Wednesday, May 30, 2012

From the Archives: Compost Builds Character

Jessica Mitford, one of my journalistic heroes, came from a family rich in strong opinions and eccentricity. She was a socialist from her early teens; her sisters Diana and Unity were Nazis; her mother campaigned against vaccines and conventional medicine. And her mother's brother, Geoffrey Bowles, was a passionate if slightly loony advocate for composting, devoting much of his time to writing letters to the editor on the topic.

Here is an excerpt from Mitford's memoir, Daughters and Rebels:

In Uncle Geoff’s view, the greatness of England had risen and waned in direct proportion to the use of natural manure, or compost, in fertilizing the soil. The Black Death of 1348 was caused by gradual loss of the humus fertility found under forest trees. The rise of the Elizabethans two centuries later was attributable to the widespread use of sheep manure.

"Collating old records shows that our greatness rises and falls with the living fertility of our soil. And now, many years of exhausted and chemically murdered soil, and of devitalized food from it, has softened our bodies, and still worse, softened our national character. It is an actual fact that character is largely a product of the soil. Many years of murdered food from deadened soil has made us too tame. Chemicals have had their poisonous day. It is now the worm’s turn to reform the manhood of England. The only way to regain our punch, our character, our lost virtues, and with them the freedom natural to islanders, is to subsoil and compost our land so as to allow moulds, bacteria, and earthworms to remake living soil to nourish Englishmen’s bodies and spirits."

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