By Popular Demand: The Art of Composting

Composting as Art—Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
by Eric Grissell photographs by Carll Goodpasture

How Can Compost Be a Work of Art?

It’s a difficult philosophical question some might think, but for those of us who garden, composting is simply a work of rot—a process best left to the imagination, scarcely worth a second thought. In garden-speak, compost is the workaday process of purposefully recycling organic matter. When viewed in biological terms, however, compost and composting become a much more complicated matter involving decomposition—that is, a harnessing of the powers of a complex world largely ignored by our routine existence.

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Photographer Carll Goodpasture captures the beauty that is the rot that results in compost.

The Power of the Protozoa

Without the unseen work of fungi, bacteria, protozoa, insects and earthworms feeding upon the dead, our living world would be continually engulfed in its rapidly expanding past. Imagine a present-day world awash in a hundred million years’ worth of undigested dinosaur carcasses, and you will understand the significance of the decomposers. Such minute organisms, so dedicated to recycling death, are in their own microcosm the overlords of the planet, immensely more important than the largest living organism the world has ever known, immensely more important than humankind itself. But to the gardener’s credit, we rarely need concern ourselves with the complexity of everyday life, and we certainly do not need to ponder the subject of compost as it might grace our living-room walls. Or do we?

For one artist, the art of the dead represents a subtle and unheralded role in the lives of the living—a role well suited to a frame. Carll Goodpasture, an American artist now living in Norway and Spain, sees compost as a unique confluence of art and metaphor that expresses his concern for our future.

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Photographer Carll Goodpasture captures fruit and flowers in the compost heap covered in snow.

“One of my ongoing photo projects is picturing my compost heap every few days,” he explains. “I was initially inspired by the idea of compost as a metaphor of climate change. [The project] turned out to dovetail fortuitously with the brilliant advocacy work at 350.org, which is a leading grass-roots campaign to raise climate-change awareness.” As a result, Carll assembled 350 images of his compost pile, taken over nearly a decade.

Gardens, after all, are temporal creations, built upon seasons of effort and years of dreaming for that perfect work of art we envision in our minds. To see the end of spring or summer in our compost pile is to relive their passing in a humbling or perhaps even sad way. But to view the end of fall or winter is a reminder that another year of garden potential awaits us and we will begin the process renewed. If we have been diligent in our composting efforts, last year’s remains will become this year’s garden, and we may brag, if not a bit reluctantly, that we have created a work of art ourselves.

Eric Grissell is an entomologist and garden writer based in southeastern Arizona. This article first appeared in expanded form in Horticulture‘s January/February 2017 issue.

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