One of my chores was to take the food scrap bucket to our hens-- or if they had enough scraps, the bucket was emptied onto the big pile of grass clippings and other garden waste in the backyard.
Not long after I moved out of home, I found myself in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. There was no formal waste collection service where I lived, so I had to do something about the waste produced in the house myself. I didn't have chickens but the village had pigs, so the food scraps were thrown under the house. In the night, the pigs would eat them and shake the house by scratching their backs against the house poles.
After moving to a pig-free home, I dug a hole behind the house and put all the food scraps there. After a few months, I was impressed to find a cherry tomato bush had grown from the discarded tomato seeds in the hole.
As my time in Papua New Guinea grew from one year to several, many holes were dug for food waste. A few years later, I found a small guava bush that had grown from another food waste pit. I didn't know it at the time but this approach to burying food waste is called "trench composting." It is a great way of adding nutrition to soil, especially in tropical climates where organic matter breaks down quickly. It is a kind of composting that is out of sight and out of mind.
I then moved to Mongolia, where the ground is frozen for about five months of the year. Suddenly unable to dig a hole, I found myself filling the rubbish bin with organic matter--and it felt wrong. My environmental awareness had improved greatly and I didn't want to contribute to increased emissions of greenhouse gases from my food waste going to the city landfill.
I went to the local market and purchased the biggest plastic bin I could find. I got hold of an electric drill and, with the help of my babysitter, drilled holes all over the bin--much to the bemusement of the Mongolian people in my building. I placed the bin on a small bit of soil in the corner of the compound.
By now my family included me, a husband, two young children and the babysitter. I wanted everyone to use the compost bin, so I stuck pictures and information on the kitchen wall about what does and doesn't go in the compost bin.
My first indicator that the composting bin had made it into daily family behaviour was when I told my two year old to put her apple core in the bin. She replied: "Which bin? The compost bin? The bin for the bottles or the bin for the other rubbish?"
My first indicator that the compost bin was crossing cultural boundaries was when I came home one day to find the Mongolian babysitter standing over the compost bucket and ripping a cardboard cereal box into small pieces.
We have a watchman at our compound. Every week, he watches me carry the compost bucket and old pot plant soil out to the big plastic bin in the yard. We have a few security cameras set up in our compound, so I know he can sit in the comfort of his little room and watch me tip the green and brown waste into the bin, shake it a lot, and stir it around with a length of metal pipe I found lying around.
Recently the babysitter asked, "Is it working?" The bin was almost full, so I pushed aside the new food scraps and dug deep down to the bottom. Yes, it was working! There was a mass of dark soil at the base of the bin--not too wet and no bad smell. I felt a connection with something bigger than me--a connection with the earth and a positive feeling of contribution. Further research has given me a name for my feeling: without meaning to--I have started "stewardship gardening." A key area of stewardship gardening is composting, which is considered stewardship of the soil. Over winter, it will be too cold outside for the composting process to work. I am now investigating indoor worm composting. The problem is that here I can't just go to a hardware store and buy a box of worms. They will have to be dug up by the river during summer. I am already preparing for the odd looks from the local people.
When God is recognised as the true and rightful owner of all creation, all who believe in God take on the spiritual and moral obligations of stewards. We become God's agents as people who care for creation. The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him. Psalms 24:1. Michelle Abel is programs director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Mongolia, based in Ulaanbaatar City.
This story is used with permission from Signs Publishing Company. More of these stories can be found in these collections: Ordinary People—Extraordinary God, Ordinary People—Faithful God, and Ordinary People—Generous God