Behold this Compost! Behold it Well!

One of my favorite Whitman poems is “This Compost” published in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, one year after the original version. Perhaps I’m so fond of it merely because it is a metaphor I like to use in my own life. When things go bad, or relationships fail, I like to think that those things go in the compost heap of life to create better soil for future relationships, for nothing you learn from is ever truly wasted.

Ever since I studied organic gardening and started a compost heap, I’ve been amazed with the regenerative power of nature. Life and death are wrapped together in Nature’s regenerative cycle:


SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.


Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever.
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.


Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

Perhaps out of fear, we ignore how much death is a part of life. As Whitman points out, we are surrounded by death. The ground is strewn with corpses, whether corpses of people, animals, or plants. It’s doubtful that a square inch of land has escaped this inevitability. If death were as awful as we would make it out to be, the world would, indeed, be irrevocably polluted. Whitman effectively uses the words we commonly use to describe death, words like “carcasses,” “foul liquid and meat,” “sour dead” to recreate our disgust at death.

Why doesn’t the land sicken with so many corpses? How have they all been disposed of? Where have all the foul elements gone? Surely, if one were to turn over the soil one could find some sign of these foul elements.

Instead, the soil has been turned into a fine compost, a compost that makes all things thrive rather than wilt. Winter’s deaths serve as nutrients for this year’s spring as Whitman shows with a series of images of spring and early summer. The new wheat emerges through the chaff of the old wheat. The bean emerges through the garden mold. The summer growth is pure, no matter what the source.

Though many have forgotten the value of compost, nature’s chemistry is at work constantly renewing the earth. Given time, even polluted waters become clean and fresh. The very fruit of the earth is proof of the earth’s bounty despite man’s leavings. The leaves of grass grow lusher where last year’s corpses fell.

Perhaps the real miracle is that man is not terrified, not Awe-struck, by the earth’s ability to convert such wastes to new life. Perhaps, though, it is the “job” of poets like Whitman and Hopkins to make us see the miracle of rebirth. Whitman’s image of an earth turning “harmless and stainless on its axis” seems to foreshadow the shots from space that later helped to promote the Gaia project, though such a project was inspired not from Whitman’s faith that the earth will eternally restore itself, but from fear that man’s leavings will eventually overwhelm the ecosystem that makes such “divine materials” possible.

There’s a fine line between hope and despair. Environmentalists like myself are often driven to despair by the apparently irreparable damage that modern man has done to the earth. Without the inspiration of poets like Whitman we might well just give ourselves up to that despair. But the optimism, idealism, if you will, gives us the faith that we need to keep up the battle to save the environment before it is too late.

Loren Webster