28 June

Composter: The Greening Of Me

by Jon Katz

Above: the site of our new composter, on the way.

When one thinks about climate change or our ugly political divisions, it is easy enough to feel overwhelmed, so much so that we throw up our hands and do nothing.

That was pretty much my position on the environment.

I believe in climate change and want to do my part, but I could never really think of ways for me to make a difference when confronted with such a massive challenge, and in a country whose idea of the future is clinging to the past.

Perhaps having a daughter and granddaughter has focused me a bit, don’t I owe them a better world than the one we seem determined to leave them?

I am also inspired by Maria, who fights for Mother Earth in every possible way, on every level of our life. It makes a difference when a partner or someone you love is paying attention to all the small things.

She is way ahead of me. But we are working so well together now.

It’s a funny thing about Maria and me. I tend to drift towards the bigger things; she knows the importance of the small stuff – what we buy, what we eat, what we wear,  how we recycle, and how we relate to nature.

She never really thought we could go solar, or get a hybrid car. I never knew how much energy washers and dryers consume, how much human packaging and the way cows are means to animals, and the earth.

The things I buy at the grocery now are completely different than the things I bought just a couple of years ago. Corporations are being held accountable for the havoc they are wreaking on our planet, and that information is easy for me to find online.

And every night at dinner we eat vegetables from our own garden – kale, tomatoes, squash.

So in the last year or so, I decided it was past time for me to do the right thing and in a serious and sustained way.

What is daunting for me is not how difficult the task is, but how much I need to learn. Lots of people got there long before I did. But so what?

Doing little was neither moral nor admirable. It was just a way of hiding from reality. I’ve learned not to do that in my life.

People tell me climate change is too overwhelming for an individual to tackle when our government insists it’s a hoax.

They tell me they are much too nervous to believe radical change is possible in our constipated civic system. Remember 2016? they fret.

I say nuts to that. I’m moving forward, better later than never.

I think it was Pope Francis’s brilliant encyclical Laudato Si that moved me to focus and get moving to help Mother Earth. An amazing writer, his words got to me:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation, and filth. The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”

I decided to approach this urgent moral issue in a simpler and more manageable way. I do one small thing and some bigger things one after another, and in the process, I can do a substantial thing or two. It is possible to make a difference; it is possible to change.

I want to understand what came into the house, and what went out, what I bought and what I needed, how it was prepared, and how it was constructed, how much garbage we created and how much we needed to develop.

I was surprised by what I found.

First, I gave up plastic water bottles, a plague on the Earth, and sea life.

Then, I started paying attention to what I buy at the grocery store. I bought some reusable bags (I can’t use them right now).

I eat healthy foods – fish, fruit, vegetables, but I paid little attention to how what I buy affects the environment, how it is made, packaged, and transported.

So I’m like one of those odd goo-goo people now, who have been at this for years. I read package labels and research the companies that make things.

I dropped a lot of things from my weekly shopping list. I gave up eating a lot of things I liked.

There is a lot more information about the environment than there used to be. It is easy to find.

As my eleven-year-old SUV began to fall apart, I resolved to get a smaller car and a hybrid. The pandemic gave me an opening, the auto manufacturers were and are desperate.

I negotiated for a four-cylinder SUV that gets 41 miles to the gallon. I got it as a lease for $300 a month that that will help the air we breathe in a small but essential way.

As much of the country locked down, I noticed that the price of installing solar power was also plummeting. I shocked Maria by suggesting we go solar, and we have.

No money down, an 80 percent reduction in our electric bills, a small loan payment smaller than our monthly savings.

In three days, our system has produced 133.88 kilowatts of electricity. We’ve saved one and a half trees. I am excited about that; it seems pretty substantial to me.

Now, I am on the alert, looking for things I can do, we can do.

Today, Maria and I decided to build a composter right next to her vegetable garden. It’s coming on Tuesday.

I ordered one online. I am, no matter what my many aggrieved new critics think,  pretty conservative.

I hate extremes, even though I live in the time of extremes, and fanatics and zealots make me uneasy. I’m rarely the first person to do anything, but when I get going, I have no interest in stopping, no matter what anyone says. I’ve jumped off a lot of cliffs.

I suggested a wildflower garden on the farm to help the bees and the butterflies pollinate. I suggested letting the grass in the front of the house.

Maria has come up with a thousand smaller things – a vegetable garden, changing our diet, understanding how we can support nature, planting trees in the woods.

We are a great team, between the bigger things and the smaller things I feel now that I am making a difference, we are making a difference.

It is daunting to try to help the Earth, but on an individual level, it is one of the most meaningful and gratifying things I can do. That is a way, perhaps the way,  to save the earth. I think of those children to come, what have we done to them?

I feel the same way about politics. I don’t want to spend my life arguing with strangers online, so I deal with it by committing a small act of kindness whenever I can. There are so many people in need in our country, it is so easy to help them.

There are many more things for me to learn, many more things for me to consider. I am ignorant about so many matters relating to the environment. But that needn’t stop me, it can motivate me, and it does.

I am past 70, and will not live to see younger people save the planet, as I believe they will do, my granddaughter included.

But at least when I go, I will know I did what I could to help heal the Earth that humans have so defiled. We’re still going, this is infectious once I got into it.

Maria and I also decided today to plant a small lavender garden right near the new wired and meter connected to the solar panels. This will be the seventh garden we have planted around the house.

I’ve suggested three of these gardens, which is a departure for me. Before that, I never suggested creating a garden in my life.

We have planted 12 trees around the farmhouse, from maples to white birches.

I learned about the great damage mowed lawns due to birds, insects, and other forms of small wildlife, so we decided longer over the grass in front of the house.

The tall grass is so beautiful swaying in the wind, and there are all kinds of creatures, from rabbits to butterflies to hungry birds, taking advantage of this new and natural space. Why on earth did we mow lawns in the first place?

It had to be some European royals on their country estates playing cricket.

Next, I need to know more about composting and how it works. I just ordered a bag of organic compost starter to help us get started.

Maria is great at digging, planting, and imagining. I’m a killer at tracking down the stuff we need, locally if I can, online if I can’t.

I believe we are in the midst of a great awakening and begun building a more moral, gentler and more compassionate society,  the good people of the world are looking to help our mother, the Earth.

A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” wrote Pope Francis, “it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

I’m in.


  1. I read years ago that when our ancestors climbed down from the trees and started walking on the ground, they would have avoided tall grasses because predators could hide there in the grass. So humans gravitated to the areas that the great herds of wildebeests kept grazed short.

  2. I’ve been composting successfully for 50 years: no special bins or starters: almost as easy as falling off a log. Thinking about it, I realize there’s more to it than tossing on kitchen garbage and hoping for the best. You and Maria will figure it out, but you have the best starter in the world: sheep / donkey / chicken droppings. You will be amazed how much fertile loam composting makes and how crazy your gardens will go next spring. We can’t save the world, but we don’t have to add to its destruction.

    1. Thanks Susie, I hadn’t actually thought about the donkey and chicken droppings and sheep pellets..when we clean out the chick coop we have a place to put it..good info

  3. “IF ANY INDIVIDUAL CAN BE said to have invented the American lawn, it is Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1868, he received a commission to design Riverside, outside of Chicago, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted’s design stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road and it proscribed walls. He was reacting against the “high dead-walls” of England which he felt made a row of homes there seem “as of a series of private madhouses.” In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park.” Second Nature. Michael Pollan

  4. We’ve been composting since we moved out here to the salt grass prairie. We live in a clay/shale soil and the compost has made a world of difference! Enjoy your new adventure, your gardens and Mother Earth are going to love it!

  5. I like the photo. Your garden looks great. Very good, thought-provoking post. I have been composting for years. My husband built a two sided composter – one side is for when I’ve added all that I want to add (to let it decompose), and the other side is for new additions. You need “greens” (Nitrogen) and “browns” (Carbon). For browns we use shredded paper when we don’t have fall leaves…and leaves, when we do. Greens here are kitchen scraps such as potato peels and weeds etc that I pull. You can use grass clippings but don’t overdo it. Don’t put any weeds in that have seeds as your compost may not get hot enough to destroy the weed seeds. Turn the compost periodically. If in a dry spell, water it. I hardly ever water mine. I turn it every week or so during the summer but less often in spring and fall, as it cooks much more slowly when the temps are low. Use your compost in your flower or vegetable beds. It’s great for the soil. Some say to stir it in. I just top dress with it. Any questions, you can send me a PM in FB or an email.

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