Thursday, August 21, 2008

Compost Happens

Rain, rain, rain. Yet another weather-related excuse to hole up in the basement. Not that I need much more of a reason than because-I-feel-like-it. I did go out to put the birds in the paddock for the day, take a look around, remember that I still have that tansy to pull out in the back field, and avoid scaring the deer hanging out by the compost piles.

The day before yesterday I moved a maturing compost pile over to cover the newer one that contained the duck and fish remains. The last thing my dear wife needs to see is the remains of the duck scattered about by some enterprising dog or raccoon. The extra compost will cover and hasten the decay.

The first year we plowed the field, our soil, a silty clay loam, had a distinct red hue. Drainage was going to be a problem, and there was a lot of iron. It was clear that the soil needed amending if we were going to get any sizable production from it, so I started my first compost pile. Composed mostly of llama dung from our neighbors and grass clippings, it was on the small side, and as compost piles do, it got smaller and smaller as it cooked. I went in search of sources for a greater amount of compostable materials. I sought out dairy and beef farmer willing to part with their black gold, and it wasn’t long before I had 40 tons in big piles scattered about the farm. In order to maintain a good cook, compost needs to be turned on a regular basis. Up until now I had been turning my pile by hand with a pitchfork. That would no longer be possible, so I bought a new tractor with a front-end loader.

I derived a certain pleasure in building my compost piles. A good compost pile requires a specific architecture and dimensions to work properly. My tractor was my sculpting tool and the piles were my big minimalist sculptures. Daily, I would check the temps on each pile, making sure they weren’t getting too hot or cool. I watered them if the seemed to be drying out. I took pride in my piles.

After the compost matured, taking about nine months depending on its components, it was ready to be spread. The compost we started each previous summer was put on the fields in the spring right before we tilled. Very convenient. Now, five years later, our soil is a rich brown color and kicks ass in production. My dear wife dubbed me “The King of Compost,” and bought me a sign that stated, “Trespassers will be composted.”

Yes, a good-sized compost pile can erase any trace of a human body, for instance, one of the tweakers that crash at a house behind our place. (Don’t worry, it’s just a fantasy.) And, as I’ve indicated elsewhere, our piles have included several beast and fowl over the years: ducks, guineas, possums, skunks, stray cats, a deer, a calf and innumerable gophers.

And one coyote.

The coyote is in a very special compost pile, one that will never grace our fields. It is an art project. Or maybe it’s art therapy.

I had this one idea for an art piece for a while, ever since I grew my hair out. When it is not back in a ponytail, I look a little wild, especially when I have my requisite Great Northwest facial hair going at the same time. I envisioned a photo shoot of me, naked in one of our stunning temperate rainforests with dead animals, specifically a deer and a coyote, hanging from trees. It would be raining. I put a call out to sheep farmers I know that if they should trap a coyote, I’d like the carcass.

Months went by. A long, cold, cloudy and wet autumn, winter and spring ensued. Rain, snow, rain, rain, rain, snow, rain, rain, rain. The weather up here can have a deleterious effect on the soul. Combine that with the variance that is farming and a host of other little setbacks, I sunk into a funk, and my mind turned into mud. I didn’t care about much of anything except poker, my great escape, yet even my game suffered.

I tell you this only to set a scene. For years I worked as a serious artist. I was well-regarded, yet for some reason that still somewhat eludes me, I was unable to get my career started. Farming was a bit of a reaction to that disappointment, and now that endeavor was failing as well. Despite having an enviable list of clients, we just couldn’t make the type of money we needed to justify continuing. We didn’t know what exactly we were going to do next, but it was clear that things couldn’t continue as they were.

I was waiting for a pub game to start when my cell rang. It was my dear wife. A neighbor had a coyote for me and he was bringing it over as we spoke. Did I even want a coyote now? Well, the guy was on his way and I couldn’t leave her to turn him away, so I jumped in my rig and scurried home.

It’s fairly obvious that I ended up taking the canine. It was a female and the wire noose was still around its neck. I put it in a garbage bag, locked it up in the barn and returned to the poker game. I’d deal with it, meaning compost it, in the morning.

Morning came and went. A week went by, it was cold outside, and so the coyote remained. For some reason I couldn’t get rid of it. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of getting naked in the cold and rain, yet I also kept thinking of the German artist, Joseph Beuys’ 1974 performance piece, “I like America and America Likes Me.”

A short description of the action can be read here:
(For any of what follows to make sense, you will have to read the Tate article.)

Beuys was an early influence for my art. His insights into what can be art had, at one point in my life, given me hope. I revisited “I like America” and found a spark of inspiration. I would use the coyote.

Since 1993 I have had subscriptions to “ArtForum” and “Art in America,” two of the more prominent art magazines here in the States. Thinking that these periodicals were invaluable records of recent art history and criticism, I kept all of the issues. I was mentioned in a couple issues, plus there were a few reviews of exhibits we had at our short-lived gallery, so in a small way we were a part of that history. Yet, the importance of these mags had decreased as my mood deteriorated. They began to represent unfulfilled dreams and goals. I took all of them, along with my video camera, out by the compost.

I made a 5-foot in diameter, 15-magazines-deep ring on the ground of the “ArtForums.” I then draped myself in a plastic tarp and stood in the ring. Then I introduced the coyote to the ring, draped myself again and stood to the side of the ring. I propped the coyote up with all of the “Art in Americas” to make it look like it was running. And, finally, I covered the whole thing in compost and placed the tarp over the pile.

That “action” took place this spring, and I am just now in the process of editing that video. I call it “I like art but.” I view the piece as a sort of catharsis for my ambivalence toward things I used to enjoy: making art and compost. Now that I’m making art again, it looks like it worked. The pile itself has gotten a little smaller and there are plants growing on it, despite it being tarped. I need to go out and weed it. Maybe when it quits raining.


Forrest Gump said...

Somewhere on the other side of the planet there exists a hippie that sculpts tonnes of manure in a tractor and stands naked in the rain with a dead coyote.

God I love the Internet some days.


PAPro_SandMan said...

And they say that art is dead. Hey, wait a minute...