There are two important places where compost happens in nature: the forest floor and inside stomachs.

The forest floor is a slow, sweet smelling compost pile we call duff.  Leaves created through the miraculous process of photosynthesis—a process made possible by a bacteria containing chlorophyll that can capture light to make energy and food—fall back to the earth and are broken down by earthy critters into smaller and smaller pieces until they become food for soil microorganisms.  This transformation has sustained forests for thousands of years.

The stomach is an oxygen deprived compost tank inhabited by millions of microorganisms.  The most efficient stomachs belong to ruminant (“room-in-it”) animals.  They include sheep, goats, giraffes, deer, and llamas.  Ordinary as they are, the inside of a ruminant’s stomach holds another one of life’s great mysteries.  Ruminants can miraculously turn plant nitrogen into protein with the help of bacteria that scientists believe to be over 3.6 billion years old (archeabacteria).

Cows are the most widely known and underappreciated ruminants I know.  With a four part stomach—the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum—cow manure is the best example of barrel turned compost on four legs. The first compartment of a cow’s stomach, the rumen, is the size of a barrel.  It can hold up to 40 gallons of material and 25-30 gallons of salt-filled saliva are sent down there every day to balance the rumen’s pH.  Just as in a compost pile, the smaller the fiber the more completely and efficiently it composts.  So, what goes into the rumen is often sent back up for further chewing or rumination.

Human stomachs don’t have the ability to turn nitrogen into protein, but we rely on a similar microbial partnership.  Just a thimble-full of large intestine fluids contains up to ten trillion microbes.  Without them, we would be unable to make K and B vitamins.  And even our own humanure is a precious resource[1].  When handled properly and with care, we can compost our own waste to use on trees, shrubs, and even agricultural crops, closing our nutrient cycle and saving millions of gallons of water by not flushing this resource down the toilet.

If you are unsure how to start composting, just walk through the forest and listen to your gut.  The inner workings of a compost pile, like the inner workings of forests and stomachs, include critters, microbes, moisture, heat, pH, salts, and organic matter.  The compost pile can be thought of as an outdoor stomach, a way to digest our garden trimmings and kitchen waste in order to create a rich soil amendment—humus.  It can also be thought of as a miniature ecosystem.  Don’t be surprised to find worms, centipedes, frogs, birds, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, rats, and even foxes interested in your efforts.  Of course, some of these critters aren’t as welcome as others, so using the right container to protect your pile from scavengers is important (more on this later).  When we compost, we become partners in a miraculous transformation made possible by ancient and microscopic life forms.  These transformations happen everywhere, but they are often overlooked and easily disrupted.  Cutting trees and relying on landfills puts a halt to the processes required for new life.  It is a way towards death.  But building compost piles is a way to enliven soil, the earth, and even ourselves.

[1] Jenkins, Joseph.  Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure.  1999.  Joseph Jenkins, Inc.: Grove City, PA.