Rotting should be simple, right?

My first relationship with a compost pile was years ago when, inspired by a slender volume titled "Let it Rot!" I went at it with all the zeal of the new convert.

At the time, I had just moved into my home, whose previous owner had maintained a primitive chicken coop. I appropriated the thing for my table scraps, lawn clippings, and autumn leaves. Before long I had a respectable little mound about waist high. Then I waited for it to produce the vaunted black humus that would turn my desert of a backyard into my own private Eden.

As is often the case with first attempts at new ventures, nothing happened, even though I was sure I had heeded the wisdom of "Let It Rot!" to provide roughly equal amounts of "brown" matter (hay, straw, sawdust) and "green" stuff (grass, weeds, leftover kitchen vegetables).

I consulted my neighbor Earl, a veteran Maine woodsman with an immense green thumb. He came over onto my property, observed my pile, and clucked his tongue. "Too dry," he said in his clipped Yankee manner.

So I wet the would-be compost with the garden hose and retired for the night.

I knew that, in order for a compost pile to produce humus, it had to heat up. This warmth is generated by microorganisms that quickly take up residence in the heap. I had read stories about large compost piles that had become too much of a good thing – and had burst into flames.

I inspected my pile the day after I had watered it. I lay a hand on its surface, but didn't feel the slightest warmth. In frustration I struck my hand deep into the heart of the pile. Nothing. Just a cool sliminess. I consulted Earl again. "Pile's too small," he said. "Heap some more stuff on."

It was true. The pile had compacted down to a small mass about as high as my shins. So, like a disciple heeding the sage counsel of my master, I went at it whole hog: weeds, leaves, grass, banana peels, apple cores, salad leftovers, eggshells, and tea bags. All of it went in until the mound had risen to eye level. Then I waited. One day. Two. But it came to nothing.

I consulted Earl again. He dutifully came over, eyed the pile, brought a hand to his chin. "Well, I dunno," he said, and ambled off.

At that point we were well into autumn, with the Maine winter looming large on the horizon. The mood for composting passed, supplanted by the need to cut wood.

In the few years since then, I didn't think much about compost until, a couple of months back, I noticed something sitting forlorn and weed-shrouded behind a friend's garage – a three-sided composting bin. I didn't have to ask twice before being told to haul the thing away.

I folded it up and loaded it into the car. Then I drove home with grim determination, convinced that if a man with a PhD couldn't get a compost pile to fire up and produce, then the degree wasn't worth a plugged nickel.

Arriving home, I set the compost frame up alongside my garden shed and, with a nagging sense of déjà vu, began to throw in the vegetation. I watered it, turned it, did everything but sing lullabies to it. The pile compacted down over time, but otherwise stayed cool and didn't produce a whit of humus.

I piled in some more stuff, and then some more. I was on my own, because Earl had moved away, and I had nobody to appeal to.

The pile remained cool and uncaring. Fearing an unhealthy preoccupation with compost, I took an afternoon off and drove down to the coast. It was a bluebird day, brilliant with sunshine and just enough of a breeze to take the edge off the heat.

As I walked along the beach, I studied the long line of wrack (cast-up seaweed) and stopped dead in my tracks. The stuff smelled because it was rotting. I took off for a convenience store and returned with plastic garbage bags. I quickly filled three to capacity and stuffed them into the car.

Then I high-tailed it back home, quivering with anticipation. When I arrived, I dumped it all into my pile and, seizing my pitchfork, mixed it in but good.

I waited a day, then two – then three. A cold front had moved in, and the mornings suddenly required long pants and a light jacket. I could feel my interest in the compost slipping again.

On the fourth day following the infusion of seaweed, I awoke to a particularly cool morning. I went to the window looking out on the backyard and immediately noticed a large black-and-white cat reclining atop the compost heap.

I went outside and slowly approached the pile. The cat cautiously looked at me, but it didn't budge – and with good reason. It had found a nice warm place for itself.

Since that day the story has progressed nicely. I have my humus at last, the tomatoes in the garden are growing apace, and whenever I see that cat crowning my compost pile, I know I must be doing something right.

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