"One of the most fascinating aspects of composting is that it still retains elements of art . . . Producing good compost requires the same level of knowledge, engineering, skill, and art required for producing good wine."
Roger Haug - The Practical Handbook of Compost Engineering
I first moved out to the country and started living off the land at the age of 22. Being fresh out of college, I knew little of practical value. One word that was a mystery to me was "compost"; another was "mulch." Although I didn't know what either of these were, I knew they had something to do with organic gardening, and that's what I wanted to learn about. Of course, it didn't take me long to understand mulch. Anyone who can throw a layer of straw on the ground can mulch. But compost took a bit longer.
My compost-learning experiences paralleled my winemaking experiences. Back then, having just graduated from the university, I had been conditioned to believe that the best way to learn was by using books. I had little awareness that instinct or intuition were powerful teachers. Furthermore, simple, natural processes had to be complicated with charts, graphs, measurements, devices, and all the wonderful tools of science, otherwise the processes had no validity. It was with this attitude that I set out to learn how to make wine.
The first thing I did was obtain a scientific book replete with charts, graphs, tables, and detailed step-by-step procedures. The book was titled something like "Foolproof Winemaking," and the trick, or so the author said, was simply to follow his procedures to the letter. This was no simple feat. The most difficult part of the process was acquiring the list of chemicals which the author insisted must be used in the winemaking process. After much searching and travel, I managed to get the required materials. Then I followed his instructions to the letter. This lengthy process involved boiling sugar, mixing chemicals, and following laborious procedures. To make a long story short, I succeeded in making two kinds of wine. Both tasted like crap; one was bad and the other worse, and both had to be thrown out. I was very discouraged.
Soon thereafter, a friend of mine, Bob, decided he would try his hand at winemaking. Bob asked a vineyard worker to bring him five gallons of grape juice in a five gallon glass winemaking carboy. When the grape juice arrived, Bob took one look at the heavy carboy of juice and said, "Buddy, would you mind carrying that into the basement for me?" Which the worker obligingly did.
That was it. That utterance of eleven words constituted Bob's entire effort at winemaking. Two seconds of flapping jaws was the only work he did toward making that wine. He added no sugar, no yeast, did no racking, and certainly used no chemicals. He didn't do a damn thing to that five gallons of grape juice except abandon it in his basement with an airlock on top of it. Yet, a year later that carboy yielded the best homemade wine I had ever drank. It tasted good and had a heck of a kick to it.
I admit, there was an element of luck there, but I learned an important lesson about winemaking: the basic process is very simple - start with good quality juice and keep the air out of it. That simple, natural process can be easily ruined by too many complicated procedures, and heck, all those charts and graphs took the fun out of it. Making compost, I soon learned, was the same sort of phenomenon.
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing,
PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.