She’s a Republican Congresswoman being groomed for the presidency, her party says—a woman to replace Trump, but not his policies. Over the past six months, I’ve been mourning the trees killed for her mail-based publicity. The League of Conservation Voters gives her a lifetime grade of 37 percent; her legislative record includes votes against pro-environment funding and bans on offshore drilling.1 As I stare at her smiling advertisement—“Independent Bipartisan Voice for the North Country”—all I can think of are the toxic inks and how the soil organisms will react.
The glossy page sits atop a budding compost ecosystem—after a hard winter, I stopped counting how many lambs wound up here, piled under clods of manure and a swath of reed canary grass. Now reaching temperatures that cause me to yank away my hand, this beautiful heap is producing bucketloads of rich, crumbly soil from wool and bone. Yesterday, our intern remarked on how amazing it is that the smooth, small perfection of a rib cage could grow in the uterus of a ewe. A month ago, this woman struggled being around insects and manure. She now peers with interest and wonder at the white skull separating from flesh and hair.
Over the past few years, I’ve been reading about bacteria who consume petrol, and of the fungi thriving on radiation in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.2 Cousins to the microbes inhabiting farm humus, these abundant organisms consume chemical compounds and excrete healthy elements. Simply by living, they and my compost companions clean up the toxic chemicals—formaldehyde, xenoestrogen-laden plastics, bisphenol A-filled receipts—that industrialized societies have created.3
Research done by the Environmental Working Group warns of the dioxins, chlorine, and heavy metals found in the majority of today’s paper products, 4 but recycling isn’t an option in my county. Where it does happen, the process for reusing crumpled envelopes and discarded TV boxes involves a water bath. The aforementioned carcinogens are either concentrated into “new” paper products or washed into rivers and soils, settling thousands of miles from where they began. This ineffective system means pollutants never meant to touch human skin are spread further yet, streaming from our kitchen taps 5 and carried in our 100 percent post-consumer waste toilet paper.
In an attempt to alleviate such horrors, I am experimenting, knowing that the thermophilic bacteria in the compost pile will recognize the volatility of paper-pulp chemicals. Composting has been proven to disintegrate molecular bonds and mineralize contaminants in ways unachievable by industrialized methods.6 Detritivores have the ability to heal, and to renew the world.
Not so long ago, “waste” referred only to that which was biodegradable. There was no other kind of trash, garbage, rubbish, or junk. That which was left behind was food scraps, clay shards, animal skins, and woven plant fibers.7 Antibiotics and pesticides did not swim through our veins; mercury and lead were not omnipresent in the average household. In 2001, American journalist Bill Moyer had his blood and urine tested. Eighty-four health hazards—endocrine disruptors, asthma-inducing chemicals, PCBs, phthalates, and more—had accumulated in his skin, his bones, his lungs, his brain.8
When members of this culture die, will our human bodies feed the soils, or poison them?
Reflecting on this culture that not only crafts life-annihilating substances, but embraces them, my daily existence is mission-oriented: I’ve stopped questioning my role as a regenerative agriculturist. For so long I thought to myself, “Other people do much more for the planet. I should be blowing up smelting plants. Tracking threatened woodpeckers. Blocking clearcuts. Not farming.” And someday, I will join tribes fighting oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest, sabotage Kansas-based vivisection labs, and protect endangered Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia. But right here, right now, on 114 acres of stolen Mohawk territory in northern New York, I restore Ashworths, a potato variety developed on this land seventy years ago.
If this is my task—to rejuvenate soils, reestablish rare foods, and teach others to do the same—then who is to say it’s not just as important a fight?
American Burying Beetles—beetles who lay their eggs in the flesh of dead mammals—have become nearly extinct. But if I were a burying beetle, I’d want my children raised on songs of revolution. As my larvae nibbled on the decaying body of a mouse, I would recite stories of how the destroyers had succumbed. I would breathe in the rich nutrients of somebody else’s carcass as I sang to my babies a respect for life. I’d tell them how the colonizers could not stand our presence, our ability to alter the world with our dreams, our ferocity and our births, so they eventually faded away. I would teach them how to make food from what was remaining, and as a result, the world would keep spinning.
Because that’s what it will take. Elise Stefanik is part of a materialistic system fixated on exterminating the fire of this diverse, planetary ecosystem. No matter how many bulldozers we gut, dams we obliterate, pesticides we ban, or liberals we elect, the dangerous products left from the fall of colonial capitalism will have to be dealt with. Sure, we can shutter our paint factories, but who will take care of the hexavalent chromium? If plastic bags are illegalized, is anyone out there to decompose hydrocarbons? And what if this culture continues? If people like Stefanik continue to set the rules of the game? If waterways and soils and airways and livers and hearts are continuously exposed to a flood of toxins?
The world will not keep spinning.
Thousands of years from now, our vault-bound skeletons may be excavated by anthropologists, but the burying beetles will have starved. Will there be, then, anyone left to clean up the mess? Will someone—a regenerative agriculturist, a little girl singing “Old McDonald,” a family who wants to eat—care enough to start a pile, an ecosystem; to make friends with fungi and partner with protozoa? After industry is gone, the only way to effectively eradicate the contamination is through bio and mycoremediation. We must rebuild the bridges between ourselves and every other organism.
As I lean grimly against the fence around the compost heap, I see a microcosm of the revolution that has already begun. Stefanik is not the only congressperson whose image is now being digested by saprobes, and she will certainly not be the last. I’d be nervous about the ecological consequences of composting an actual politician, but this? This is a damn good start.
1. “National Environmental Scorecard–Elise Stefanik,” League of Conservation Voters, 2019.
2. Heidi Ledford, “Hungry fungi chomp on radiation,” Nature News, May 23, 2007.
3. Renee Alexander, “Mushrooms Clean Up Toxic Mess, Including Plastic. So Why Aren’t They Used More?”, Yes Magazine, March 5, 2019.
4. “Dioxin,” Environmental Working Group, July 13, 2010.
5. “2,3,7,8–TCDD (Dioxin),” Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database,” 2015–2017.
6. Chris Rhodes, “Mycoremediation (Bioremediation with Fungi) – Growing Mushrooms To Clean The Earth,” Energy Balance, June 15, 2014.
7. Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay, What We Leave Behind (New York, Seven Stories Press, 2009).
8. “Bill Moyers’ Test Results,” Trade Secrets: A Moyers Report, PBS.