Photograph by Toledano / Getty Images

A Love Letter to My Compost Heap

Words by Romany Williams

From accidental wasp stings to nurturing an ecosystem of ants, slugs, and worms, writer Romany Williams redefines composting as a pathway to greater environmental responsibility and spiritual growth.

The pain was instantaneous, vibrant, and searing through my thumb as I let out an awkward yelp and sprinted away from my compost bin. 


I had been stung by a wasp, unknowingly grabbing a handful of its nest while rummaging through the pile of brown leaves I keep next to the compost heap. As I sat in my kitchen, icing my swollen thumb, I looked up the meaning of a wasp sting. Apparently, it’s an invitation to take action. To move. To do some spiritual work. I had only been composting in my backyard for four months and this pile of dirt, leaves, and food scraps was already—clearly—my new teacher. 


Compost is often discussed in scientific terms. From carbon to nitrogen and everything in between, soil biology-speak can feel overwhelming. And yet, a new generation of green-fingered DIY gardeners are increasingly looking for relief from the pace and pressure of modern life in moments of composting. And as curiosity about composting intensifies, so do efforts to popularize it. Earlier this year, Mayor Eric Adams laid out plans to make composting mandatory in New York City, requiring residents with yards to separate their leaves, grass, and flower clippings for composting purposes. Across North America, municipalities are introducing green bin programs, but are grappling with the logistics of composting at such a large scale. Meanwhile, products like Reenecle and Lomihigh-tech yet low-key appliances that compost food scraps right on your kitchen counter with the push of a buttonare gaining traction

“I think making compost is the coolest form of climate activism we can all be doing in our own homes.”

Kate Flood
Author, The Compost Coach

But outside such technological and scientific innovation, we rarely hear of composting as a personal pleasure. And with the exception of the small but passionate community of composting devotees, platforms to share and exchange anecdotal experiences with residential composting are hard to come by. In reality, every composting entry pointfrom a green bin to a Lomiis a win when it comes to sustainability. But composting mindfully also has the potential to boost serotonin levels and unlock personal growth. Not only is it an important biological process, it can be a spiritual one, too. 


My compost heap has quickly become a favorite part of my daily garden routine. Composting is a fascinating process, and I’ve been surprised by the ways it has helped reinforce my strong connection with nature. The ecosystem around my bin includes ants, slugs, mushrooms, worms, fruit flies, and the aforementioned wasps. Each living critter is an antidote to anthropocentrism that teaches me how to be in deeper communion with the life humming, crawling, and burrowing around me. 


By my second month of composting, I had hundreds of ants in my bin. This, according to my research, meant that my compost was too dry. Yes, ants are great decomposers, but their presence indicated that the conditions of my compost heap weren’t quite right. Ideally, compost should be wet like a damp sponge. Achieving that perfect moisture balance became a fixation for me. Compost can turn anaerobic and stop decomposing when it’s too dry or too wet. As a newbie, I was hoping to avoid this stasis. 


For Northern California-based creative director, model, and farmer Courtney Coll, composting is about striking a balance that can help create nutrient-rich, organic soil. “It amazes me that some gardeners are still buying soil that contains chemicals in it,” Coll says. “There are so many ways to learn about composting, even when you live in the city.” Coll started getting interested in growing plants and vegetables 10 years ago, spurred by time spent living on a farm in Humboldt, California. Today, she runs Docs Family Farms, a primarily Marijuana farm and marketplace with her siblings. “I would advise anyone new to compost to reach out to someone you have seen doing it,” she says. “Community will give you the best tips and tricks. Explore the world of soil, you’ll go deep.” 


Composting lesson one courtesy of the ants: not knowing is okay, lean into the discomfort of being a beginner.


After the ants, came the slugs. It was late spring, still chilly at night, and I often discovered slugs nestled into the dewy leaves I was collecting for my bin. I found myself scrutinizing their presence: should I pick them off the leaves or let them hang out? Nitrogen, often in the form of food scraps, is the building block of compost and it turns out, slug food, too. Those juicy coffee grinds, egg shells, and banana peels provide invaluable nutrients to the soil. 


In order to learn more about the growing creature community in my bin, I took Coll’s advice and turned to the pros. Kate Flood, author of the book The Compost Coach, is an Australia-based compost expert and a vigilant advocate for compost ecosystem creatures. “A well-managed compost heap or worm farm is alive with a seething and heaving mass of life,” says Flood. “There are bugs that you can see such as worms, beetles, and ants, as well as a wealth of microorganisms that are invisible to the naked eye like bacteria, nematodes, and protozoa. This community of critters works together in a food web to consume your scraps. Energy flows from one organism to another in a natural recycling system.” 

“Once you delve into a more spiritual and connected life, you realize that nothing is waste.”

Synmia Rosine
Herbalist and Founder of The People's Farm

Nurturing compost and watching this tiny world come to life has been a powerful antidote to my near-constant eco-anxiety, too. “Climate change is heavy,” Flood continued. “I think making compost is the coolest form of climate activism we can all be doing in our own homes. Compost sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and returns it to our soil. Simply ensuring your household waste is composted is a serious tool in the battle to save our planet.”


Composting lesson two courtesy of the slugs: every plant, animal, insect, and person, plays a crucial role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem.


It was June when the wasps established a thriving nest hidden in my leaf pile. Often referred to as browns—the technical name for dried leaves, hay, and plant debris all of which are healthy sources of carbon, making them vital compost ingredients. Clearly, browns are useful for Yellowjacket wasps, too. 


That decomposing leaves can mutate to feed the soil while also providing habitat and building materials is real-life magic. “I love alchemy, I love seeing things transform, and I think there’s medicine in taking part of that transformation through composting,” says Synmia Rosine, herbalist and founder of The People’s Farm in Idyllwild, California. “The science behind composting is a good foundation, always, but it’s also about creating a deeper relationship [to nature] outside of that. Turning food waste back into soil is a lot about feeling for me. It’s remembering to pay homage, to honor the ancestors and this land, because this land is not mine.” 


With so many systemic barriers to accessing land and green space, The People’s Farm is on a mission to reduce food waste and bring composting to the broader community by collecting leftovers from local supermarkets and cafés throughout the week. “The first thing we established after moving to this land was our compost,” says Rosine. “On a larger consciousness, we thought about how much waste goes into the landfill. Once you delve into a more spiritual and connected life, you realize that nothing is waste. Our big thing was: How do we create more abundance? How do we change the way our community looks at food and waste? Community is where your support is, and composting helps us remember that.


Perhaps the wasp sting was a microcosm for the bigger challenges facing us in the anthropocene era, an urgent invitation to connect to the Earth on a deeper level, to fiercely invest in all forms of community. 


Composting lesson three courtesy of the wasps: pay attention, not only to the state of your compost bin, but to the ritual of remembering all that was and can be.


During every other trip to my compost, I dig my hands into the dirt and throw a fistful of it into my green metal bin. Soil is an important ingredient in any compost because it helps worms digest their food—and worms are the most crucial part of the operation. 


Thriving deep in the guts of a well balanced compost pile, worms are led by five hearts instead of their brain, eyes, and ears. I wonder what it might feel like to be less cerebral and more circulatory? Hudson Valley-based writer and author Sophie Strand self-identifies as a compost heap. “We live in a very antiseptic culture, and for me, there’s the lived reality of my incurable genetic tissue disease,” says Strand when asked why this working metaphor of compost resonates so much. “The classic popular healing narratives are: you’re sick, you get a diagnosis, you try a lot of treatments, and then you get better. I have a condition that has no cure, it’s degenerative. How can I begin to find health in the breakdown? [I believe] it’s about making good soil. I’m not moving towards a healthy body or a healed body, but what if we looked at decay as the moment when life overflows its cup? There’s something juicy and complicated about imagining myself as a teeming, multi-voiced, inter-species compost heap.” 

“What if we looked at decay as the moment when life overflows its cup?”

Sophie Strand

There’s a sign for sale at my local grocery store that states, confidently: Trespassers Will Be Composted. I enjoy the sentiment of this private property-flip, the way it takes a ubiquitous and rather menacing message and brings it back down to literal Earth. Strand agrees. “Composting is a really powerful way to begin to navigate our cultural fear of death and mortality,” says Strand. “How is death the womb of life? How is death the soil matrix of everything that grows into food and flowers and forests?” Composting is an intimate process, one that obliterates the myth of separation and requires us to be in relationship with the cycle of life. After all, in Strand’s words, ”we live in a culture deprived of ritual and meaning. Your spiritual practice can be composting—it can be about feeding the land where you live.”


My three-year-old son is my compost sidekick. Together, we take turns cradling worms in our hands or attempting to count how many we can see wriggling in the heap. He saves his food scraps for the bin because “the worms are hungry” and he’s right, they can eat half their weight in one day. 


Composting lesson four courtesy of the worms: The Earth is hungry to be fed. Feeding the land, in turn, feeds us. 

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