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What’s Under There?

I had forgotten all about the little experiment I had begun about three years ago. As I was digging through a large, nicely aged compost trench, I noticed something strangely familiar. At first, I thought it was a headband. A number of fine roots had worn their way through the fabric, adding an earthy touch. As I pulled it from the ground, I realized that what I held in my gloved hand was an elastic waistband. I had composted my underwear.

It all started with the inevitable entropy of woven cotton fibers. Wear and washing erode their strength, and they begin to unwind into holes. When you get holes in your underwear, your options for recycling are rather limited. The Salvation Army and Goodwill are not interested in receiving such well-worn hand-me-downs (unless you’re a celebrity of some sort).

Most holey garments get tossed in the trash and end up encased in a film of plastic at a nearby Mount Trashmore. I’ve thrown some in my rag box, from which they usually get one last application that ends with a toss to the trash. There’s usually not a whole lot there to work with. I’ve got old undershirts I’ve reused numerous times; for rags, they rank right up there with old cotton diapers (I still have a couple around from my kids, the youngest of whom is almost 20), but the underpants go fast. Was there perhaps another recycling option?

Back in the ’70s, I sat through a workshop on vermiculture (a fancy way of saying “worm farming”) back at the old environmental center that used to be on Morton Avenue in Albany. The excited instructor had an aquarium of worms with him that were working away, converting organic material into nutrient-rich worm shit. He pulled a piece of elastic from the aquarium and informed us that this was what remained of a pair of underwear he’d tossed in for the worms. I was impressed.

When I started raising worms in my basement, I thought about the underwear experiment. I thought it might be fun to try to replicate it. After all, an important part of science is to replicate the experiments of others. So, when a holey pair became available I tossed them into a worm box for fodder. I saw them a few months later when I dumped the contents of the worm box into an outdoor composter. They had gained a lot more holes, with some areas looking almost web-like. The worms hadn’t dissolved them totally, but they seemed well on their way.

Well, I forgot about my little experiment and it wasn’t until I was screening through some compost recently that I made my discovery. There were no worms in the vicinity of what remained. They had finished their work long ago, and moved on to more tantalizing pastures of decomposing muck.

I found what remained of my underpants as I was taking a compost pile through its last step before being reintroduced into the garden. While compost is often idealized as coming out of a heap as perfect humus for immediate use, this often is not the case. There are all kinds of organic and inorganic items that end up in my compost heaps that may need to be screened out before putting the rich earth to use. Some things take a longer time than others to decompose, and other things like plastics and metals just don’t tend to break down much in a compost heap. Screening compost allows me to remove such objects and helps break up the compost further, exposing more of it to the menagerie of microscopic recyclers that release its nutrient riches to feed crops.

The key to sifting compost is a screen. Screens are available in a number of gardening catalogues, but they can be easily made. I learned to make sifting screens when I worked as an archaeologist. We used the screens to find small bits of artifacts. The company I worked for needed some screens made, so I made copies based on the ones they had been using. My current screen is a similar model.

The simple screen I made for sifting compost was built on a frame of one-by-twos that has its corners glued and screwed. I used a half-inch gauge wire cloth to cover the frame (total cost was less than $12). The dimensions I used made it possible for the screen to sit on top of my wheelbarrow, which when full could then deliver the fine material where needed. The size of the spaces in the wire cloth were such that most of the things I would want to be removed could be, and any worms caught in the operation could safely drop down through the screen.

I found a meditative aspect to screening compost. I’d pile four or five shovel loads onto the screen and then, with gloved hands, swirl the soil around, removing the sticks, roots, bits of plastic and other objectionable material from the screen. I felt closely in touch with the dirt passing through my hands. I found the screening process relaxing, and it was particularly satisfying to see my garbage in this new transformed role.

As in the days when I worked screening soil as an archaeologist, a number of human artifacts were uncovered by my screen. Pieces of plastic, fishing line, a small toy locomotive, a teaspoon, a piece of pipe, some metal hardware, bits of candy wrappers, 36 cents in change and the aforementioned underwear were collected from the screen. The little stickers that are used by stores to code fruit also showed up in large numbers, all that remained of the bananas, oranges and other fruit whose peels were processed by the heap.

With all this fine, screened compost, I expect that something I eat from the garden this year will have nutrients released from my decomposed underwear, leaving me in the very real position of having eaten my shorts.

—Tom Nattell

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