This talk was given on October 4, 2020 at the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Park Forest, IL. It combines two essays I had previously written, “The Gospel of Compost” and the “Yoga of Despair”. In it, I talk about the lessons I have learned from composting, about the messiness of life and the sacredness of endings. And I discuss how the “gospel of compost” has helped me to face the inevitability of environmental and social collapse and even possible human extinction.
“Give me your moldy, your stale, your sprouting potatoes. Bring me that wilted, pitiful bag of salad you really meant to eat this time. Bring me your bananas too brown and mushy even to make bread with. Bring me your grass clippings and fallen leaves. Give me the wretched refuse of your teeming refrigerator, yearning to rot free. Give me these, and we will make life itself.”— Holly Ann Lux-Sullivan
These words come from a sermon by Holly Anne Lux-Sullivan, the winner of 2011 sermon contest conducted by CUUPS, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. The title of her sermon was “The Gospel of Compost.” which I’ve borrowed from her and which has inspired part of this sermon.
Like Holly, I love compost. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, the piling up of yucky stuff to make something beautiful, sweet smelling, and delicious.
The first time I ate tomatoes I had planted, watered, and fed with compost, I felt like I was communing with Mother Nature herself, or that immanent presence Pagans sometimes call “the Goddess”.
The miracle of compost is the miracle of life from death, of life and death co-existing, feeding off of each other. It is science and religion wrapped into one dirty, rich-smelling pile of rotting food and yard waste.
In the Bible, the gospels are where the “good news” of the Christian story is told, a story that ends with the permanent triumph of life over death. My gospel, my “good news” story, is slightly different. My gospel of compost begins with my family’s experience with compost and ends with two lessons I learned from composting: one about messiness of life and the other about the sacredness of endings.
I should begin by telling you that I am not, historically speaking, someone who likes dirt. I was a fastidious child, almost pathologically so. I didn’t like messiness. Not on my dinner plate and not in my toy box. And definitely not on my clothes or hands. And though I grew to love wild nature, my allergies kept me indoors more often than not.
When my wife Ruth and I bought our first house, we were super excited about growing a garden, but we quickly learned that our house was built on a pile of clay, mixed with gravel. I had heard about composting in my Pagan and environmentalist circles, and so we decided to try it.
I just wanted to turn my clay plot into something that would grow a tomato plant. What I didn’t realize when we started out was that composting is holy work, work that connects me to the earth in a very literal way. It connects me to my food (on both ends of the process) and to the whole natural cycle of growth, death, and new growth.
We didn’t know much about composting, except that we needed green/wet matter and brown/dry matter. At first, our compost pile was just a hole in the ground. We tossed our kitchen scraps into a big bowl. Carrot and potato peels. The parts of vegetables that we didn’t use, like the ends of celery, apple cores, and corn cobs. Moldy bread and extra spaghetti. Rotten lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes from the crisper. We’d scrape out plates into the bowl after dinner. That gave the compost its green matter, which provided the nitrogen.
Everything except meat and dairy (which attract pests). If it was plant-based, it went in. Even used paper towels. And in the fall, I added the dead leaves from our yard for lots of brown matter, which gave the compost its carbon.
And when the bowl was full, we’d take it out and dump it into the compost hole.
Microbes feed on all that stuff, gradually converting it from kitchen waste into the richest earth you can find, full of nutrients that will feed plants.
It wasn’t long before we realized that we had some problems with our system. The first problem was the bowl was too small. It was stinky and it attracted gnats. So we got a bucket with a lid. Somehow, it became my wife Ruth’s job to take the bucket out. I’m not sure how that happened, but I don’t really have an incentive to investigate the issue.
The second problem was our hole in the ground. We didn’t really turn the pile as much as we should have. It still decomposed, but it was ugly. Especially in the wintertime, when our rotten vegetables would sit on top of the snow. It was an unsightly mess. We tried putting a cover on it. But eventually we invested in big compost tumbler, which we dump our scraps into and then spin. Now we have two tumblers that we rotate between.
Composting is an amazing and exciting process, albeit a slow one. Still I was surprised at how fast the pile shrank. We would fill the bin up with scraps multiple times over the seasons and it didn’t take long for the pile to shrink down again.
The next spring, when it was time to plant the garden, I opened the compost bin and what I found was amazing. There was an occasional half decomposed potato, but the rest of it looked amazingly like soil!
And then I dared to sniff it. There was a slight odor of rot. But there was something else. It smelled like … life!
We had made soil! I felt like Tom Hank’s character in the movie Castaway, when he first makes fire on the deserted island. But instead of exclaiming, “I made fire!”, I felt like exclaiming, “I made soil!”
Technically, what we made was “humus”—the part of soil that feeds plants. We made life out of the stuff that we would have thrown into the garbage!
It wasn’t long before I was almost physically incapable of throwing an apple core in the trash. It didn’t matter that I was in my car, I would bring it home and put it in the compost. If I found solid food or paper towels in the kitchen trash, I would rescue them and put them in the compost bucket.
And when I emptied out the crisper of vegetables we hadn’t eaten quickly enough or had to throw away some unidentifiable formerly edible substance in an abandoned tupperware container, I felt less guilty knowing it was going in the compost pile.
Over a few years, the soil in our garden went from being a block of clay to a rich, dark matrix for plant life.
I felt more connected with the earth than I ever had.
Not that it was all magical. As my daughter Katya will eagerly tell you, sometimes we let the compost bucket sit in the kitchen too long and it stinks when we open it to add more to it. And the pile of rotting food in the bin can be overwhelming, especially in the heat of the summer, before we have added many leaves.
I had already started to look at disgusting things in a new way thanks to a family trip to Florida. We went to the beach, which I always love. Ruth and my kids like pulling interesting things out of the ocean. But this trip was a little unusual in that everything they pulled out was … disgusting. It looked like a collection of props from the movie Aliens, all tentacles and slime.
I wish I knew more about aquatic flora and fauna, because words fail to describe some of the things they discovered, both living and dead. A spiny purple sea urchin, its three horned beak opening and closing slowly. Some kind of grey slimy tubular thing, plant or animal I couldn’t tell you. A small, overturned insect-like crab, its legs still stretching in the air. A blood-red sea weed that reminded me of something from Spileberg’s remake of War of the Worlds. (We returned everything we found to the ocean.)
Then Ruth pulled out this (still living) giant clam out of the water. It was covered in a profusion of the remnants of various life forms. It was repulsive.
“That’s disgusting,” I told her.
Ruth held it up to me smiling and said, “This is your Goddess.”
“It’s the slimy side of her,” I responded, wrinkling up my face.
“This is life,” she replied.
It’s strange when a seemingly mundane moment is transformed into a sacred one. I looked at my wife standing with her feet in the ocean, holding a huge shell, and I heard her speak the words of a Pagan priestess: “This is your Goddess. This is life.”
Looking at all the slimy things Ruth and kids pulled from the sea that day, I realized what an illusion my nice, neat world is. And that included my nice, neat spirituality. Even among Pagans like me, there is a tendency to romanticize nature. We like to find divinity in the parts of nature that are aesthetically pleasing, and gloss over the messy, stinky bits. But Pagan mythology actually teaches us that the pretty side of nature and the seemingly ugly side, are two faces of the same Goddess. The grossness and the vitality of the nature are one and the same.
Much like the ocean, compost is not all niceness and prettiness. Just like life, it is messy, frustrating and sometimes disappointing. But there’s something sacred in that messiness.
Like most people, I’m sure, when I think back on my life, there are certain experiences that I wish hadn’t happened. For a long time, I would have wished them away, or willed myself to forget them, if possible. Not too long ago I found myself struggling, for the first time in my life, with serious depression and anxiety. There was no romanticizing it. It was ugly and messy and humiliating and long.
But I’ve come to think that experiences are the compost of a person’s life.
I can’t make bad experiences disappear. We think we do this when we throw something in the garbage. But we are learning, as a civilization, that nothing really ever disappears. And the things we throw away can have a way of coming back to haunt us. And as much as I would like to forget some of my experiences, far better, I think, it would be to find a way to compost them. To turn those experiences I would like to forget into qualities I would like to have, like patience, compassion, and wisdom.
Turning the bad into the good, death into life, is a long, slow, and sometimes painful process. It’s like making compost. It takes hard work, patience, and also, a fair amount of grace—that unpredictable and uncontrollable quality of life. And it takes a willingness to plunge in a get messy.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a John Osborne play, Look Back in Anger, which was turned into a movie in 1959, starring Richard Burton. What the protagonist, Jimmy Porter, says about love, I think applies to life in general:
“It’s no good fooling about with love. You can’t fall into it without dirtying up your hands. It takes muscle and guts. If you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, tidy soul, you better give up the whole idea of life and become a saint, because you’ll never make it as a human being.”– John Osborne, Look Back in Anger
Unitarian Universalism is a religion for human beings. It is a religion of life—life, with all its sweat and triumph, joy and defeat. In life, as in the garden, we make holy compost out of life’s experience. And we use that compost to feed and nurture new life. It’s usually messy. Often it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s both—sometimes messy and then beautiful in succession, and occasionally messy and beautiful at the same time.
Compost also taught also taught me about the sacredness of endings. Composting reminds me that, after I die, I will live on … in the things that eat me. There’s lots of ways to recycle your body nowadays. Like a lot of people, I think, I’m enamored with the idea becoming a tree. I want to be buried with as little artificial stuff as possible separating me from the soil. I want my body to decompose and return to the cycle of life and death. I want to become compost. That is the only kind of afterlife I believe in.
But our individual deaths aren’t the only kind of endings we have to struggle with. We are now facing impending environmental and social collapse brought on by climate change and the runaway growth of our industrial civilization.
Levels of CO2 not seen for millions of years, before human beings even existed. Planetary-scale deforestation and a loss of biodiversity, from insects up to large mammals, which is being called the Sixth Great Extinction—the last one being the extinction of the dinosaurs. The depletion of the topsoil and loss of fertility due to industrialized farming. The acidification of the oceans and the pollution of freshwater. Record-setting wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes. And all the knock-on effects on human society, from mass migration, to pandemics, to the rise of fascism.
Every year the predictions get more dire and the window of opportunity for us to reverse course narrows.
After years of environmental activism, I came to the conclusion that our current civilization is incompatible with life on the planet and that our situation is best described by Jem Bendell, professor of sustainability leadership, in his now famous (or infamous) “Deep Adaptation paper”: inevitable collapse, probable catastropheandpossible human extinction.
Like a growing number of environmental activists, I experienced something which is being called “climate grief” or “eco-anxiety” by some mental health professionals. It describes the feelings that arise as a person becomes aware of loss, either present or future, due to climate change and the collapse of our environmental and social systems. These feelings can include grief, despair, fear, emotional paralysis, and overwhelm. And after passing through various stages of grief, I arrived at a kind of acceptance.
My purpose today is not to convince you that we’re doomed, but rather to share with you how the gospel of compost helped me come to terms with even something as terrible as the possibility of human extinction.
I’ve come to believe that the reason we are in this predicament, this climate crisis, has less to do with politics or technology, than with human psychology. We humans, at least in industrialized cultures, are in collective denial. I’m not talking just about climate change denial. Climate change denial is just a special case of a much broader and much deeper denial. A denial of our connection with nature. A denial of our limitations. A denial of death.
I suspect some of you here are atheists, who do not believe in individual immortality. But if you’re like me, you may have replaced the hope for heaven with a faith in human progress. We console ourselves with the thought that, though we will die, human civilization carry on.
But history teaches us that civilizations die too. Human history is not a straight line. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward civilizational collapse. There have been many dark ages, not just one. Historians tell us that civilizations die from familiar causes: overpopulation, soil degradation, extreme social inequality, climate change. Those should sound familiar to all of us.
We have a misplaced faith in the inevitability of human progress. This myth of progress has driven us to consume like there are no consequences, to multiply like physical limitations don’t exist, to worship growth like it is an unequivocal good. All of this because we deny our limitations, and especially the ultimate limitation—death.
Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death, explains that a basic human motivation is a need to deny that we are going to die. We deny death by engaging in what Becker calls “immortality projects,” which attempt to transcend death. Religion, art, science, politics—Becker sees all of these as immortality projects. All of civilization can be understood as a collective immortality project, a giant, complex attempt to deny our connection to nature, and hence our mortality.
The problem, Becker says, is that these immortality projects are maladaptive. They sever us from the flow of life—of which death is a part. And ironically, they end up hastening our deaths. So we consume like there no tomorrow in order to convince ourselves that we have all the time in the world, and in so doing, we rush toward our own demise.
In my activism, I often found myself asking, “What is it going to take for human beings to change?” I think maybe it would take dying. Or at least accepting, really accepting, that we—our civilization, and maybe our species—is going to die.
Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, suggests that we need to learn how to die well. What does it mean to die well? One suggestion which resonated with me comes from the eco-feminist and post-humanist Donna Haraway in her 2016 book, Staying with the Trouble. She suggests that to die well we need to learn to become compost. What is compost but dead matter which gives rise to new life? Becoming compost, then, means dying, but in a way that makes fertile soil for new life.
Consider the example of the patient who has a terminal diagnosis. They may pass through some or all the stages of grief. They may give up hope. They may despair. They may even seek an early death to avoid pain.
But they may also find a kind of peace on the other side of despair. A peace born not of hope, but of love. They may decide that they want to live more meaningfully and intensely with the time they have left. They may decide to focus on healing their relationships with others or creating new ones. They may devote their time to leaving something positive behind for those who will live on. In other words, they start turning themselves into compost. Rich, productive, life-giving death.
Roy Scranton’s second book We’re Doomed. Now What? includes an essay entitled, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World.” There he writes:
“The dire and seemingly unsolvable fact of climate change—just like the unsolvable fact of our own mortality—doesn’t signify the end of ethical thought but its beginning, for it’s only in recognizing the fact that our lives are limited, complicit, imperfect, and interdependent that we begin to understand what it means to live together in this world.”— Roy Scranton, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World”
This is the gospel of compost, the good news about the end of our world. Compost teaches me that there is wisdom in endings. That death can be a teacher. Death teaches us about our limitations. It teaches us where we belong and who we belong to. It teaches us what matters most. It teaches us how to live.
There is a kind of clarity that comes with this awareness. Priorities come into focus. And strangely, a new feeling of power emerges out of surrender—not power over nature, but power with nature.
In our growth-obsessed culture, we avoid the awareness of endings, of death. We suppress it, we medicate it. But an awareness of death can be liberating, rather than oppressive. Rather than paralyzing us, it can spur us to action—not the desperate, anxious action of those who are trying to save themselves. But a calm, centered action of those who know they are doomed, but also know that there is still beauty, and joy, and love in the world. And who know there is still important work to do—if not for ourselves, then for all the other living beings on the planet.
Eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote that “We will not save what we do not love.” I can think of no better explanation for our current predicament than that. I think we as a species have not loved the world enough. But knowing that our civilization will die, embracing that truth, can help us learn to really love this world. Just as knowing that we will die causes us to cherish our family and friends all the more. And what do we do for the people we love? We try to lessen their suffering. We try to deepen our connections with them in the time we have left. And we mourn them when they are gone.
Maybe truly radical love is only possible when we give up hope for ourselves. What would it take for us to truly love this place and the human and other-than-human beings who live here? Maybe it would take dying.
I am, in the words of Donna Haraway, a “compostist”. I am trying to make good compost of my life. To begin with, I am embracing endings, and in doing so, I am starting to discover my love for the place where I live and the people—human and other-than-human—who live there. And I’m trying to find small but meaningful ways to lessen suffering, to enjoy beauty, and, yes, to mourn.
None of this will save the planet, or the human species, or human civilization, or even my own life. I think the idea that we could ever have saved the earth is born of the same kind of hubris that is destroying it right now. Instead, I am going to try to find a small piece of the world, just one small place, or one species, or even just one being, and try to save them. And if I fail, maybe I can at least ease their passing and mourn them when they are gone. In the process, at least I will have learned to love them.
This is my gospel, my good news. It is not story of the permanent triumph of life over death, but of the eternal interconnectedness of life and death, of joy and defeat, of loss and fulfillment. And ultimately, it is a story of love. Love for the world right here, right now, in all its glorious messiness. Love of the people—human and other-than-human—with whom we share this world. Love, not in spite of, but because of, the fact that all of this is temporary. This is the gospel of compost.