The Origins of Composting

Composting is far more than a branch of the new green movement – it’s a system as ancient as life itself.

So much of what we do now we consider to be new, revolutionary even – granted, Mozart couldn’t listen to rival composers on an iPod and Newton was born centuries before the first computer came to life, but what about the green movement that’s taken hold of everything from shampoo to politics?  The majority of the contested elements involved in the movement – energy, habitat destruction, materialization – have only existed on a large scale since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century.  Much of what the green movement is advocating is not new at all, but rather a return to a not-so-distant past.  Composting, in fact, has been around for longer than humans have been on Earth, the practice of decomposing organics that is now gaining ground having first started on an Earth billions of years away from needing its own movement.

Moss, a bryophyte. Bryophytes are thought to be some of the first plants to colonize land. Photo courtesy of Raphaëlle Scalvenzi/Fotopedia Creative Commons

Imagine this: Earth’s crust has finally solidified and its volcanoes are spewing water vapor, which falls as rain after condensing in the atmosphere and creates the oceans.  Approximately 3,500 million years ago, the first organisms came to life in those oceans, the cycle of life and death that today allows what we know as composting to function beginning.  The first land plants appeared 445 million years ago, while humans have only been around for 200,000 years.  Throughout time, organisms have died, been decomposed, and supplemented the growth of new life, their nutrients being continually recycled.

Humans got involved in the process late but composted long before the present day.  In fact, the first account of composting dates back to the Akkadian Dynasty, which took place in a fertile area of modern-day Iraq between 2320 BC and 2120 BC.  The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans were all versed in composting, and Cleopatra is said to have declared worms sacred after seeing them engaged in the practice.  Marcus Cato, a Roman Statesman, was responsible for the first written composting instructions and may have been the first to practice vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic materials.  Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet mentioned composting, advising his mother “Confess yourself to heaven, Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come, And do not spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4).

Justus von Liebig, whose research led to widespread chemical fertilization. Photo courtesy of telehistoriska/Flickr Creative Commons

In 1840, chemical fertilization began to take off when the German scientist Justus von Liebig determined that plants draw nourishment from chemicals in solution.  It wasn’t until Sir Albert Howard – known as the father of modern compost making – published An Agricultural Testament a century later that organic farming found new appreciation. Howard believed that “the wheel of life is made up of two processes, growth and decay, and one is the counterpart of the other.”  He developed what is known as the Indore method of composting after spending 1905 to 1934 working in India with local farmers.  His method combines three parts organic matter with one part manure in layers, which are regularly moistened and turned until ready to be applied to gardens and fields.  J.I. Rodale imported Howard’s method to the United States, where he distributed it in his magazine Organic Gardening. Since then, vermicomposting – originally commercialized in order to provide sports fishermen with bait worms – has also become a commonly used method for breaking down organic waste for use in growing.

Composting as a human process is becoming more and more common in the present day as we fight to find ways to protect the planet and support our own habits and needs.  However, before we charge ahead into the future, embracing organics recycling as just another fresh wave in the tide of green overtaking the globe, we would do well to look back on its history and remember that we are not instating a fancy, man-made program to save the Earth – we are restoring one that functioned perfectly without our help.