Something weird happened today. With a self-important summons to the other chooks, Treasure sped over the large disgusting vat of compost tea lurking under the tumbler and took a long, luxurious drink. After a good sup, she briskly trotted away with the kind of dirty stain on her snowy chest that speaks of an all-absorbing gastronomic experience. Is this a chicken version of the breakfast long black?
Knowing as I do in the contents of the compost tumbler – innocent things like lawn clippings, comfrey cuttings and fallen maple leaves; but also less pleasing items – mouldy citrus peel, rotten pears and fetid greens, barnhouse bedding weighed down with healthy gobbets of chicken manure, and in consequence a fine array of crawling and creeping things, their offspring and their excreta – the idea of the chickens necking great drafts of the liquid that oozes from this brew is really quite disturbing.
In general, I view keeping chickens as bit like teaching adults (my day job). Kindy teachers have to wipe away tears, give cuddles and clean up vomit, but when you teach in higher education you can more or less rely on students to handle the basics on their own. I don’t like to patronise my chooks – I reckon they have a fair idea of where to hang out, how to spend their time and what’s okay to eat.
But perhaps I’m being too laissez faire. Maybe I should treat my hens more like my children and start policing their behaviour a bit more vigilantly. Possibly letting the girls drink compost tea is the equivalent of doling out supersized glasses of Coke (and a Happy Meal?) to under tens.
This is the dark side of the compost tumbler. It seems so sleek and neat, holding its dubious contents high above things that squirm and scamper and gnaw in the night. You spin her wheel and steer her like a noble vessel towards the promised land of super-speedy compost, black gold faster than lightning. And I can say, hand on heart, that after fifteen years of steadfast unintentional cold composting, one bucket of kitchen scraps at a time, with this tumbler, I’ve seen my very first batch of the good stuff, cooked within an inch of its life. While most things (except for teaspoons and the plastic tags on bread bags) will rot down eventually regardless of how incompetently you build your heap or how infrequently you turn the pile, there is something glorious about seeing steam rising from your compost and knowing the nasties – weed seeds and plant viruses and pathogens – have been fricasseed.
But the path to hot compost is not pure. Here’s what I found on the innocuous sounding Soil Forum while hunting out the best compost recipes, the perfect balance between browns (carbon rich things that crunch) and greens (nitrogen rich things that squelch):
“when we say that “anything” can go into a tumbler, we do mean “almost anything”. Whole small animals are OK but I would do deer heads in a separate pile! (Make too much noise flopping around in there!) I do have 20 deer lower legs on hand but they’d create quite a tangle sent through in one batch. However, I may simply saw them in half and run them all through the next hot batch.”
No, that wasn’t a post from Sarah Palin, though I’m sure she could cook up a fine tumblerful of deer-heads if she turned her hand to it. In case you were wondering, deer body-parts would count as greens (squelch). Always put them in the very centre of your tumbler, where it’s hottest. (seriously, in contrast to anything Sarah might say, for rat, health and aesthetic reasons I never compost dead animals – there’s not a lot of corpses going round in a vegetarian household, and any tragedies that do occur are accompanied by a tiny funeral and ceremonial interring)
That said, there’s no getting around it: composting is still all about death and decomposition. An interesting bit of that Peter Greenaway film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” comes to me. The cook says:
“I charge a lot for anything black. Grapes, olives, black currants. People like to remind themselves of death. Eating black food is like consuming death. Like saying: “Death, I’m eating you”. Black truffles are the most expensive. Caviar. Death and birth. The end and the beginning.”
I quite like the idea that the chickens are engaged in some kind of philosophical act drinking up their ordure-enriched powerade. That it’s not just forbidden pleasure, the subtle piquancy of insect exoskeletons or a health-giving blast of liquidised potassium that holds such appeal, but that they’re drinking deep from the existential heart of gardening.