A guest post by Cara Tejpal on the occasion of #WorldWildlifeDay
Under the warmth of an autumn sun, I squat in the school garden. I rake my fingers through red plastic trays of dirt, gently pulling out the onion pink earthworms buried in its cool depths. At college I diligently empty my kitchen waste into a little bowl kept on the counter for this purpose. Later I take it out to the garbage cans and empty it into the wet waste bin. From here it becomes the responsibility of student farm volunteers. On a picnic lunch in Peru, I watch our guide, the lovely Marie-Sol, tip her wine glass and allow a few drops to fall on the Earth. For Pachamama she explains. At the office of the wildlife conservation foundation I work at, the editor assembles the team. He asks – biodiversity conservation isn’t just tigers and elephants, what about the millions of microorganisms in our very soil? At a conference, I learn that India is “desertifying”. That an entire one third of our land is now degraded – stripped off its vitality, contaminated by our excesses – unable to support much more than ragged weeds.
For a person of my interests and pursuits, I came to composting shamefully late in my life. Something about the term made it seem complicated and unfamiliar. I imagined it the prerogative of farmers and horticulturists, and ideally, municipal authorities; not the urban individual – cocooned in concrete with neither garden nor farm nor authority.
In 2015, soon after I moved from Delhi to Mumbai, I found myself occupying the guest room of my brother’s apartment, 19 storeys high. Having lived my entire life close to the ground until then, I was unsettled by this dizzying height. Mumbai’s suburbs, so crowded and filthy, afforded me no space to walk barefoot or touch the Earth. And so, in this state of unease, I felt compelled to give composting a try.
My two Chomps arrived in the post, and I lovingly installed them on our balcony. We’re going to make soil, I declared to my brother. He laughed at my whimsy and nodded his approval. Day after day, I layered the Chomp, week after week, I turned the pile. Impatience is a quintessential urban trait, and my scarce patience was indeed tested. I willed the compost gods to ‘get on with it’., but the compost is not of the city. Its processes are of the Earth, and so gradually I came to accept that I was now on Nature’s clock.
That first harvest was a celebration. We turned the batch, breathed in its comforting aroma, sieved it over an old tarp, fed our plants, and then filled old takeout containers with black-gold for our friends’ balcony gardens.
In the years since I started composting, I have come to list it as a hobby. Though I am perfectly aware of course that composting in and of itself is a natural process and not a skill. Still, there is great pride in seeing waste turn to value, delight in finding a discarded seed sprouting from the warm depths of a bin, comfort in sinking my hands into mature compost, and kinship in being able to feed it to the plants and trees of my Juhu neighbourhood.
I am a committed composter today, and have cajoled, blackmailed and inspired innumerable friends to start their own composting journey. While the newscycle spins endless stories of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, when the conservation campaigns I work on are crushed under the weight of indifference and greed; I find myself turning from my work desk to contemplate the two terracotta-hued containers on my window sill. In dwelling on the quiet, invisible transformation of their hidden contents, I find hope and heart.
Cara Tejpal is a writer and wildlife conservationist with the Sanctuary Nature Foundation. You can find her on Instagram @carapiranha