Living things are born and die. And living things rely for their living on the dying of other living things. This is a central ecological thought – the decomposing thought. A thought compelling enough to sustain an enduring research program: investigations of decomposition of dead organic matter (DOM) remain at the core of ecosystem ecology. These studies have promoted an understanding of the importance of the upper 5cm of soil – Earth’s tumultuous rind – where the roiling community of decomposers consume and transmute the apparent uselessness of dead flesh into the currency of ecosystems. Input: DOM. Process: decomposition by microbes regulated by the tiny champing of soil fauna – mites, springtails, and their divers kind. Output: energy for decomposers and the mineralization of the organic into nutrients available to the living.
In addition to its stimulating generations of ecological researchers, the decomposing thought has been inexhaustible source of metaphor for poets and environmental writers of a more literary orientation. Walt Whitman expresses how disconcerting the thought of decay can be in This Compost. He reports: “I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me./O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?/How can you be alive you growths of spring?” It is enough to give a poet the heebie-jeebies: “I withdraw from the woods I loved,/I will not go now on the pastures to walk…” Whitman’s reflection goes through the following stages. Input: The Earth taking in the “sour dead”, the drunkard, the glutton, the sick and so forth. The process itself is a poetic black box: the dead and the fetid flesh goes in and then: “Behold the compost.” And a few lines further along” “What chemistry!” But specifically what chemistry happens in the compost is not an immediate concern to Whitman. Nonetheless he gives a nod to the fauna: “Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person…” The output: “the grass of spring”, “the delicate spear of the onion”, “the apple-buds”. Outputs also are winds that are “not infectious”, and seas so safe that a poet can “allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues.” Attend well ecosystem services advocates: the saucy pleasures of water on nude flesh can be placed on lists of nature’s freebies. A cleaner, safer, sensually delicious world – a world of horrors reclaimed from reeking baseness.
One might leave it there – the bodies of the living fall, carrying to the soil all the unwholesome corruption that deprived them of vitality. And in the composting heap of Earth’s active rind, the rot is transformed into the fronds of a new spring. On and on it goes. Whitman cannot be satisfied with this perky resolution to the cycle of matter. He has one more output from the decomposition thought to discuss: terror. That the Earth can “grow such sweet things out of such corruptions” unnerves him. Whitman ends his reflection, as many environmental thinkers do, by drawing a distinction between man and nature. The humans give to nature their “diseased corpses” and in return Nature “gives such divine material to men”. Ungrateful bastards that we are.