In the Middle Ages, alchemists sought to change base metals, such as lead, into gold. Old German folklore tells of a tale in which a dwarf named Rumpelstiltskin had the power to spin flax straw into precious metal. Somewhere in the psyche of the western mind was a belief that a substance of little or no worth could be transmuted by a miraculous process into something of priceless value. Our ancestors were right, but they were barking up the wrong tree. The miraculous process of composting will transmute humanure into humus. In this way, potentially dangerous waste materials become soil additives vital for human life.
Our ancestors didn't understand that the key to this alchemy was right at their fingertips. Had they better known and understood natural processes they could have provided themselves with a wealth of soil fertility and saved themselves the tremendous suffering caused by diseases originating from fecal contamination of the environment. For some reason, they believed that gold embodied value, and in pursuit of glittering riches they neglected the things of real value: health, vitality, self-sufficiency, and sustainability.
Our ancestors had little understanding of a vast, invisible world which surrounded them, a world of countless creatures so small as to be quite beyond the range of human sight. And yet, some of those microscopic creatures were already doing work for humanity in the production of foods such as beer, wine, cheese, or bread. Although yeasts have been used by people for centuries, bacteria have only become harnessed by western humanity in recent times. Composting is one means by which the power of microorganisms can be utilized in a big way for the betterment of humankind. Unfortunately, our ancestors didn't understand the role of microorganisms in the decomposition of organic matter, nor the efficacy of microscopic life in converting humanure, food scraps, and plant residues into soil. They didn't understand compost.
The composting of organic materials requires armies of bacteria. This microscopic force works so vigorously that it heats the material to temperatures hotter than are normally found in nature. Other micro and macro organisms such as fungi and insects help in the composting process, too. When the compost cools down, earthworms often move in and eat their fill of delicacies, their excreta becoming a further refinement of the compost.
Successful composting requires the maintenance of an environment in which bacteria and fungi can thrive. This is also true for wine, except the microorganisms are yeast, not bacteria. Same for bread (yeast), beer (yeast), yogurt (bacteria), sauerkraut (bacteria), and cheese (bacteria); all of these things require the cultivation of microorganisms which will do the desired work. All of these things involve simple processes which, once you know the basic principles, are easy to carry out successfully. Sometimes bread doesn't rise, sometimes yogurt turns out watery, sometimes compost doesn't seem to turn out right. When this happens, a simple change of procedure will rectify the matter. Once you get the hang of it, you'd think even a chimpanzee could be trained to make compost.
Often, in our household, we have yogurt being made by billions of hard-working bacteria in a few quart mason jars beside the cookstove. At the same time, millions of yeast cells are cheerfully brewing beer in carboys in the back pantry, while millions more yeasts are happily brewing wine beside the beer. Sauerkraut is blithely fermenting in a crock behind the stove; bread is rising on the kitchen counter; and fungi are tirelessly forcing their fruits from oak logs on the sunporch. And then there's the compost pile. At times like these, I feel like a slave driver. But the workers never complain. Those little fellas work day and night, and they do a real nice job.
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing,
PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.