By early May the cover crops would be five feet tall. When the rye reached milk stage and the vetch and clover flowered purple and crimson, I would walk up and down the beds swinging a scythe, the stalks falling before me, the air growing redolent with grassy perfume, and then I would rake up the cuttings to make compost.

First the green layer: fresh rye, vetch, and clover stalks. Then a brown layer: old hay or leaves. The third layer would be a dusting of garden soil, containing the spark of bacteria that would set this biological pyre aflame. In a week the tiny hordes inside the compost pile would expend their oxygen, slowing their combustion, and I would turn the pile with a pitchfork to give them air. All kinds of organic matter could go into a compost pile. Once I even composted a dead field rat; a few months later there was nothing but bones.

I love making compost. The bright green of freshly mown grasses; steam arising from the pile on a cold morning; the smell of the forest floor in your hands. There is a secret joy, a kind of charity to be found in this act, transforming a pile of grass and dirt and old leaves into an offering of humic mystery.…After several months of heating and cooling and turning, the pile of well-cooked humus would be ready to spread onto the soil. Into that I would plant Speckled Trout lettuce, Kuri squash, or Sugarsnap peas, which would feed the hungry people of Cedar Grove. The people’s hunger could be slackened, but all the while the secret life of soil would continue, the gift waiting to be found. Like a ceaseless hymn of praise, this cycle went on with or without you, winter and summer, rain and drought, seedtime and harvest, a process of creating beyond your control that had been in motion since the foundation of the world.

Taken from Fred Bahnson’s Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith (Simon and Schuster, 2013).