by Dot Armstrong
Compost is Cyclical
A mouse wriggles in from a hole in the bin’s outside. Burrowing up, sideways, and through, little paws disrupt compacted layers. Above, the fresher stuff. Weeds, straw, leaf detritus. Yesterday’s breakfast, still recognizable: coffee grounds, newspapers, eggshells, grapefruit rinds, pineapple crowns. Below, soil in the making. In the middle, scrabbling for purchase in the ripe darkness, the mouse digs a cave. She can’t see where she is but she feels a pulse. The pile seethes with rot. Though the top freezes, it heats from the inside, making a cozy spot for a rodent to spend a long winter. Microbes eat and fart, performing alchemical spells through their miniscule digestive tracts while the mouse sleeps. Snow comes, covering the bin and heavying its contents. The mouse and microbes sleep and eat, oblivious. The seasons shift: freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw and thaw again until the smell of last December’s grapefruits hits the air. The mouse stirs among the stems and seeds and the human grabs the pitchfork. It’s time to flip the compost.
Compost is Personal
I left Brooklyn in March last year. I stayed at my parents’ house in Minnesota for what I thought would be a brief exodus from the virus. April came; I got restless. Birds darted through the warming air and tulip shoots poked through the leaf detritus on the lawn. As a kid, one of my chores was emptying the silver compost bucket onto the pile in the back garden. This task once belonged to my dad, but he usually forgot about it. So: as the prodigal child and out-of-place city kid, I returned to an ancient responsibility. I even declared that I’d turn the compost—proposing a complete takeover of the whole disposal-and-aeration affair. After a few fragrant experiments over the years, we learned it’s crucial to aerate the compost. Think of the pile like a parfait: if all the vegetable matter squishes together in compact layers, the microbes can’t digest it. Digging through the pile shuffles the layers around, giving every scrap a chance at decomposition.
A simple acolyte to the compost’s eternal flame, I had my quest. The tools were simple, elegant: a pitchfork with sloping tines and three black barrels containing the compost. I tied my hair up and threw an extra bandanna around my neck. I planted my feet athwart the middle barrel, plunged the fork into the pile with a thud and heaved free a half-frozen chunk. Holding the weight of half-asleep microbes, I thought about New York. Like the compost, the city fosters a complex togetherness. Disparate entities, all packed together—dense and intertwined as layers of squash skins and banana peels. These networks, the connections we can’t bury, either help us or haunt us.
Compost is Communal
As long as humans have eaten, they have composted. An ancient practice, old as decomposition itself. And composition: during Sargon’s reign in 2300 BC, Akkadian farmers wrote fertilizer reports in cuneiform. Scots and Britons, Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards, Chinese and African farmers all created systems for turning shit into gold. Here in the States, indigenous folks perfected techniques to enrich the soil with nitrogen using fish, dung, and food scraps. Techniques abound, but one truth remains: when you’re composting, you’re never alone. In New York, you’re also never alone. Composting should be a cinch. But city-wide compost collection stopped altogether in spring 2020 and hasn’t yet resumed. I wasn’t there at the outset, but I want to know what happened.
Where was I in the interim? Adjusting my bandanna over a barrel of microbes, reveling in the rank, funky scents rising to my nose. I stabbed at the gnarly tangle, glimpsing buried textures thawing in the sun. Unfrosted whorls, a winter’s worth of organic Gordian knots: skins, pits, pith, and rinds; seeds and leaves, mats of grass, severed roots, peelings—a living archive of decay, animated library of discarded materials barely resembling their former shapes. What looked like waste was fecundity coming out of hibernation. Just as vital as the tulips. A chaotic snarl of abundance. Life, smelling like death. As I thrust my tines in again and forked over more of the frosty top layer, a ripe warmth swelled up.
The compost had its own temperature. And I sweated my own smell over the mix.
I stink the body electric, I hummed, flexing my muscles.
Whitman’s dream, echoes of Marx. Compost is an effort for the greater good, an earthy project of redemption and resistance. An ecstatic dissolution of individual parts into something richer. Cedar waxwings sang and shat in the trees as I fed the seething mass of microbes their breakfast. Making space; giving life. Over and over. Simple motion. But who turns the piles in Brooklyn? Who turns the city to face the turning seasons, the opening world? What values do we find, distilled like soil at the bottom of this year and the next? I came back in September 2020. Theaters were closed; restaurants and bars were serving bold customers. Schools struggled to keep up with curriculum. Compost, once a component of lofty climate goals and a source for green jobs, was last
on everyone’s list.
Compost is Messy
New York produces 14 million tons of waste per year. Bags on the corner for trash day, sagging with carrot peelings from the banh mi place, moldy cronuts from the bakery, pizza crusts. Lemon slices and soggy fries from the dive bar next door scattered across the sidewalk. So: where do we put food scraps to avoid this unidirectional horror? Pre-pandemic, the New York City Department of Sanitation managed compost in two ways: through residential collection and independent drop-off sites. To receive residential collection service, you needed a “food scraps and yard waste” bin to put beside your
trash and recycling bins—city employees did the rest, collecting an estimated 50,000 tons of compost in 2019. 50,000 tons of cilantro stems, wilted lettuce, onion skins, eggshells, mango peels. The New York City Compost Project, founded in 1993, once partnered with seven locations across the five boroughs to facilitate food scrap drop-
off and compost education. GROW NYC arrived in 2011 to close the loop between locally-sourced food and locally-sourced food waste at its Greenmarkets and gardens. And let
it be known: New York’s community gardens are magical little spots, minor shrines to the deities of rot and reuse, decked out with flags and signs and furnishings reminiscent of the ‘hood they’re from. Odds are, there’s one right around the corner. From the Lower East Side to Ridgewood, gardens flourish with tenacity in unbelievably small spaces. Composting is a typical exception to strict members-only rules at the gardens. There’s
a tacit understanding. We’ve all got food scraps; we need to put them somewhere. And we’d be tripping if we erased that reality by dumping our carrot tops and apple cores in the trash. Compost: the great equalizer.
As the pandemic spread and I high-tailed it for the Midwest, composting sites across the five boroughs shut down. Deeming collection unsafe, the city cut funding for the Department of Sanitation’s program on May 4, 2020. The cycle stopped altogether. And New Yorkers did what New Yorkers do: they took matters into their own hands. Spring arrived. Magnolias bloomed in the botanical gardens. A friend of a friend started collecting compost for his neighbors after the NYC Compost Project laid him off. Shocked by the lack of support from the city, he outfitted his bike with a capacious trailer and pedaled through the boroughs. Another friend made a weekly pilgrimage of her own. She biked from 148th Street in Harlem to Dean Street in Brooklyn, taking the Waterfront Greenway bike path down the west side of the island and crossing the Manhattan Bridge, carrying food scraps in her backpack.
Meanwhile, outside the city and far away from convoluted urban infrastructure, I stepped into my parents’ backyard and lifted the lid on the barrels. Considered the many peregrinations, the cycles of arrive and return, arrive and return. I considered the miles I’d have
to travel to get back to my apartment, the distance between what I knew of the city pre-pandemic and what the city might become upon my return. Not an afterlife, exactly, but a revitalization. Second coming. The new metropolis, bustling and stirring with civic activity. Rot to soil; isolation to communion. Resurrection.
Compost is Ritual
Five minutes by foot, two minutes by bike. There’s a line. There’s always a line, here in the city- Brooklyn on a Sunday is no exception. We wait, solicitous and patient as parishioners waiting for communion or parents waiting for school dismissal, clutching our bags and pails and buckets. Afternoon means queue, means showing up. A duty we took on; a project we are still responsible for. Two steel buckets on the sidewalk brimming with scraps half-frozen and multicolored in the bright January air. I clutch my own bag of peelings, rinds, and seeds, feeling the weight of the week’s refuse. A volunteer stabs one bucket with a shovel, making room for my offering. I’ve walked past the Prospect Heights Community Farm so many times, it took consulting Google Maps to find its exact location: cradled between two brick apartment buildings, across the street from PS. 9. Here I am, and here it is: square, deep, and withered to match the season. Though the black iron gate is locked, I imagine strolling forever into the tangled mass between the buildings. Trees branch and bend; raised beds, stalks, stems, seedheads, rocks, paths, benches. There’s a lot I can’t see. From where I’m standing, the back of the garden doesn’t exist. Does it end? Climbing vines caress a 5th-floor windowsill.
More things I can’t see: legislation, boundaries, agendas. When the city quit collecting, the Farm welcomed anyone with a bag of roughage. But I know there’s not enough space here to process all the organic material from my neighbors’ endless pandemic kitchen experiments. On the gate, hand-lettered posters reading “OPEN HOURS” sag against fiberglass placards from the city council. Best Green Space 2017. Best Neighborhood Garden 2018. City gardens are as much made of words as they are of seeds and soil.
And what of the name? Utopian forecasting: call it a farm and the meager plot will stretch, exceeding its confines and urban situation, brimming with space and possibilities. Not exactly the shit-polishing of the delis and markets—every block in Brooklyn has its own “World’s Best Cup of Coffee”—but an agricultural variant. Call it what you want it to be.
Compost is Revolutionary
The term compost derives from Old French, then Latin. One etymological direction produces compote, stewed fruits to drizzle over ice cream; another makes soil. Compost is a mixture, a putting-together, a combination bigger than the sum of its parts. Compost is a party, an improvisation: it’s a jam session roiling with unpredictable harmonies. Compost is beyond ripe. It’s frightening, anarchic. No wonder it scares us a little. Food scraps decay at rates slower or quicker than human expectation and take on new forms foreign to our senses. Fragments of recognizable produce—celery leaves, squash skins, apple cores—get weird in the pile’s deep heat.
And here’s the weirdest part: there’s a hierarchy of waste. Trash bag mountains line the sidewalk on my route to Prospect Heights Community Farm. Blue and black, grey
and white, slouching empty or stuffed with bizarre angles. Towering heaps spilling down the curb and into the street. So what, we say, the trucks will take them somewhere else. Keep walking. Trash is ubiquitous in the city. The Big Apple’s real rotting core. And where does it go? Consider: New York sends its trash as far away as the Carolinas for processing. What would the city look like if the wine bottles and takeout containers and aluminum foil burger wrappers and single-serving froyo cups stuck around? We’d have to build our luxury condos in the black bag mountains. Compost is gnarly, yes, but in the way Brooklyn hipsters are gnarly: gross, sure, but beguiling and sexy. A hot mess. Trash,
on the other hand, warrants no shot at redemption. Compost is reincarnation, hippie garden magic; trash is Capitalist waste. Real waste. Real death.
NYC promised to send zero waste to regional landfills by 2030. The crisis, as always, is spatial. Expanding alternative systems for waste management means rethinking where and how we live. The answers rely neither on community gardens nor city collection alone. We need composite solutions: many locations, many hands. The reality is not seamless, but tangible, proximal. Two spaces in particular offer visions for New York’s food waste future—but they’re in trouble. The Lower East Side Ecology Center, a satellite of the NYC Compost Project, continues to accept and process food scraps as it has since 1987. This location, along with the Big Reuse in Queens, faces removal due to misguided city planning. Eviction threatens humans and their microbial companions alike. Consider: would you rather live next to a garden fragrant with new soil, or a dump?
Big Reuse processes GROW NYC’s compost. LESEC, in addition to processing, offers educational programming and equipment distribution. When these spaces—and the humans with pitchforks who tend them and render them operational—are forced out, the city has no recourse but to keep throwing things away. Compost, residing down the block like an eccentric neighbor, gives the lie to this illusion: there is no away.
Compost is the Future
I am explaining Easter to the kid I babysit. She’s eating pineapple chunks out of
a plastic container and I am standing beside the sink, chopping garlic for a stir fry.
The discussion began when she offered her definition of Jesus: he’s the Messiah,
and the Romans had him crucified- which means they nailed him to a cross! Ok, tell me about what happened after he died, I prompt, raising my eyebrows. She blinks. I chuckle, crossing my eyes and sticking my tongue out. Braaaaains! I groan. Her fork thuds to the table in a spray of yellow juice. Zombie Jesus?! Oh, right! He was dead, and then he wasn’t! she exclaims. I shake the papery garlic skins into the compost bag, along with the vegetables’ earthly remains: carrot tops, broccoli peels, radish tails, furled layers from decapitated onions. This Sunday, I’ll tote my bag to the community garden and start
the cycle anew. Rot to soil. Scent of citrus rinds, overripe pineapple, moldy leaf matter. Birds chirping; mouse nibbling; humans in the garden, grunting and huffing. Turn, turn, turn.
A city without compost is an impossible utopia. A family without arguments, a theater premiere with no line, a deli without bagels. To meet the next phase of New York’s awakening, we must concede to live amid the waste we create. It is our quest. Take up your pitchforks and buckets, people. Locate your nearest community garden; petition your leaders to value compost collection as an essential service. Look at the leavings from the breakfast you just made. See beauty in entropy, loveliness in dry grapefruit
skins and discarded coffee grounds. Renew your faith in decay.
Dot Armstrong is a is a queer, nonbinary freelance writer and movement artist based in Brooklyn. They received a BA in English Literature and a BFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa. Their work has appeared in Isele Magazine, Tiny Seed, and Culturebot. This spring, they started taking pictures of their compost.