Remembering “This Compost”

What an interesting coincidence that Rhubarb’s Earth and Gardens issue is coming out right after my husband and I decided to spend six months apprenticing on a farm on western Virginia that focuses on sustainable agricultural practices! Leaving our home in El Paso, we decided to take some time to reconnect to our rural roots while also looking ahead and thinking about how we wish to live as citizens of the world seeking justice, sustainability and joy.

Though my husband and I both grew up in the rural community of Seminole, Texas, where visitors are greeted by a sign that reads “#1 Producer of Cotton, Peanuts and Oil in Texas and home of the #1 people anywhere,” our experience with farming was primarily agribusiness: giant irrigation systems, crop insurance, RoundUp Ready Cotton, farm implements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and harvest seasons where my husband was called out to the farm supply store where he worked in the middle of the night to replace a stripper or combine belt. Farming was about money and the scale of production–How many acres? How many hands? How many wells? How much horsepower? How many trucks came through the gin today? Any questions or criticisms about environmental impact or sustainability of industrial agribusiness at the very least were seen as laughably unrealistic in west Texas’ semi-arrid climate or at worst were viewed with suspicion as liberal conspiracies.

Though cash crops were king, some people in our community, mostly Mennonites, planted gardens that they fought to protect against drought, kept laying hens and slaughtering pigs in sheds behind their houses. We also heard farm stories from friends and relatives who grew up in the Manitoba Mennonite Colony near Cuauhtémoc, Mexico. Apple orchards harvested by hand. Mumkjes killing chickens with one snap of the neck. Children drinking raw milk straight from the cow. Hams and sausages curing on wires in the corners of barns. To many it seemed that these Mennonites from Mexico were behind the times, but now after many years we are rediscovering that much of what Mennonites have been doing for years is on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture and is gaining popularity even among people who would not consider themselves environmentalists.

We have been working for a month and a half learning what it takes to raise pastured raised sheep, meat chickens, laying hens, and hogs. In addition to daily chores of feeding and watering the animals, moving fences, cleaning and packing eggs, gardening and preparing for processing, once a week my husband and I, together with the farmers and their children, empty the composting toilets, a simple system of five gallon buckets and sawdust on to the compost pile and give the buckets a good scrubbing. While we are cleaning out the toilets I can’t help but think of Walt Whitman’s poem “This Compost” which I think embodies what we are seeking to understand by apprenticing on the farm:

“Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,

It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,

It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,

It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,

It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,

It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.”


Rhubarb 36: Earth and Gardens is now in production and will be launched and mailed in October.