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April 1998
Compost Happens

By Naomi Dagen Bloom


Picture this transformative moment, a kitchen moment, in my life in art. After 30 years, I've returned to New York; the usual remains of breakfastÑcoffee grounds, eggshellsÑlie about. I want to walk out the back door, dump the stuff on the compost pile in the yard. But there's no back door, no yard. I'm on the 21st floor of the apartment I've exchanged for a house in Baltimore.

Reluctantly I put all of this into a plastic bag, drop it down a chute. Not a good feeling. Then, I remember a tour of Union Square Park a couple of years before. Amongst the Greenmarket farmers was Christine Datz-Romero of the Lower East Side Ecology center. She encourages people to bring her organic kitchen scraps that she feeds to red wiggler worms kept on a city lot. The worms produce the dark, crumbly material known as compost.

Art Happens
Joining her effort required space management skills--filling plastic containers with organic waste, squeezing them into the small 1960s freezer in my fridge. Every couple of weeks I'd make the subway trip from Harlem to Union square with the big frozen cubes on my lap. Hoping to make it easier to be environmentally correct, I decided to compost in my own kitchen. I had no idea this would lead me into art-making with dirt.

The equipment was simple. Christine sold me a very attractive wooden box (large enough for someone to sit on at a party), and a pound of red worms. The rhythmic tearing of newspaper for the worms' bed was hypnotic. Studying the change in the compost, developing a style for arranging the organic matter was wonderfully soothing. It was as the philosopher Satish Kumar says, " is not a product; it's a living process."

"Composting in Manhattan" was how I'd describe to friends my choice of New York City as a retirement destination. Writing in an essay workshop about how the phrase became a reality led to an invitation to a poetry-reading in a Korean deli on Fifth Avenue. Taking worms along, I amused and puzzled participants at an avant garde Festival in Trenton.

Possibilities continue: the work has become a Parnassus on wheels, a traveling wormarama. Sometimes it's an outdoor event--a community fair in Morningside Park, the Blessing of the Animals at St. John the Divine. Now and then classroom teachers ask for a visit for science projects. Children love touching the worms and provide me with the housekeeping help needed every three or four months when the box is filled with rich, finished compost and has to be separated from the worms. Because they reproduce enthusiastically when fed regularly, extra worms are my gift to others who want to take up the art form.

"Oh, do they get out?" anxious city-dwellers ask. This question puzzles me less than, "What do you do with the compost?" Houseplants and street trees could really use the nourishment, I explain. Often I'm asked what my neighbors think. Well, they can't hear the worms; I don't take them out for walks. Last summer I discovered that New York City's Sierra Club had started a "Kitchen Scrap Composting Project." Working with community gardens around the city, this group encourages people living near gardens to carry their organic waste to the compost pile every garden keeps and offers walking tours of compost sites around the City.

Compost Day
To raise consciousness about composting's importance to the future of the ecosystem, Earth Day 1998 is Compost Day in the Union Square Greenmarket. Everyone who walks through the Greenmarket on Wednesday, April 22 from 7am to 4pm will be handed a free bag of compostÑa cupful or a pound. Christine will be there to share everything she knows about indoor and outdoor composting--much good news about hospitals and restaurants doing large-scale recycling of waste that could significantly alter the waste landscape. Rachel Treichler will explain how compost can decontaminate brownfields to bring abandoned industrial sites back onto the tax rolls.

Sierra's Solid Waste Committee, led by longtime activist Julia Willebrand, is also deeply involved. Her group's video production crew, a mix of college students, policy wonks, and retirees, will be taping on Earth Day to add footage to the cable television programs they are creating to be aired in the coming months on MNN, Manhattan public access. The message: the average New York City household throws away two pounds of organic waste every day; instead of landfills, let's demand alternatives. Both Sierra committees are ready to sign up new volunteers on Earth Day.

I'll be there with my beautiful wooden box ready to be cleaned out; local schools have been encouraged to bring students. Parents and their children can have a good time and learn more about "vermicomposting"--doing it with worms. Photos and information about where you can visit compost sites in the five boroughs will be displayed, as well as pictures of that highest point on the East Coast, Fresh Kills landfill. (It closes in 2001 and then, what?) Special publications and unusual information sources--"Worms Eat My Garbage"; "Worm Digest"; images from New Jersey's Yucky Wormsite--will be at the Sierra table.

Are you an environmental artist? Bring something we can post about your work. Can we collaborate on installations...performances about gusanos rojos? Once started with environmental art, there's no stopping. The Department of Sanitation's (DOS) unsalaried artist in residence, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, has set a standard to follow. She once spent months meeting with every DOS sanitation worker to shake hands as a way of "healing bad feelings and the workers' sense of isolation."

Whatever your interests--art, the environment, healthy living--join us on Earth Day. Pick up your free compost, a cupful or a pound, for your favorite plant or tree. And get the T-shirt: elegantly drawn worms and the message, "Compost happens!"

Naomi Dagen Bloom, a mixed media environmental artist, works with weathered shells, photos, compost, and red worms. Gusanos, Gusanos Rojos, Viven en Mi Casa, is an installation/performance presented in January in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which she hopes to replicate in the U.S. Contact her by e-mail at or Little Red Hen, P.O. Box 250068, Columbia University Station, NYC 10025.



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