Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Compost: Orientation

Imagine that someone walked into your kitchen, compiled a miscellany of ingredients, dumped them in a bowl, stirred once, let it sit, and then proclaimed that they had produced food. Would they be correct? Well, it depends on our food standards. Is it edible? Probably. Is it better than nothing? Absolutely. But wouldn’t we wonder why the individual hadn’t composed with more care? Examples can be multiplied but without need. While many of us would eat such a product were it all we had, and be thankful for needs met, we’d all rather eat the stuff that was produced with care and energy. It is care that makes food good. It is care that produces the order and value we find in recipes, instruments, and ingredients in the kitchen so productive of good food. If such is not the case, then there must be good where there is no care. But such is not the case.

Now, there are two kinds of cared for things. There are the things which receive their care naturally or from within the natural order, and there are things which receive their care artificially or by art. While avocado receives its care from the tree that also may receive its care from the sun, rain, and earth, guacamole receives its care by art.

What can we deduce from the fact that something needs care? At least four things can be deduced: First, care is only necessary for a being for which things can go better or worse. So, if compost needs care, it is because it is something for which things can go better or worse. From this knowledge we infer that there is hierarchy or scale. Measurement is implicit in the terms “better” and “worse”. At the top of any scale we find flourishing or perfection, and as we approach the bottom we meet the descending conditions of barely adequate, inadequate, and failing.
Second, that something requires care means that there is knowledge to be gained about the cared for object. At his trial, reported by Plato in the Apology, Socrates famously asks his accuser whether the many or the expert is best suited to care for horses. The answer is obvious. The expert is so suited because of his knowledge. Minimally one must know what brings the object of care into a state of either flourishing or failing. Otherwise care will only happen fortuitously, and it certainly can’t be expected. So, let’s recognize that where there is knowledge to be had ignorance is a possibility. The overcoming of ignorance is a part of proper care.
Third, if compost can be in better or worse conditions then it must be of a certain nature. It is its nature, and our familiarity with its nature, which our knowledge will be about. Recognition that compost has a nature allows one to approach composting with the expectation of being confronted by “the other”, something which will resist us if mistreated, and something for which we must at least be ready to conform ourselves to if we are to be in relation to it. Compost can be managed and cared for, but it cannot be molded into whatever. It will resist. This is because it, like other things of the same sort, has a nature.
Last, care is a good, because it brings its object into good condition and makes its work good. And where there is good to be brought about virtue is required that it might be realized in the right way and to the fullest extent. The virtues of prudence, temperance, and their children consistency, open-mindedness, patience, and many others are no more expendable where care is required than the object of care itself. Often it is not knowledge of what care requires that is lacking but virtue. We notice this often where knowledge is plentiful and yet what is known is not sufficient to bring about flourishing.
And isn’t this the heaviest introduction to compost? Does it not weigh more than it is worth? By no means. It has not been said that compost requires tons of care or tons of knowledge. In fact, much of the work is done by partners who work for what we would consider very little. I speak loosely but lovingly of microbes and micro-arthropods. But unless our attitude and orientation are fixed properly in the beginning we will be under the illusion that compost will produce on its own what can only be brought about in proportion to care. Any home economy has a hierarchy of care distributed by those who govern it. Once integrated well into a home economy, which requires wisdom, compost will thrive and contribute what it can to the health of that which it influences. In the next posts I will cover separately ingredients, tools, and methods. Come back, check in, and if my knowledge is deficient, my methods vicious, or my care wanting, by all means improve me! But first, before discussing technique, materials, and ingredients, let’s remember what brings it all together and makes it good: CARE.
Picture of one of our backyard garden harvests this week.

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