I may have killed an entire ecosystem. It was my creation, and under my care, and I let creative neglect go a little too far…
I have a worm bin, underneath a tiny oak tree next to my house. It’s a nice little space, shady and cool, and I was pretty diligent for years, dumping our coffee grounds, teabags, and other carefully selected compost into it on a regular basis. I would say, jokingly, as I took off the lid to their world, making the worms wriggle for the darkness and disturbing the other creatures that made up that tiny world, that I was the Goddess of Life And Death. I tried hard to return all the worms to the bin as I harvested finished compost and I watered them with the plants and drew off the wonderful dark liquid that is the only fertilizer we have ever needed for our garden.
This year I didn’t plant a garden. The onion and tomato pests have gotten out of hand because those are our favorite vegetables and we do not use any form of pest control other than soapy water and diatomaceous earth. The ladybugs have returned, among other beneficial insects, and we have decided to see what happens if we work with the land. Snails and other large pests can be thrown to the chickens, after all. I’d decided not to plant tomatoes or alliums of any type this year because we’ve been doing it too many years in a row. The place at the Farmers Market that used to sell a wonderful variety of plant starts in the spring has gone upscale and nothing in the tiny selection they had this year appealed. By the time May rolled around I realized that this was going to be a fallow year and I was fine with that. We still have the herbs and the strawberries, and there’s no shame in taking a rest from gardening and letting the land do the same.
We also have a rabbit. Every day we’re home, she gets to spend most of the day in a small fenced area where the grass is allowed to grow long and she can play among rocks and put her four feet on the quiet earth. Unfortunately, that corner is also where the door to get to the worm bin is. When we switched from a hose to a watering can, there was no longer a reason to use the gate. Slowly, the bin got forgotten. In winter, this was fine. The weather kept it moist, and there was still quite a bit to eat in there. But summer came and with it the dry months of the year. Last night I remembered the bin. We collected the artichoke leaves from dinner, teabags from the iced tea container and the breakfast coffee grounds and this morning I went out to see what was left.
A silent world lay under the lid. I dug around with my hands in the dry top layer and my heart sank. I found a few tiny worms struggling to survive and put them on top of the bowl of food. I pulled the top box and surprisingly, there were more worms alive down there where there was less food, but more moisture. I pulled a large empty planting pot over and carefully dumped the top bin into it, transferring every live worm I could find into the bottom box, where I dumped the food. It became the new top, and I lined the empty box with a chicken feed bag to become the new bottom. I drained off all the dark brown water and dumped the sludge into the pot of finished compost along with soil from empty lettuce bins. Stirred with a shovel and mulched, I left it to become rich soil. In a few days I will take the selected compost we will accumulate and feed it to the bin. If the worms that are left manage to survive and their world begins to come back, in a few months it will be as if nothing has happened for them. I intend to be more careful in the future.
I don’t see the point in guilt in this situation, but I do feel responsible for what happened, and for the future. If I no longer want to care for something that is alive, whether it’s a plant, a worm, or a chicken, I do have to either pass on the responsibility, let the creature go, or end the life. Just letting a closed ecosystem, which is essentially what a worm bin is, die slowly is no different than letting an animal in a cage die of thirst and starvation. It is no different than the way the human species is treating this planet that we live on. For example, downtown there’s a planted area in front of an office building. It used to be full of birches. Beautiful and green, it used to be a place to feast my eyes on as I waited for the bus home. It is really nothing more than an enormous planter box, though. When the trees got too big, they were ripped out. New saplings of a different species are now planted there. The restaurants I walk past in the morning have small planter boxes to define their outdoor seating area. Every six months, the plants are replaced when the old ones die or grow too large for the box. This brings me back to the rabbit. Shanti, as we have named her, was probably a kid’s pet. She was left on the lawn at work a couple of years ago, a couple of months after Easter. Skinny and small, all she wanted was to be loved. We didn’t want a rabbit, but she had nowhere else to go. So she joined the menagerie. Our cats were abandoned on our porch as kittens. They’re bottle babies. Two survived out of a litter of five. The chickens and the worms are the only animals we intentionally brought into this house.
This is how we treat plants and animals. As accessories and furniture. If an animal becomes inconvenient, we get rid of it. If a plant doesn’t fit our vision, or if it was poorly chosen for the space it inhabits and the size it will eventually be, we do the same. I had to do this myself when the ivy that used to fill my front yard popped the retaining wall that holds our house above the street. We chose rosemary and lavender to replace it and hope they will not become a problem in a century as the ivy did. The oak beside the house will also probably have to go in the end as it is inches from the foundation.
I’m planting nothing perennial in this yard except for the lavender and rosemary. I long for a lemon tree, but the yard is too small to handle it. We spend far too much time beating back the runner bamboo from the property on one side of us, and the ivy from the yard on the other side to create another future problem. The owners of the apartment buildings on either side refuse to see that there is any problem and as they are absentee owners, it is much easier to just trim and uproot diligently than make this into a court case. It is better to live within these limitations than to create a larger mess, legal or ecological. We have long outgrown this yard and this house. Like this planet, it seemed limitless when we moved in, but now we have found the edges of the space and what we can do with it. Four chickens, one rabbit, two cats and two people. And a bin full of worms. That is plenty for now.
We’ve found pretty sustainable solutions for this small space we live in. We’ve even made a dent in cleaning up some of the messes of others. All the tools we need are here to hand, and all we needed to do was think the problems through. It was even fun, in places. The cats are cuddly and well trained, and while I never want to have to do it again, getting up multiple times at night to feed them was fun, as was watching them grow. The rabbit is pretty sweet, and between her, the chickens, and the worms, we have all the compost we will ever need, plus pretty high quality eggs. It’s the same with our planet. We have everything we need to fix our problems. All we have to do is be willing to think creatively–and this seems to be the hard part–change our routines.
So many things are becoming fashionable. It’s easy to laugh at people drinking out of canning jars and growing beards, but beneath the affectations there’s a new sensibility growing. We need to rethink the way we treat each other, and the world around us. We need to think before we buy something and look for quality, durability, suitability–even if it means we have to wait a little before we get what we really want. Think of where something came from, whether it’s a cup of coffee or your next iPhone. And think of where it will go. We humans have an awareness of past, present, and future that few, if any other species, have. Our power has far outstripped our responsibility. Our choices will define the future. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind? I think it’s really that simple.