Of Fathers, Compost, and the Resurrection

Thanks to a pile of rotting garbage, I was truly happy and contented for the first time in quite a while this weekend.

Of late a combination of professional and financial worries, coupled with constant low level sickness (I got mononucleosis in law school and my immune system never seems to have recovered) have formed a steady, dull, background of stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and frustration. I’ve not been a happy camper. Fortunately, last weekend dirt and compost intervened. The DC spring has been pulling its well known bait and switch routine, but last Saturday we got a truly glorious day. Last fall, she who must be obeyed (SWMBO) and I purchased a garden plot several blocks from our house. It is a 15 foot by 20 foot patch of ground under the power lines. The soil was mainly clay, so before the snow fell, SWMBO and I dug in a layer of mulch and covered the ground with decomposing leaves. On Saturday we returned to our plot to see what the winter had done. We dug in the layer of leaves and low and behold, there were now big fat earth worms in our clay. The fall’s work had done some good.

My son and I also set up a 4’x4′ chicken wire compost enclosure. I get compost from my father. Although he flirted with liberalism in the 1970s (he voted for McGovern) my dad is basically a right-wing Republican. Nevertheless, in his youth he had, I think, a fascination with the material culture of hippy-dom. I have vivid memories of his hand-carved wooden bowls as a child. This fascination bled into an interest in organic gardening (the gardening interest remains, the commitment to organic purity is gone if it was ever really there), which, coupled with President Kimball’s sermons on gardening, led to a cosmic theory of composting. Some of my earliest memories are of driving around Salt Lake with my father in my grandpa’s old truck collecting literally hundreds of bags of leaves, which were then dutifully shredded and piled for decomposition in a far corner of the yard. Later, he acquired one of those nifty compost tumblers (it looks like a bike rack being attacked by a garbage can) and continued his quest for top soil on a more modest scale. The cosmic part came from my father’s understanding of what he was doing. This was not simply a matter of making the vegetable and flower gardens marginally more healthy. This was about stewardship over God’s creation and fulfilling the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth (emphasis on replenishment of the earth). As a kid I resented the leaf collecting quests after about the 50th bag, and later I thought that my father’s eagerness to show off his compost tumbler was a bit comic. Fate, genetics, and upbringing, however, are not to be gainsaid and I am — in many ways — becoming my father. Hence our compost pile. We now have the cut off milk carton I remember so vividly from my childhood collecting scraps for our compost heap. I confess that after Jacob and I finished the chicken wire enclosure for the pile (Jacob actually spent most of the time delightedly rolling in the dirt), I had a deep, unbidden desire to show some poor and unsuspecting soul our accomplishment.

It is still too early to plant very much, but after digging for an hour or two, we put in a row of radishes out of hope and eagerness. The coming weeks, I hope, will bring rows of carrots, spinach, beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, and squash. And, of course, an every growing pile of compost. Saturday evening, after our shovels had been put away, the mud washed from our hands, and our blisters band-aided (my son was very excited about applying the band aids to daddy’s blisters), I drove to the Visitor Center of the DC Temple for the Easter concert of the Mormon Choir of Washington (of which SWMBO is a star member). As I listened to arrangements of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” and excerpts from Handel’s Messiah I thought of Christ’s promise of eternal life and renewal through the resurrection. The grave, like the fallow earth of winter, will yield to new life, the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall come forth. The plan of salvation, I realized, is really just another instantiation of the story of compost. The collision of experiences — digging and composting, singing and worshipping — produced in a deep, deep sense of peace, love, and well-being that has been absent from me for some time. It may be that I am nothing more than a victim of aesthetics and a desk-bound drone’s romanticizing of the earth and manual labor. Still, I can’t help but thank God for music in praise of his son’s victory over the grave, my father, and the pile of rotting garbage in the far corner of my garden plot.

32 comments for “Of Fathers, Compost, and the Resurrection

  1. Frank McIntyre
    March 23, 2005 at 11:10 am

    “Every man should, however small the opportunity, contribute to the production of food. . . . Men who touch the soil, ever so lightly, become changed men. They live more natural lives. They absorb, somehow, the clean wholesomeness of God’s earth.”
    —John A. Widtsoe, How the Desert Was Tamed (1947), 18–19

    The Church provident living recently had a feature on gardening. It included both a bunch of quotes and several links. Of the links, my favorite is this one, even if the guy does remind me of a used car salesman.

  2. Frank McIntyre
    March 23, 2005 at 11:14 am

    The mangled link above should go here

  3. Sean Harrison
    March 23, 2005 at 11:16 am


    Now I understand. Your musings have always struck me as something deeper than that whch I regularly read here. Your writing has a sense of something viceral. It conveys emotion, urgency and is authentic.

    That comes only through a filter of pain.

    P.S. I believe that all great revelation comes while perfomring menial tasks, My greatest moments of spiritual clarity have come while mowing the lawn, pounding nails, or shoveling dirt.

  4. annegb
    March 23, 2005 at 11:35 am

    Nate, I have acute mono three times in the last eight years, the last was my spring quarter in college. I was taking a full load. I totally empathize. Very hard to get over. They say, with this illness, “the good news is, you’re not gonna die, and the bad news is…you’re not gonna die.”

    My husband is a gardener. We have the most beautiful garden. When we first got married, I’d never bottled anything in my life. I spent the next twenty years of autumns busily harvesting and bottling those beans and tomatoes, freezing corn and peppers, and eating very well. We never had to buy vegetables. What a wonderful gift he has. Now that our kids are gone, we don’t have such a big garden, but our grandchildren love to wander among the bean poles and the corn stalks and help grandpa pick the vegetables.

    I suffered through a 14 hour long bus ride (I will never complain about flying coach again) from Denver to my town about 5 years ago, and met a young black man from Watts in California, he was also on his way home. He had never in his life tasted a warm tomato, fresh from the garden. I figure we’ll be headed there on our mission.

    A garden is a wonderful thing, Nate, honest. Even with compost issues.

  5. Nate Oman
    March 23, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    Sean: You are very kind, but I hope that I would never confuse my frustrations or difficulties with those who have real pain or trials in their lives. I know too many people who struggle with genuine burdens and heartache.

  6. Shawn Bailey
    March 23, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    I have fond memories of my grandfather’s fresh corn, tomatoes, and watermelons. He was a dairy farmer, so his compost, well … was of a very high quality. I recall coming to understand the irony at the center of your post (the sweetness of foul-smelling things) as a child. I was a city kid in my family, but I spent a few summer weeks on the farm, which included sloshing through manure in big rubber boots to move the cattle into the milk barn. It was an epiphany for me to make the connection between that manure and the delicious produce waiting for me after a long day’s work.

    At times (often under the pressure of work stress), I have wished that I lived in a time when small family farms made economic sense. I relish the thought of silent hours thinking while working along side family members with the soil or animals. I do not dread the thought of Nibley’s vision of the millenium: a time of farming, study, preaching, and family togetherness. Soon before he passed away, my grandfather told me that he had seriously considered going to law school when he was my age. I have often wondered whether I am living out a dream he never pursued, whether I made a bad decision he was wise enough to avoid, whether fate put both of where we ended up, or whether some other explanation applies.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful post, Nate. Besides my thoughts above, it brought to mind God’s statement to Adam and Eve about gardening in the lone in dreary world. I wish you the best in coping with the thistles and noxious weeds of sickness and financial and professional stress. Keep close to the sweet smell of compost.

  7. danithew
    March 23, 2005 at 12:22 pm

    Nice post Nate. Back when my family lived in White Plains (NY) my parents had enormous gardens along the side part of our yard and in the back yard. At least they seemed enormous to me — especially since our neighbors didn’t do vegetable gardens. Every year we roto-tilled the garden, planted everything imaginable and then did our best to keep up. I think my mother’s going price was 1 cent per weed but I hated weeding at the time.

    Our compost pile was in the corner of the yard. Half grapefruit rinds, banana peels, eggshells … everything that could go in went int. The flies would buzz and if the dirt was lifted … man oh man did it stink. But for some reason your post and the memory of the smell are heart-warming.

    Anyone here ever plant day lilies? My father loves to tend his day lilies and cross-pollinate different colors so that the next year there will be a new interesting batch. After we moved from New York, the people who moved in tried to take out all his day lilies. One of the neighbors strenously objected: “You can’t take out the Bartholomew’s day lilies!” I think they’re stuck forever with at least some of them.

  8. Sean Harrison
    March 23, 2005 at 12:22 pm


    I am serving as a Bishop of a singles ward. In this capacity I have learned something I wish I had known better when my children were very young, (my youngest is eight). Every person’s burdens and pains are very real, very vexing, and very much meted out according to their capacity to manage and according to their need to grow.

    Human nature forks along a very dangerous path; we often diminish other’s struggles and magnify our own, or diminsh our own and magnify other’s.

    Neither is right, we should pray only for both the capacity to deal with that which we have been dealt and for moments of peace whilst mucking about in the soil.

  9. Shawn Bailey
    March 23, 2005 at 12:52 pm

    Speaking of romanticizing “living close to the land” and particularly Sean’s comment regarding revelation and menial labor (no. 3), Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance comes to mind.
    Blithedale Romance concerns a communal living experiment in which the partcipants expected to become inspired in the process of operating a farm. Very memorable to me was the asessment of Coverdale, the narrator, of how well this worked. Making a connection to uncooperative soil, he said something to the effect that “soon our thoughts too became rather clod-like.”

    That’s not really an argument about anything. I am glad Sean has identified a situation in which personal revelation is more likely for him. But I think Hawthorne conveys some wisdom—says something that rings true to me—about potential limits to the intellectual or inspirational benefits of menial labor.

  10. Nate Oman
    March 23, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Sean: No doubt there is truth to what you say. On the other hand, I have a wife that I love and who loves me, a beautiful and healthy son, and a more or less functional body (mono notwithstanding). I have three friends. One struggles with a very difficult marriage, another just laid his daughter in the grave, and the third — a young father of several little girls — has just been diagnosed with a cancer that will most likely prove fatal within a year or two. I find it easy to say that their trials are greater than mine.

  11. Nate Oman
    March 23, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    Shawn: I spent the summer after high school working on a landscaping job. We were to carve a terrace out of the side of a mountain. The ground proved too steep and muddy to get in the tractor that we had hoped to use. As a result we (literally) carved out the side of a mountain with shovels and wheelbarrows. It was an experience that motivated me to get an education.

  12. Wilfried
    March 23, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    Touching essay that brings back many personal memories.
    Thank you, Nate.

  13. Shawn Bailey
    March 23, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    Nate (no. 11): In high school, I was on the landscape maintenance side of things. I have mowed every blade of grass in every public park in Woods Cross City hundreds of times. Such experiences do make getting paid to read, think, write, advocate, etc., look very attractive!

  14. Carleh
    March 23, 2005 at 1:21 pm

    You guys should all read Wendell Barry. Lovely stuff about farming, the earth, and our responsibility to each other.

  15. Rosalynde Welch
    March 23, 2005 at 1:53 pm

    Nate, you give me hope that my negligence last fall in failing to rake up the enormous drifts of leaves that accumulated around my house (utterly astounding to me, having lived in California and Utah heretofore) will prove, in the end, foresightful thrift. The leaves are indeed rotting and foul, and now if I can get some garden beds put in, maybe I can put them to use.

    Glad to hear you’re becoming more and more like your father. Does this mean that you’ll finally come around to appreciating the really meaningful texts and ideas in life–art and aesthetics?

  16. Nate Oman
    March 23, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    “Glad to hear you’re becoming more and more like your father. Does this mean that you’ll finally come around to appreciating the really meaningful texts and ideas in life–art and aesthetics?”

    I certainly hope so ;->….

  17. Mark B.
    March 23, 2005 at 2:34 pm

    I think, Rosalynde, that it’s in the cultivation and perfection of “manure,” in the 18th century sense, that Nate suggests that he is approaching his father. And, if can do that well, he’ll do all right, won’t he? Because surely deep meaning can be found in the creation, or in the husbanding of creation, of simple things, whether it’s compost or a crop of radishes, or a hand-carved wooden bowl.

    Too many of us, weighed down with “book larnin’,” miss the simple joys that come from creating with our hands. Thanks, Nate, for the reminder of the gifts that come through simplicity.

  18. Nate Oman
    March 23, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    Rosalynde: For what it is worth, leaves have a tendency to mat, which is bad for composting. The matting keeps the air from getting to the micororganisms that do the actual rotting. The result is anaerobic decomposition which is slow, slimy, and foul smelling. With leaves you are better off mixing them with something else — table scraps, for example — and turning the pile occasionally to insure oxygen flow. (Also, you might want to throw on a bit of nitrogen based fertilizer). If you are really ambitious you can shred the leaves with a lawn mower or something. This is what my father did, and he managed to destroy a lawn mower in the process. Alternatively, you can dig the leaves into the ground and provided that you don’t have clay for dirt (like me), they ought to have sufficient oxygene to decompose nicely.

    Sorry for the aside. I am my father’s son ;->.

  19. Kevin Barney
    March 23, 2005 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks for your Eddie Albertesque ruminations on compost, Nate. My Dad was an Idaho farm boy and we always had a compost pile. We still have one, even though we don’t even garden anymore!

    When we moved to farm country in DeKalb, Illinois, one the of the local LDS who was a farmer, whenever you could smell the manure in the air, liked to say, “Ah, it smells like money!”

    When we visited Cove Fort in Utah once on vacation, the elder missionaries who tended to the garden (and were obviously and rightfully very proud of it), when they learned that my pink-haired daughter was a vegetarian, got all excited and helped us fill a grocery bag full of vegetables straight from the earth. I think my daughter enjoyed and appreciated that more than just about anything else we experienced that vacation.

    And I can relate to your motivation to get an education. Mine was moving an auto gauge factory from Elgin to Sycamore, Illinois. Heavy, backbreaking work, long hours, six days a week. I was thrilled to go back to college!.

  20. Nate Oman
    March 23, 2005 at 2:51 pm

    Kevin: Random connection. My father was on the team that restored cove fort. When I was sixteen I drove around the country with him looking at renovated historic blacksmith shops for information on the one that they ultimately renovated at Cove Fort. My dad even took a class on historic blacksmithing for a week outside of Albany, while I drove around upstate New York with my grandpa. Needless to say, having just got my driver’s license I felt very cool tooling down the shore of Lake George and Lake Champlain in a Church motor pool van!

  21. Mark B.
    March 23, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    And, apropos of Matt’s post, we can all be grateful that $15,000 of our tithing dollars made all those sharp curves by Lake George, and didn’t end up in the lake.

  22. Naomi Frandsen
    March 23, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    Nate, I didn’t know you lived in DC! I was at that Easter concert on Sunday night, but I didn’t smell anything remotely like compost, so I can’t make any clever quips about your Saturday activities. I, too, loved the program. And I, too, echo Carleh’s recommendation of Wendall Berry, from whom I offer the following in closing:
    The Peace of Wild Things
    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

  23. seven bohanan
    March 23, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    Nate and Sean, I think you are both right. Setting aside the death of a child (an experince that would personally do me in), I think trials are fungible for the most part. The type is less important than the purpose, which is of course growth. Adam did not fall that man might have immediate joy.

    Like talents, trials are meted out in varying degrees and at varying times so that we can become what we promised to become and what He promises we will become. Sure the weight is not equal across humanity. I do not deny that some are asked to bear heavier burdens than others in this life. But we know that we will not be asked to bear more thant we can, or run faster than our strength permits, if I can switch analogies and scriptural references.

    Nevertheless, I believe most of us, perhaps unwittingly, do exactly what Sean said — “we often diminish other’s struggles and magnify our own, or diminsh our own and magnify other’s.” In either case, we deny the totality of the Atonement by attempting to make it something less than infinite.

  24. March 23, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    I love having a compost heap because then when vegetables go bad in the refrigerator, they are not a complete loss! They at least can pass their nutrients on to another generation. Part of what makes landfills so depressing is the way they mix valuable organic matter with broken bottles and old batteries and other toxic things.

    Nice post, Nate; I think compost is a great way to think about how God brings life out of death.

  25. March 23, 2005 at 5:01 pm

    Good personal history, Nate, but not quite as good as Naomi’s. It’s got all three elements. The self-revelation and richness of mundane detail are particularly strong. There are connections to ‘great things’ (1970s liberalism, the resurrection), but they are a bit distant and tenuous, essentially second-hand.

    Since when did I become a literary critic? ;)

  26. Nate Oman
    March 23, 2005 at 5:12 pm

    Christian: Which is, of course, why I am a lawyer rather than a graduate student in literature. Holmes and Cardozo are quite enough eloquence for me.

  27. A. Greenwood
    March 23, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    If we’re ever in DC, Nate Oman, we’d love to see your compost.

    I was in Albuquerque last week, visiting my folks. I helped my dad plant 140 fruit trees in the pasture we’re converting to orchard. It was dirty, wearisome, and right and true. Lot’s like the gospel or raising a family.

  28. Gaz
    March 23, 2005 at 10:32 pm

    My dad has this poem inscribed on a rock pedestal in the middle of his garden.

    The kiss of the sun for pardon,
    The song of the birds for mirth,
    One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
    Than anywhere else on earth.

    Also, in his time as a bishop, he has frequently helped solve members’ marital problems by telling the husband and wife to grow vegetables. Amazing how well that works.

  29. Jim F.
    March 29, 2005 at 1:35 am

    Nate, why didn’t I know you were a gardener? I should have; it seems like it should have been obvious. It was obvious that Heather is, but I didn’t know that you also are.

    Thanks for a touching post.

  30. Nate Oman
    March 29, 2005 at 11:38 am

    UPDATE: The last week has seen torrential rains in DC and our raddish seeds have all be washed away. I figured that the bloggernacle would want to know.

  31. Mark B.
    March 29, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    Sorry to hear about the radish seeds, Nate.

    The verse on this thread reminds me of a line my father taught me (which he learned in the streets of Snowflake, Arizona):

    Let us remember and be sure,
    Our feet and our shoes are free from manure.

    Good advice to all gardeners.

  32. A. Greenwood
    March 29, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    Rah, Snowflake.

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