I promised that I was going to discuss how I compost with the moon cycles. That’s this essay. But it’s also an esoteric essay about earth processes, climate change, and our current predicament, as well. Hope you don’t mind.
The Three Cauldrons
Most of you reading this, regardless if you’ve ever gardened or not, probably have a basic understanding that all the systems of life on earth are finite, closed systems. By this I simply mean that there is a total amount of resources on earth, and that amount is not infinite.
Oil, for example: there’s only so much petroleum buried underneath the earth’s surface, and once all that petroleum is used up there isn’t any more to have. The same is true for coal, and uranium, and any other thing we dig up from the earth.
All of life, be that human or other-than-human, is composed and sustained from basic elements which are each finite in their own right. 99% of a human body, for instance, is composed of carbon, oxygen, calcium, hydrogen, phosphorous, and nitrogen. Those elements combine with each other and other elements in order to form aspect of our body. For instance, bone is primarily calcium and phosphorous along with water (hydrogen and oxygen) and other minerals in smaller quantities (magnesium, zinc, iron, etc.). A tree is about half carbon, with hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen composing most of the rest of it.
All of these elements exist within the environment (that is, on the earth) in finite amounts, both in the soil and atmosphere. The amount of carbon that exists on the earth doesn’t change; rather, it becomes constantly transmuted, combined or divorced from other elements in a constant dance. I’ll call this dance and the many processes in which these transmutations occur the Cauldron of the Earth.
The Cauldron of the Earth
You’re probably already aware of the cause of global climate change, the excess “production” of carbon dioxide by industrial capitalist civilization. Carbon dioxide is one part carbon bound to two parts oxygen and is “created” by all the core metabolic transmutations that release energy for use by living organism. When we “burn calories” we create carbon dioxide as a “waste” product, which is actually our body eliminating carbon that was previously bound to other elements in the body (for instance, the “carbo-” in “carbohydrates”).
In the fixed system of the Cauldron of the Earth, the carbon in carbon dioxide now becomes available in the atmosphere for other living beings to use. Trees (and plant life in general) require more carbon than we do, and also have a way of releasing the carbon in CO2 (through photosynthesis, using sunlight as the catalyst for the process) for their own use. The oxygen they don’t use then is released back into the Cauldron for others to use.
When anything dies, it no longer metabolizes and instead begins to be metabolized by other things (animals, insects, fungi, and bacteria). That process is called catabolism (decay or destruction), but of course it’s made possible by the metabolic (creative) acts of other organisms. A dead being decomposes into its constituent elements which other things use, which then themselves die and decompose and the Cauldron of Earth continues churning.
This is a core aspect of animism, by the way: we are literally composed of the dead and continue their lives as we live, and when we die we compose others. The carbon in a tree could have once been the CO2 you breathed out, formed from your body’s digestion metabolism of bread from grains grown halfway around the world, which themselves contain the carbon breathed by others.
The Cauldron of the Sun
So that is the Cauldron of the Earth, which as I said is fixed. But though all the elements in the cauldron of the earth are fixed, there is constant energy being added to (or constantly stirring) the cauldron. That energy comes from the sun.
As I mentioned, plants use photosynthesis to dissolve the bonds between carbon and oxygen in order to use that carbon. The light they use for this process is created by a metabolic reaction in the sun itself, which is constantly transmuting one element (hydrogen) into another element (helium) by fusing the constituent parts of hydrogen (protons) together. But while this process might seem to break the rule that systems are finite, it doesn’t, since there is a limited amount of hydrogen for the sun to fuse into helium. Once that limit is reached, the sun will die (in a rather dramatic fashion, but one we won’t be around for).
From the Cauldron of the Sun streams all the energy required for life on earth, by which I mean all the energy required to heat or “stir” the Cauldron of Earth. Animal life can’t use this energy directly, however. Instead, we rely on plants which store the energy (through photosynthesis) as carbohydrates (including sugars) and other combinations (proteins, fats). So, when animal life consumes plant life, it consumes elements combined by plants through the catalyst of sunlight.
This is also what we do when we burn hydrocarbons like petroleum and other fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are ancient plant life which have been compressed over millions of years into only two constituent elements (hydrogen and carbon). Burning hydrocarbons introduces oxygen into their elemental makeup, producing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and dihydrogen oxide (water), and the entire process of breaking apart and reforming releases the concentrated energy from the sun that was once stored by those plants.
So the Cauldron of the Sun is one large transmutation, the energy of which fuels every transmutation in the Cauldron of the Earth. That so many gods of civilization and nations were gods associated with the sun shouldn’t surprise us, then. But it’s worth noting that, with the exception of the monotheistic religions, solar gods are rarely put at the highest point in any pantheon. Older gods, gods of death or time, or gods with a temporary, fleeting hold on hierarchy, instead hold these roles, an acknowledgement that civilization doesn’t have the final say on humanity’s fate.
And this is where we’ve gotten ourselves into a really big mess, because of a process called “metabolic rift.” The concept is simple and one most of us take for granted now: humans are consuming more than they are putting back into nature.
The specifics are a little more complicated. Every metabolic process in nature takes from the larger system around them. All human activity, for instance, requires the consumption of other life (plant or animal) for our metabolism. A tree, likewise, takes from the soil and the air what it needs to live.
As I described in the Cauldron of Earth, we also return things back to the systems around us. Human respiration and defecation returns what we no longer need into the system where it is transmuted into new life. The carbon a plant takes from the atmosphere is released back into the atmosphere when it dies or is consumed, etc..
However, metabolic rift occurs when metabolic activities take more from the system around it than are put back in. Here I should tell you that Karl Marx was the first one to formally note this problem (the concept is his, as unbelievable as that might seem to some): Marx noted that capitalist civilization could not return what it was taking in, particularly regarding soil.
In the time that Marx was writing, capitalist agriculture was beginning to encounter diminishing returns on harvests, especially on land that had once been renowned for being extremely fertile. The reason for this was that the capitalists (who had greatly increased food production) weren’t renewing the soil. Their crops were taking too much from the earth at a rate too quickly for the soil to regenerate. Farmland which had been deeply fertile for centuries began turning to dust, and each year the harvests were smaller.
The biggest problem here was nitrogen depletion. Plants use nitrogen to create chlorophyll (required for photosynthesis) and also proteins. Without enough nitrogen, plants cannot grow or turn carbon into sugars. Nitrogen ends up in the soil through many different processes (including lightning), but one of the most interesting for the matter of metabolic rift is that nitrogen is a by-product of metabolic processes themselves.
Nitrogen, by the way, is a primary element in human and animal urine. In the body, waste nitrogen is called urea (and becomes urine when processed through the kidneys), and much of this urea comes from the breakdown of amino acids. When this nitrogen is released into the earth, bacteria breaks it down into usable forms (after passing through an ammonia stage).
This process isn’t immediate. Any agriculture that isn’t constantly putting nitrogen back into the soil throughout the year will hit the “diminishing returns” that Marx’s theory on metabolic rift warned of. There are quite a few natural ways of doing this (adding compost, urine, manure, or planting legumes and other plants who have symbiotic relationships with bacteria that pull nitrogen from the atmosphere), but none of these fit well with the capitalist model of constant expansion for profit.
Instead, the primary method of getting around this nitrogen depletion is to create nitrogen fertilizer through industrial processes. The most common of these is to combine hydrocarbons (specifically methane) and nitrogen into the air into ammonia through the application of high currents of electricity, mimicking the activity of lightning.
Artificial nitrogen fertilizer is now the primary vehicle for capitalist agriculture across the world. Rather than adjusting capitalist modes of production to be more in sync with the systems around it, we’ve only increased the rift between our metabolism and nature’s ability to keep up.
And as a side note, besides being energy-intensive, nitrogen fertilizer is also responsible for multiple “dead zones” in the world’s oceans because of run-off. The excess nitrogen explodes marine plant life, which then uses up all the oxygen in an area of water and everything which previously lived there suddenly dies at once.
The simplest solution to these problems would be to return humanity’s metabolic activities (our consumption and elimination) to levels which can return to the soil, the air, and the rest of life around us what we take from it. That is, setting the Cauldron of the Earth back in balance with the rate the Cauldron of the Sun gives us energy, rather than burning up everything the earth stored millions of years ago to fuel our temporary civilization.
The Cauldron of the Moon
That’s where the Cauldron of the Moon comes in.
In several esoteric systems, the moon is seen as an intermediary between the Earth and the Sun, the giver of wisdom and the keeper of balance. The moon reflects the light of the sun in a way that does not burn our eyes, gives us light at night, and pulls upon the seas and our bodies according to a rhythm which is neither the turn of day nor yearly turn of seasons. The pre-capitalist traditions of festivals, of sabbaths, and even the flow of menses according to its rhythm–rather than that of the sun or earth–speaks to a third cauldron, that of wisdom.
The moon’s face; lit by the sun but not burned, illuminating our night but giving no energy, has always felt to me a better measure of time than day or year. The earth turns too fast for us to gauge how things begin and end, it revolves around the sun too slow for the year to be fully marked. But one night the moon is gone, the next night she is a sliver, and twelve days after full in her radiance. Yet not for long; she fades and then disappears, and in her passing we see in balance the birth, fullness, and death of tribe, city, and nation.
When I started studying druidry, one of the first things I began doing was looking up every night to find the moon. I tried to learn to guess where it would appear, what phase it would be in, and what time it would rise without consulting charts or websites, and after two years I found I could do this accurately.
Not only could I guess where the moon was and what phase it would be in, but I also began to feel other kinds of logics and reasonings grow inside me. I also felt that my desire to do certain activities or not do others changed according to the moon’s patterns. Without directly choosing to, I began to plan projects to begin on a new moon, parties on full moons, interesting events during waxing cycles and cleaning or organizing during waning ones.
I unfortunately lost this pattern for awhile because of the chaos of my nomadic life and moving to a new country, but the pattern has begun to return, helped specifically by timing my composting to the moon’s appearances.
Composting with the Moon
So now I’m going to talk about my composting, and how to get from this first image to the second image in one month:
If you don’t already understand why I wrote everything else you’ve just waded through in this essay, this should make it pretty clear: composting returns what we no longer need back to the Cauldron of the Earth.
When you compost, you are actively engaging the act of return. Everything decomposes naturally, but composting creates a space where those things decompose faster and with human help. Everything you put in returns to more readily usable forms quickly, so plant life can use it sooner.
Of course, if you garden you’ll understand the benefit immediately. But the benefit is greater than richer soil and more abundant plants. Unlike recycling (which merely uses energy to return industrial waste back to the factories that will use energy to create more waste), composting returns everything back to the Cauldron of Earth without outstripping what the earth is giving us.
Almost everything you’ll read tells you that composting takes between 8 weeks to 3 months. Mine is fully decomposed in 28 days.
There are three tricks I’ve learned, things I am apparently doing differently from others. First off, I start each pile on a new moon and end it on the subsequent new moon. Secondly, I stir it every two to three days, regardless of how I’m feeling. And third, I piss in it.
Timing it with the moon probably has absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever. That being said, planting and harvesting with moon cycles has been folk tradition for millennia both in Europe and indigenous North America, as well as in Roman, Arabic and Chinese cultures. If anything, not syncing such activities with the moon seems to be exclusively a modern capitalist activity, and since they’re fucking up everything else in the world, I think we can ignore them.
The logic behind starting with the new moon is probably obvious. You start things on that day, and it’s a null period where growth and decay are in balance. As the moon waxes the metabolic processes increase. I’ve found my pile is “hottest” on the full moon. As the moon wanes, everything slows down and “settles” into its final form.
The second and third things I do, however, do have “scientific” explanations. Mixing increases the oxygen availability in the pile. That’s one major reason why a pile that is not touched takes a very long time but a managed pile goes faster. The recommendation is usually “once a week,” but as I said, I do it every two or three days and my compost is done in one moon.
And for the last part, you’ve already read the reason for this. Urine is nitrogen, water, small amounts of salt, and other minerals your body excretes because it doesn’t need them. Some warn against too much urine because of the salt. I only piss in it once a day, and only up to the full moon.
And I can’t take credit for this trick: I learned it from a little old lady years ago.
I keep about a 2:1 ratio (brown to green waste) most times. Some moons I’ll add wood ash. I don’t use a lot of paper (our household doesn’t really produce paper waste) but will occasionally add old cardboard and egg cartons if it’s a little too green. But I’ve never had it not heat up or smell like ammonia (which now you know is a sign that there’s excess nitrogen breaking down in the pile).
Also, I break a few rules people warn against. I toss lots of old coffee and tea in there, but no plants have protested that my soil is too acidic. And because the pile gets hot quickly there’s no risk of animals getting into it, so I don’t freak out if meat or cheese ends up in the pile.
So I hope you’re able to try this to and that it helps. I particularly hope you’re able to get the same “results” I do of a four-week turnaround (because I’m out of explanations about my success otherwise, except maybe my devotion to gods of death).
Regardless if you have a compost pile or not, I hope you’ll try looking at the moon more, and learning from her how to give back to the earth what you don’t need any longer, remembering how you are composed of the no-longer-living and will one day compose the not-yet-living. Or at least smile at her with me.
PS: need an extensive guide on how to begin composting? This page is simple and easy to understand.