit like a hobbit lately. As a horticulture volunteer at Schumacher College, my days are shaped by the pulsing of the gardens, punctuated by meals and cups of tea - nourishing in and of themselves, but perhaps their most important function being to potentiate the meeting of minds. Real conversation is prioritized at Schumacher, as are beauty and nourishment, alongside hard work. Each arises from the other. Some people (in true hobbit fashion) find it hard to leave. Yes, Bilbo could be happy here. He may meet his Gandalf here as well, and his Frodo - wizards asking unanswerable questions and young adults open to adventure pass frequently through the doors of the Old Postern. So to speak.
This story within stories could begin, indeed, with fallen leaves. In a shady corner of the college grounds sit piles and piles of perennial weeds and vegetation, formed into windrows and covered by black plastic, in various stages of decomposition. My sister who was visiting, another garden helper, and I were given the task of uncovering what has for many months been hidden from view, left to the power of darkness, microbes, and time.
What richness all that living and dying had become! The compost was dark, soft, and Goldilocks-just-right-crumbly - it would hold together loosely when gathered in a fist, but was forgiving in form, easily assimilating back into the mix. And the smell! Studies suggest that humans have an instinctive appreciation for the sweet odor of humus; the process of healthy decomposition involves bacterial activity apparently pleasing to our senses.
But we couldn’t just take their word for it. We’d settled into an elegant system, wheelbarrowing the compost from the windrow to a bin for storage closer to the growing areas. Then, somehow, we all found ourselves (wiggly toes freed from their usual boot confines) in the bin itself.
I had been a bit sluggish and pre-occupied all day. My sister was getting over jet-lag. This few minutes in the compost may be one of the closest things to magic I have yet experienced. Searching for the language to describe it feels rather futile. My skin still speaks of it, though, tingling, awake. Reaching for Walden, unsure of what I’m looking for, I open randomly to Thoreau’s apposite words: “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still.”
As soon as we clambered out, a robin flitted from the shrubbery to perch on a wall of the bin. Robins are common companions here when dealing with compost. Life speaking to life speaking to life, a shared recognition of vitality. His left eye was missing, a small, strange emptiness in its place. The European Robin, sweet as they appear and with such melodious song, are quite territorial and males are known for fierce boundary disputes. Perhaps such a fight took the missing eye? Empathy wells up in me, particularly as I discover how unusually close I can get by approaching him quietly from his left side, his blind spot. Lacking the ability to differentiate most robins from each other, this one’s tell-tale scar will allow me to keep an eye out for him later, maybe get a sense of where the compost bin sits within his wider territory. After watching me sit in it and giggle, does he have a sense of where it sits within mine? Do I?
No sweeping conclusions here. This story within stories does not add up to anything but itself. Here’s an end, here’s a beginning.