There’s something special about the convent garden. It’s not just the six-foot sunflowers, or the lazy rows of ripening apples, or the sleeping cats who wander absentmindedly through the flower beds, although each of these has held me spellbound momentarily. Nor is it in the rows of cornflowers and cosmos, the ripening strawberries, the loganberries and elderberries fattening in the insect-rich hedge. And it doesn’t start in the Lady Garden or the new orchard or the meadows full of wary sheep stretching down into the valley. It starts behind the plants and the flowers and the hedges, in the unexplored corner where we make our compost.
The compost starts life in several bays, separated by old pallets. Some contain compost ready to go onto the garden; others collect its constituent parts, as yet undigested. Cut grass, boiling down into blood-warm mulch. Vegetable and plant cuttings (bar the most virulent weeds). Food waste from the kitchen, tamped down in metal bins. And fresh woodchippings, which steam as the shovel lifts away each hunk. Over two mornings I layer these ingredients into tall compost barrels, where they will begin to rot down, as millions of tiny bacteria digest the mix and excrete nutrients which can be reabsorbed into the garden. The compost will be turned and moved into a second barrel, then finally a third barrel, where it can be stored until needed. I’m instructed carefully on the layering of the compost: first a dry, or ‘brown’ layer of woodchippings, then a mash of ‘greens’, the vegetable matter; at the moment our pile contains a lot of comfrey, which I’m told aids the breakdown. Then the food waste, and then finally heaps of steaming grass, packed down on top. And so on until the barrel is full.
Part of coming to a religious community is confronting yourself, all the things you ignore or try not to acknowledge. I’ve come dashing in from the noise of the world like a soaked dog running in from a storm. Now I’ve learnt my way around the house and the names of the Sisters and begun to understand the Office Book, and I feel like I’m barely beginning. We bring so much baggage with us. So much mental noise. I have a lot to learn about silence.
If I am to learn to love composting, then I have to look at it differently. While it’s still a chore – a smelly, tiring chore – I find it hard to enjoy. The pleasure of learning something new and understanding the excitement of the gardeners brings me a little closer to happiness. And I’m happy to be useful, and to be working. But everyone I speaks to sees something more in this task. It’s a spiritual experience. I inwardly groan, and start the task. Composting as metaphor. Composting as a way of personal growth. Isn’t this a sermon illustration I’ve heard before?
The woodchip is the easiest layer to lay. It’s satisfying to run the wheelbarrow across the lawn, piled high with wood, and to hear it rattle into the empty barrel. The dry wood and the spaces between it will help make space for air, aiding aerobic digestion. It will absorb excess moisture and prevent the compost from becoming slurry. Each ring of a tree is a year’s wisdom. How many years are re-released here? Each splinter is a day of growth, a day of birdsong and rain on the hills.
The woodchip will be the Community, for their structure and experience, for their guidance and wisdom, and for the sheer love that radiates around them. On this layer, I will build my compost. Ha.
Next, the vegetation. I bundle comfrey, courgette stem, yellowing brassica and dried flowers into the tub. After a little deliberation, I decide that this layer will be the good things I bring with me. My skills and experience, my ability to learn, all that is in me that gives life. But these two layers aren’t quite enough to start a compost. There’s no heat yet.
Thirdly, the kitchen waste. I plunge my gloved hands into a week-old stew of rotten apples, egg shell and potato peelings. Everything squelches. I thank the Lord, without irony, for my genetic lack of a sense of smell, and wish I’d picked tougher gloves. This layer is the catalyst. It’s desperately needed. And it stinks. Easiest labelled: this will be my ‘sin’ layer, all the things I don’t want to confront, everything I want to hide from sight (and nose). Some of it slides down the sides of the bin and I crouch in the nettles to scrape it up. Something damp seeps though my gloves.
With the food bin recovered for the moment, I turn to the last layer. Some of the grass I cut that morning; other cuttings are older and have begun to dissolve. They are horribly warm, and the fresh taste of cut grass has begin to alter into something much more earthy and intense. We have essentially made our own manure.
Grass, piled and left to rot, creates incredible heat. It can spontaneously catch fire, someone tells me. In the compost, it will cook our layers, creating the environment for the bacteria to digest everything else. But on its own, it dissolves into slime. The magic is in the mix. In the metaphor I’m now absorbed in, as I pat down this last layer, grass will be prayer. It will be the heat and fire that changes the rest of my life, if I hold nothing back: my life as an individual and in Community, my skills, my failures, my fears, my loves, everything must come to prayer. And so I close the lid of the composter, and stand mesmerised, looking at what must be my life. Is this what I am? Heat and commotion, packed down into one human-shaped vessel? A compost of constituent parts, that somehow becomes a life?
And then I remember the garden. I have forgotten it even exists, I’m so absorbed in my task. When I turn round it seems more beautiful than ever. This is where the compost will go, and where it will create new life. And it comes to me that perhaps when I look at my life, and I focus on the compost – especially on the slime and the rotting food waste – God looks at my life and sees the garden, and longs to tend it and walk with me under the apple trees. Tend the compost, and see the garden grow.
This morning at breakfast I finish reading Thomas Merton’s No man is an island, and after I finish reading I sit with my tea and wonder at the garden Merton describes. For every challenge he raises – and there are many – the description of the life lived in relation to God becomes more and more beautiful.
So here’s my final thought from the compost bins: God sees the whole of you, and how beautiful you are, and loves you with the tenderness of a gardener walking in the early morning through a newly-flowering crop. Everything you bring, good and bad, is compost for your life. Every hard lesson and mistake, every joyful memory and good work, and it can all be used by God to enrich the garden of your life. But you are not the compost. You are not the sum of your mistakes and successes. You are the garden, and the garden is wonderful.