Remember To Bring In The Garbage

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MY children know how Spiffen the tidy pig feels. In a funny story by Mary Ada Schwartz, Spiffen, a misfit neat pig, looks on with dismay as his mother brings in the garbage.

That happens to my kids a lot. We'll be wandering back from the library or the playground some nice day in October and I'll see a row of identical, softly bulging, rounded black garbage bags. These are the best, I know from experience. Whoever is in the stroller has to get out so I can plop in a few of these bags. If it's the double stroller, only one kid has to get out. The other can ride with the garbage.

It's not just any garbage. These are nice, crunchy autumn leaves. In the fall, when trees drop their leaves, most people go to work getting rid of them. They do the same thing when they take care of their lawns - usually with more tenderness than a farmer gives his wheatfield. They harvest that grass and what do they want to do? Dump it. I just want to give it a home. I can't help it; I grew up around garbage.

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We moved a lot, usually into newish houses on bare lots. As soon as we'd unpacked, my dad would start a compost heap to make food for all the bushes he was going to plant. A compost heap is sort of a garbage salad. You toss the garbage in, let it sit, and it rots. It all has to do with giving the microorganisms that cause decay what they need so they'll work fast. If you give them a balanced diet, squishy garbage (for nitrogen) mixed with crunchy garbage (for carbon), they take off. If you remember to gi ve them air by turning the pile with a pitchfork, you have fluffy, unsmelly plant food in two weeks.

My dad had such a good time feeding those little guys, I don't think he ever thought of all the stuff he gave them as garbage. He used everything: leaves, grass, old Christmas wreaths, kitchen leftovers. If you were throwing it away, he would give it a try. It just had to have been alive at one time. Only meat didn't work.

When we lived in a town in Illinois where everyone liked to go riding, my father didn't pay much attention to the horses themselves. The microorganisms in horse manure are so perky that they took all his attention.

When we lived in California, he got the town to give him their chopped-up tree limbs when they pruned them out of the way of power lines. A company that carved Hawaiian-style wood doors dumped their sawdust at our house. The sewage department donated sludge. My dad planted lots of baby shrubs and trees that looked like little sticks next to the large piles waiting around the back yard to be tossed.

He wrote me letters about it when I went away to boarding school. "It's all black and fluffy, and if I had some marshmallow sauce I would eat some," he wrote once. Another time, he described how he'd spread sludge and chopped trees all over the back yard. "Sheet composting," he called it. He forgot to sign that letter. No need to; I knew whose dad that was.

Growing up around my dad, I got used to garbage not really being garbage. We would be out on an errand and he would stop the car and say, "Now that would come in handy," looking at a pile of something-or-other - grass, leaves, branches, hay - on the side of the road that was obviously worthless to someone. His letters talked about soybean meal, eggshells, and coffee grounds, and what he'd figured out to do with them. I felt just as pleased to hear his news as other people must when their dads tell them a bout a new sailboat (or whatever it is dads get interested in if they're not interested in garbage).

For a long time, I had no idea that there was more to composting than garbage. It wasn't till I was a grown-up that it dawned on me. I was driving by one of our many former homes. When we moved in, it was a brand new, red brick box on a hill. The hillside was bare dirt, scraped clean by a bulldozer, with only a tuft of sad saplings trying to hang on by the front door. It was slightly better when we moved out four years later. But 20 years later, when I drove by, the house had all but disappeared behind a

handsome grove of trees, leafy, healthy, rustling in the breeze. A dark green hedge made a wall around the green lawn, which was soft as a comforter. The house was framed and nestled in green - all brought up on a wholesome diet of former garbage.

I had no idea it would turn out that way. I just thought my dad liked garbage. I got used to him out in the back with his piles of stuff and his pitchfork, looking like Eeyore with his pile of sticks. He must have been having glorious daydreams about reforesting all our empty lots. The amazing thing is, he could not have imagined it any better than it actually turned out.

Still, I was sure I wasn't going to collect garbage. I lived in an apartment on an old street in Cambridge, Mass. There was no yard, no room to plant anything, and no need. There were plenty of street trees, and I had other things to do. But broccoli got to me. I would feel a twinge when I threw the stems away. They seemed to have so much life left in them. Seeing them in the garbage can made me feel bad.

So, I started a little apartment compost heap. I ripped up newspapers and combined them with all my useful kitchen glop, in black garbage bags with air holes. I kept them on my back porch all winter, and shook them any time I thought of it. In the spring, the compost came out amazingly fluffy and sweet-smelling.

Just for a place to put it, I planted peas and tomatoes in wooden fish crates someone left out for the garbage man. I grew enough peas to have three people over for dinner one night, and enough tomatoes to attract raccoons, who came up the back stairs and ate them for midnight snacks. Squirrels liked them, too.

I later married one of the people who came over for peas. We now have a yard, a compost heap, and three little boys who have to keep getting out of the stroller so I can bring in the garbage. They'd probably like me to pick up the garbage in the car so they wouldn't have to walk. But growing up around garbage doesn't seem to bother them much. Maybe that's because it's not really garbage.

As my son said when we were planting a tree in a pot and I put in some manure, "It's just like dessert to a tree, Mom." `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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