Decay, Part I:  Rats in the Bin
by Jeff Lewis

On a crisp autumn day, near the end of my last year in West Germany, a ray of light marked my future.  From out of a hole created by my bocce ball rose wisps of steam, faintly illuminated by the late afternoon light.  A sweet earthy smell enticed; a putridity revolted.  My companions—a couple of teachers’ kids joining me in a game of all-terrain bocce ball at a community pot luck—looked at the scene for what it was:  my first poorly placed toss had moved our target onto a compost pile; my second ill-advised heave sent a steel ball crashing through the brittle crust of dried lawn trimmings and potato peels, where it lay out of sight.

While they contemplated ways of fishing the ball out of the muck, I had an epiphany.  Actually, it technically wasn’t an epiphany because the Christ didn’t appear, since, if He is up there, He no doubt has better things to do than help get balls out of decaying table scraps, but it was a seminal event—I had found my calling, or at least what has become a not-very-lucrative portion of my calling.  As men of the cloth shepherd souls, I vowed to husband esprit, in the form of ridiculous games like compost bocce ball.

“No, we play on!,” I chirped, as Minna Lavalley—whose father taught us the game—plumbed the hole with a stick, in order to ascertain its depth.  “We must not breach the integrity of the rules.  All-terrain bocce ball is all-terrain.  This is how it’s done!  Plus, this lets us take into account the Z-axis.”  I beamed, and my enthusiasm was infectious.  Teachers’ kids are a good audience if the crux of your argument revolves around rules, integrity and geometry.  Thwummp.  Thwummp.  As one ball after another disappeared out of sight, the stakes grew:  my suggestion that the winner had to remove all eight balls from the pile had been universally applauded.  Each participant weighed the benefits of victory against the costs of having a stink-arm.  This was my second grand lesson of the day—cultivate strategy and make the rewards for victory ambiguous.  That is a sure-fire recipe for absurdity. 

As I was elbow deep in the compost, rooting around for the last of the balls, I made a third realization:  I didn’t mind the smell of the rotting produce and the decaying lawn trimmings.  Turning rubbish into soil is a neat trick, one that I hoped to duplicate someday in the future.  Through adolescence, college and my early years in the workforce, I’d occasionally revisit that summer day.  Usually, it would inspire me to call up some friends for a croquet match or a day-long round of Frisbee golf that spanned the borders of several cities and passed through a brackish marsh.  Other times, though, my thoughts turned to the smell of compost, usually after discovering that I’d let the contents of the crisper turn into bags of yellow-green mush.  To me, composting was a hobby that I looked forward to someday, but it was an adult act, one that comes with stability and home ownership, and something that runs contrary to Frisbee games in marshes.

Unfortunately, somewhere between that bocce ball game and my first house purchase fifteen years later, when I became an avid gardener, a tidbit of information soured me on home composting.  I don’t know the exact source, but I learned that compost heaps often harbor rodents, providing them with unparalleled free room and board.  No doubt this wouldn’t bother a sturdy Midwestern farm kid, but instead of mucking out barns on Saturday mornings, I spent hours watching old horror movies with my grandfather, enabling me to easily imagine sentient, vengeful rats or what it would be like to be stranded in a dump or on a pier with hordes of Norwegian Brown Rats closing in, fangs bared.

My distaste for rodents increased when, in high school, a couple of sizable tree rats took up residence in the walls of my bedroom.  When the lights would go out, they would scamper across the ceiling and slide down a duct in the wall near my head.  After I got over my initial horror—I thought a man was trying to break through the wall—I had to admit that the rats must be having fun, and I couldn’t begrudge them that.

They wouldn’t stop, however, so after several sleepless nights and some fruitless attempts to kill them with a mousetrap, my dad hid some poison peanut butter in the wall.  Lordy, lordy.  If there’s one piece of advice that you should take from me today, it’s this:  do not poison large rats in your bedroom walls, unless you plan to sleep elsewhere for the next three weeks.  They crawl between the boards to die and decompose.  The smell—oh my, it’s not pleasant—is the least of your worries because, at least from my experience, you’ll have swarms of flies with deformed wings running out of the walls and if you try to flush them down the toilet, they’ll survive in little bubbles, waiting to emerge elsewhere and breed legions of running wall flies.

When a new pair of rats moved into my wall months later, we’d learned our lesson and bought the type of rattrap that can snap off your little finger.  These traps supposedly are powerful enough to deliver a mercifully quick deathblow—allowing for convenient carcass removal—but they only stunned our sturdy visitors.  My dad had to climb into the crawl space and finish them off with a spade.  That’s the sign of a great dad, but also a clear message to avoid any unnecessary structures that can shelter rats.

In my first four years as a homeowner, I spent hundreds of dollars on bags of organic mulch and soil amendment, while at the same time wasting countless hours filling our recycling bin with yard waste that I could have composted.  My reason:  our neighbors’ ivy is filled with rodents of unusual size and I wanted to make sure that no settlers took refuge in our yard.  Occasionally, I’d see them shooting through the trees with preternatural quickness, reinforcing the notion in my mind that these rats were the devil’s kin.

I can relate to Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984.  If you strapped a rat cage to my face—even if it only held Wilbur’s reluctant friend Templeton—I’d sell out to Big Brother faster than you could say, “Zell Miller,” so to keep the beady-eyed vermin out of our yard, I planted several large catnip patches.  I thought this plan was too simple to succeed, but it’s worked out brilliantly and we’ve had ‘round-the-clock surveillance from a gray tomcat and his entourage ever since.  Granted, these cats are all addled by the catnip, but they’ve kept most of the rats away and have killed those that dared to stray.  Disposing of the occasional bird, squirrel or rat carcass has been a small price to pay (even when the rat’s body exceeds the length of the shovel head—yech!).

Still, the irrational fears of rats in the compost persisted until a conversation with Oliver Butterick shortly before we left on our month-long road trip through the American West.  We discussed his rat-free bin, which inspired me to do more research on animal-proof composting methods.  This convinced me that there are viable rodent-resistant compost methods, and that with diligence, I could set up a system that keeps the rats away from my spoiled eggplants and apple rinds.

At the first stop on our journey, we visited friends in Portland, who’d installed a rainwater collection system and hand-crafted stone wall, as well as a compost pile that we coveted.  The first two items are beyond me and therefore not worth contemplating, but the compost inspired me.  We were far from our yard, but during the quiet hours on the open road—when my wife and I tired of listing to MP3s or discussing the state of the world—my mind often turned to the compost in my future.

To be continued…

Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Lewis