April 25, 2014

A Compost Story

Life abounds at every scale - taking a form that is slightly more complex at each larger fractal.  Humans perceive on a human scale and make adjustments that allow us to grok the happenings of things on smaller scales relative to human size.  We like to animate things and assign them human thought patterns - as if they didn't already exist in their own form with their own motives.  Consciousness begins with water, the basic medium for exchange.

Imagine that we could walk through scale as though we were the same size as things on another scale.  The need for form to take the same shape as in human existence is just not there - the complexities that we have developed by being human sized are not even a dream in a simpler, less complex animated society.  By animated, i mean focused or self-directed, not a cartoon character.

We have 7 billion human peeps on earth.  This cluster of population has a history of all the time that we record and a mystery of how long things have really been this way.  Social Darwinism is the current bio-card - but Darwin was about a lot more than survival of the fittest.  In fact, a reading Darwin's Origin of the Species about finches doesn't dwell on survival of the fittest at all - that is just the forced application by the general myth.  Let's imagine a compost pile with 7 billion microorganisms and look for parallels and anomalies.

Compost piles are the foundation for research by Soil Food Web researcher Elaine Ingham.   Her story of how bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and other critters interact is supported independently by the compost research at Cornell University - which publishes the best textbook in the field.   By understanding the mechanism for the transfer of nutrients between different components of life breaking back down to peat in accelerated fashion; maybe we can see an analogy on how to respond to the resizing of scale as we lose the current operating system.

When starting a fresh compost pile - there is a need for both green and brown materials and lots of water.  The mixing takes place by pitchfork - green materials are kitchen scraps, plant inedibles like the stalks and cleanings, grass and tree clippings.  Brown material is horse or cow manure.  Owning a five acre farm with both left doc with many choices - a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow and two hours time was generally enough to start a good pile.  Add water and stir, on a daily basis and monitor the temperature with a long probe thermometer.  I have notebooks full of gleanable data for future investigation.

There is a hierarchy of being in a fresh compost pile.  The manure provides the initial reagents to break down organic component, generating heat from the breaking of chemical bonds. As the pile slowly warms, thermophilic bacteria and other species activated by the heat start feeding on the raw materials, breaking different bonds and generating more heat.   Some bacteria start to swell and explode, spewing forth enzymes and micro-nutrients from an internal package to an outside exposure.

Turning the pile and adding water gives everything a good mix and a blast of oxygen on the surface.  This change from anaerobic to aerobic condition - enhanced by pitchfork, water and human energy is a major energy input from outside source - creates an opportunity for more thermophiles to come in and eat and cause more heat.  A viscous cycle ensues until ...

All of the chemical bonds that can provide easy energy are broken.  The pile is hot enough to cook most every living critter that started off the process and further turning with air exposure no longer provide higher temperatures - the peak metabolic production has been achieved and the resource has run out.  The mix cools down to earthly temperature and the bugs start coming back. 

The pile contains bare nutrients and organics and starting materials for plant life - the centipedes and nematodes and things with fragile external skins return and life goes from frantic to docile as the scale changes from micro micro to just simple micro to barely visible to worms and beetles.

So you give the pile one last good stir, load it into the wheelbarrow and pile it into your garden patch.  Creating a living soil enhances the ability of plants, animals and fungi to exchange metabolites throughout the system.  None of the original 7 billion living critters has survived, but the generational interchange of life has created a system that enhances life by producing life, in cyclical form.

Emergent growth happens after the mixing process has broken things down to the point where plants can reform the materials into edible food.  Both the compost pile and the human being run with a water-based internal solvent system - the water catalyzes the making and breaking of chemical bonds that provide the energy which is given off as heat - then the reconstruction is fueled by the metabolic demand of the live parties involved.  

Can we internalize this story, and repeat it at another fractal down.  Place yourself as an early bacteria in the pile, or as a nematode that has come into the mother lode of food after the pile has crashed and burned.  You could see how the two stories would be vastly different based on the perspective of where in the time life of the compost pile you chose your sentient critter to be.  What actions would you take to respond to the symptoms of the changes - without knowing the ultimate fate - based on where in the time of the compost pile lifetime that you chose to materialize.

Season here is spring - a great time to start a new compost pile.

Namaste' ... doc

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