The white plastic bucket by the sink was more than full; it was piled high and deep. One more eggshell or bit of potato peel might start a sludge-slide that could potentially swamp the entire countertop. So taking the compost out had become imperative. No use waiting for the next incoming person with boots on.... I sighed, and reached for my own boots and my parka and took the bucket out back, to where the compost bin sits squatly behind the garage.

Taking compost out in mid-winter is not my idea of a good time. Nineteen times out of twenty, those responsible for snow removal _chez nous_ have not thought to clear a path from the back door to the bin, and we have had one heck of a lot of snow lately. Worse still, there's a biggish step down from the concrete pad between the house and garage to the back lawn, and with this much snow down, I couldn't see where it was: I might set a booted foot down expecting solidity and find myself up to my knee in snow, and then go tumbling head over teakettle. I am no longer young, and I have my dignity to consider. In addition, there was a good half-foot of snow to be removed from the top of the bin before I could pry the flap open. And finally, and worst, the last people to take out the compost had piled the last few loads right beneath the opening instead of pushing the stuff to the back, and now the whole mass was frozen solid, leaving no space for the load I was carrying.

So I stood there in the snow and took handfuls of potato peels and lettuce stems and too-far-gone apples from the bucket and tossed them behind the miniature Alp of leftover frozen corn and lemon rinds below the flap. It was very cold, and the compost-stuff was wet and slightly slimy, especially as I got toward the bottom of the bucket, which was frankly revolting. Fortunately I have a strong stomach. I have changed diapers, wiped up cat barf, washed under stoves and refrigerators, gutted fish and (once) a chicken, prepared chopped beef kidney suet from the fresh warm stuff (you don't want to know), even read Ayn Rand--well, a page or two, anyway. Not much gets to me.

Which is a good thing, because as I slowly emptied the bucket, it gave me a moment to reflect on why an onion succumbing to bacterial soft rot doesn't particularly bother me. The reason: I see the schloop as carbon in process--a process that the compost bin is full of, or will be as soon as the weather warms up again (assuming the pile is frozen right through, which it might not be). And carbon-in-process is fascinating stuff. True, it's not as pretty as a supermarket pile of fresh, crisp broccoli. But that "truth is beauty, beauty truth" guff is, and always has been, a lie, as anyone knows who follows the tabloid stories on supermodels.

A long time ago, I wrote something on how carbon-in-process connects us all, from rhizopus mold to emperor penguin; and I still like taking out that bit of information and turning it around in my head, like turning a pretty stone over in the palm of my hand. Today, though, what struck me about carbon-in-process is its wild and natural generosity. This stuff all came *free*.

Of course I have to pay for my food; but that's really paying for the time and effort of the people who grew it the costs they incurred to bring it to harvest and market it, its subsequent transport and processing, supermarket overhead, that sort of thing. Perfectly reasonable--in fact, better than reasonable. I pay a far lower percentage of my income for food than do the vast majority of people in this world. But the atoms that make up my too substantial body--the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, iron, magnesium, and all the others, not even omitting selenium--all these are the reckless gift of Creation. And of Creation's Creator, unless you believe that this all came about purely by accident.

We were given this world for free--which is probably why we treat it so damned badly. Popular wisdom says that the best way of ensuring that a puppy or kitten will be ill cared for is to give it away to strangers. We don't seem to value what we haven't had to pay for, and the more we've paid, the more we value the thing, even when it has no real intrinsic use or value, like Marilyn Monroe's spike-heeled pumps. On the other hand, when we're freely given something as essential, as invaluable, as necessary to our existence as this biosphere, we treat it like an orange to be squeezed dry and tossed away. Go figger.

But matter, properly considered, is marvellous stuff. This goop on my fingertips and, for that matter, the fingertips themselves --these are composed of atoms forged deep in the crucibles of stars. Next to this, spinning straw into gold is a cinch. This carbon-in-process, like the oxygen- and water-in-process in and around me, was formed billions of years ago from smaller atoms, glued together at temperatures and pressures that are simply unimaginable. These atoms were spit out by stars flaring out of existence. However many gazillion years later, their dust spun down into the hard, living, beautiful Earth-ball under my feet, the ball I come from and shall inevitably return to, the ball that is the source and end of all this compost. Talk about prodigy! These tiny remnants of power and grandeur now carry my immortal soul around in a dance of power and mystery that I will never, this side of the River, really understand. And still some people think that Genesis 1 is more poetic, more spiritually glorious, more God-truthful than cosmology... God glories in Creation--look at the end of the Book of Job!--for good reasons: it is indeed glorious. I don't know why we have such a hard time seeing that.

Why doesn't God's sheer, prodigal, feckless generosity knock us off our workaday keisters? It's not just all these atoms and molecules, polymers and macromolecules, not all these stars and galaxies and the sweep of space: it's the existence of love: the greatest gift we have been given. We are loved, and so we can love, and that is a mystery next to which the Problem of Evil fades into nonexistence.

We have done nothing whatsoever to earn any of this. It's all far beyond our deserving. We're given life itself, freebies; we're given the stuff of which our bodies are composed; we are given this lovely planet; we are given God's grace unaided by our own efforts. And yet we scheme and scrabble, yearn and battle, over so much lesser stuff, because we somehow manage to miss the point. It's so sad, so futile. God is good. That's all that matters.

I knocked the last goopy bits of rotting onion skin into the bin, scrubbed the bucket out with a handful of snow, tossed the snow into the bin, and shut the flap. Then I stood looking out over the back yard for a long moment, down to where the creek still burbles under the ice. Here, the field mice are snuggled under snow, the trees are silently, slowly respiring, and the long grass is waiting for warmer days.

Next time I come out, I'll bring a bit of one-by-four with me and knock the frozen stuff toward the back of the compost bin, so there's more room. In the meantime, time to wash the dishes.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 20 Jan 2001
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