Saturday, 18 December 2010

This Compost by Walt Whitman

Christmas, birthday and New year rolled into one for our neighbour: The joy of muck

Nothing gladdens the heart of the vegetable grower anywhere more than a great steaming heap of muck. And in some ways there appears to be a yet smaller gap than usual between people and nature here. At the level of feeling at least, the relationship between the two is understood to be symbiotic rather than simply exploitative - though plenty of that goes on at the behavioural level, especially by organisations.  Shinto and its pantheon of animistic nature spirits with which people are linked by comfortable habit and tradition, rather than belief in the western sense, frame the world differently from monotheist religions that place the world entirely at the disposal of the chosen ones - people.

So it is hard to imagine that Walt Whitman would have written the poem "This compost" if he had grown up here, up to his elbows in earth and matching his activity to the seasons and the weather. 

This Compost
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 itself 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 noiselessly 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 dooryards,
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 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
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 distills 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.

Walt Whitman 1819-1892

That knocked my socks off when I read it as a teenager, and re-reading it living here throws a new light on it. His poem, as well as separating man and nature also is profoundly uneasy with death and illness, humans offering nature only the "sour dead" and their "foul meat" in return for its "prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops." Apart from the fact that he was probably a bit hazy on soil biology (aren't we all?), is this based in the Christian split between what, at its worst, can be seen as the sublime soul and the disgusting body, overlaid with his experience of seeing field hospitals in the American Civil War?  Strange, given his celebration of the living body elsewhere in his work - or perhaps natural as a reaction to the betrayal of the body in death which ends all that sensual pleasure.

I'm guessing Whalt Whitman didn't grow his own food

In pick 'n mix Japan, weddings are Shinto, but funerals are Buddhist. In Buddhism ancestor veneration means that your beloved deceased are still literally part of the family, receiving gifts, photos and partaking in family meals via offerings on the Butsudan, a shrine in cupboard form. Bodies are cremated, and in a hard core form of closure which must help the grieving process if it doesn't traumatise you altogether, relatives together place the charred bones in a box with chops sticks. "Mum, could you just give me a lift with Dad's skull?" This explains both the look of shock on a Japanese person's face if you clash chopsticks with them while eating, and their more integrated attitude to death, so hidden in modern western society until it crashes down on your head.

John Barleycorn - or whatever those little oil seeds are - must die. What of it?

Lacking mains sewers means that in our village we also have a closer  relationship with bodily corruption than is completely comfortable. In summer the smell gets cheerfully brazen at times, beating you around the head like a blast of sound as you pass a particularly ripe septic tank. Everyone ignores it.

Those who know me will have known this figuratively for some time, but as I write I am also literally full of shit. Water is leaking into our toilet, and the tank is overflowing. In an estate agent's nightmare, the air in our house does not, sadly, smell of coffee and fresh-baked bread, but I deal with it by re-imagining it as garlic. My wife, whose nose is preternaturally sensitive, is not happy.

I grew up seeing the corpses of sheep melting into Pennine hillsides, and always felt that it a natural thing that I would be doing in due course. Whitman seeing us as part of this compost is a wonderful insight, it's just a shame he wasn't as at peace with it as my neighbour - but now his pieces are.

But what do you think?

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