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By Laura Stec

Soil Enlightenment, City of Palo Alto, and Horton Hears a Who

Uploaded: Jun 11, 2015

My former housemate, Paul Schmitt, is the only guy I ever met whose first action in the morning involved dirt. He wouldn't make coffee or check the news; he'd wake up, go outside, and start playing in compost.*

Paul had great compost, but I never realized the extent of his craft until I moved from Palo Alto to Portola Valley. As a goodbye gift, Paul gave me a bag. I was pouring it over house plants at the new home, when all of a sudden, I stopped. What was coming out of the bag was astounding. I'd say something cliché like, "Never seen anything like it before," but seeing it wasn't really the thing; it was sensing it. Paul's soil felt alive. Sure, it contained earthworms, but there was also so much more. Potting soils I know are light and powdery: this was moist and heavy, fluffy yet dense. It was a rich chocolate brown color, with a fresh, earthy smell that jumped right out of the bag. The whole thing appeared to pulsate.

As I ran my fingers back and forth though the vibrant dirt I realized I couldn't waste it to grow houseplants, it had to grow food. And this was my moment of soil-enlightenment. The dirty little love affair I had with soil while writing (Cool Cuisine) climaxed in a burst of poetic verse:

I want to eat soil, not oil!

Suddenly, I could see all things, like the 2 billion protozoa, bacteria, and arthropods said to be found in a tablespoon of healthy soil. At last, I got it; I groked soil. These were those things; I was holding them in my hands?invisible yet indispensable, so easy to pass over, so key to our health, so......high-vibe.

I peered into the soil, feeling like Horton, in Horton Hears a Who. Even though I couldn't see them, I finally knew they were there, and I needed to do something to help.

- Cool Cuisine, Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming, Chapter 7

If you too are looking for more meaning these days, consider raising compost, at least until you convince your town to do it for you. Lucky if you live in Palo Alto though - July 1 starts their home compost recycling program.

"The week of June 16th, Palo Alto residents get cart tags announcing the program, followed by four public meetings to learn more," says Wendy Hediger, Zero Waste Coordinator for Palo Alto. "One quarter of the food Americans buy ends up in a landfill. Thirty-nine percent of Palo Alto's garbage is still compostable. Our goal is to rescue 3000 tons of food scrap waste per year."

GreenWaste will collect and transport the scraps out to San Jose's Zanker Road where they'll be processed at a 39-acre waste facility - the first large-scale commercial dry fermentation anaerobic digestor in the United States (the largest in the world). Out-gassing methane is first captured for reusable energy, then the remaining waste is turned into high quality compost.

If you are a DIY'er though, composting (or feeding food scraps to microbes which is really what we are doing) is not difficult. And it's super satisfying. When I first started raising microbes, I was scared I wouldn't do it right?but it's easy. Probably the hardest thing is remembering to remove those stupid produce stickers from the peels. The stickers don't biodegrade, and word up is they adversely affect the whole system. So do remove and throw them away, or better yet, invent a biodegradable sticky.

Once your bucket of food scraps is full, take it outside and serve up a delicious compost dinner to all the garden microbes, your own personal Whos down in Who-ville.

Then put your ear to the ground and listen.

Wait... what's that? It started in low, than it started to grow.

"We are here, we are here, we are here, we are here!"

* only after the book was published did someone finally tell me what Paul was doing out there. Maybe you can guess?