Nuance over novelty. I first got the phrase from a podcast and have been internally committed to the notion ever since… well, before I didn’t have a catchy three-word phrase to define this extremely important philosophy which I have long held dear. I think it is the only just and true way to approach the bulk of your life if you expect to find any sort of fulfillment and joy in the long term, or even middle term. Me telling you this might do nothing to make you believe I’m right, but gardening can make you not only see the light, but believe the light, and then take your time exploring and appreciating the light, rather than just haphazardly walking into the light.

This isn’t the first time I’ve waxed on about how gardening will shift your worldview and make you gain an appreciation for this or that and if everyone did it the world would be a better place, and it certainly won’t be the last. But this particular worldview is 100% informed and reinforced by staring at plants and dirt.

Convenience culture’s got us seeking a new high day-by-day, and that high is always readily available to us. Chasing a new job that will once and for all make us feel wholly accomplished, exploring our sexuality to fill the void, or buying the newest flavor of Doritos—it’s all feeding the same high, the same desire for newness and immediacy. There is no grounding, no base to work off of, no appreciation for the beauty of what is in front of you and already changing and growing. Look in the mirror and watch the growing, changing decay fall upon your novelty-addicted soul, by way of your body.

Now turn to nature instead, because all this attention laid on yourself will at best make you overly vain, and at worst, destroy your will to live, novelty-addled or no. Let us use compost as our surrogate to push past the anomie. Dirt has to be about the least novelistic, outwardly boring substance on the planet. At the same time, next to perhaps air, carbon, and water, it is the most significant component to our own and our fellow carbon-based life forms’ well being. It is a base from which to grow. It is literally the ground beneath our feet. It informs all that grows above it. Its inner workings are complex, full of mystery, and slowly but circularly ever-changing.

I am not implying that dedicating the rest of your life to a compost pile is the one true path to inner happiness and eternal light, but it’s a good starting place. True happiness isn’t found chasing sunsets from continent to continent, but by admiring a tall blade of grass outside your window as the sun and wind delicately dance upon it. Still, we all need vacations. Also, we should all be making our own compost. And paying attention to it.

Start by making your compost visible. If done wrong, compost itself can fall victim to novelty. Those closed system barrels that look so sleek and hide the nasty business of food turning to gold: they are terrible and totally ruin the point of watching a thing change and grow and become more and better. Also, those barrels are expensive and constantly break because they are rarely strong enough to support the dense, moist materials you are throwing in them. And because the compost is forgotten when hidden away, it is rarely turned and always without sunlight, so anaerobic conditions turn your food not into loamy nutrient-rich earth panacea, but smelly slime crawling with maggots.

I said start by making your compost visible but really, that’s the end of it, too. It’s all nuance after this. Build some sort of structure to contain your food and yard waste outside. I am a huge proponent of the super simple palate structure, but really, you can just make a pile. Actually two piles. It’s important that once you fill one pile up you don’t keep adding to it, so that everything in it can do its work and morph into a new and better thing, hence the second pile.

Depending on the scientist or garden dweeb you ask, you’ll want your pile to be two parts brown material to one green material, or two parts green to one brown. I’m a fan of one to one. But again, you must watch and see what gives. Green materials are fresh foods and grass: wet, good nitrogen content, perhaps rotting, but still holding onto life sorts of things. Brown materials are brown and carbon heavy: hay, leaves, twigs, or paper. If you have too much brown material, you will see little to no change in your compost. If you have too much green, everything will just sit there, and things might get a little slimy.

The only other thing you have to do is turn your compost every now and again. Just take the stuff on the bottom and put it on top. More or less. Just stirring it up a little is fine. Now and again can be daily or every couple of weeks. The more you do it, the more you’ll pay attention though, and if you want to learn patience, nuance, and a better way of approaching the world forever, you should pay attention to your compost often.

It may take weeks, but it will probably take months. At some point, you will will have watched your disgusting trash become the foundation for life as we know it on this planet, a delightfully refreshing black mass of elements, nutrients, and bacteria that feed everything that feeds you, which rests upon the bedrock of this planet and raises up the creatures that allow you to breathe every damn day. If that’s not better than the newest color of Mountain Dew then I don’t know what is.

The point is, find a thing, pay attention to that thing, enjoy that thing, learn its inner workings and learn that there are more inner workings beyond that surface layer which there is also so much to learn about. You don’t get good at being in the world, or in your skin, by jumping around from place to place, job to job, person to person, flavor to flavor. You plant seeds, you nurture the soil they rest in, you watch them grow, you nurture them along the way, you watch the sun dapple their leaves, you enjoy their fruit, and you smile all along the way, dammit.

IAN WILLSON | ian@southboundgardens.com

illustrations MELISSA GUION