Everything comes down to soil in the end. You’ve probably heard that Rupert Murdoch and his publishing company HarperCollins decided not to publish If I Did It, a description by O.J. Simpson of how things would have gone down a dozen years ago if he had in fact killed his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Unfortunately, HarperCollins had printed some 400,000 copies of the book before they got the word from Mr. Murdoch. Now, HarperCollins has nearly half a million books to destroy. If the books weigh about a pound each, that comes out to 200 tons of paper. I have one word for the publisher: compost.
Publishers routinely go to professional shredding companies to dispose of books that aren’t selling. (The shredding trade group bears the portentous name National Association for Information Destruction.) If you’d been diligently reading Recycling Today, you’d know that Random House recently purchased its own Bollegraaf system for shredding and baling at its Crawfordsville, Ind., book-destruction facility.
The professionally shredded stuff goes to landfills, where it decomposes eventually. But, especially in the case of O.J.’s opus, that would be missing an opportunity to turn something apparently useless into the most useful thing of all—better soil.
In a country of 300 million, we’ve got to have at least half a million serious compost-makers. These good souls walk out of the kitchen day after day, in snow and rain, to toss kitchen and garden waste onto a compost heap. Composters then wait a few months and spread the matured rich, dark crumbly stuff on their flower and vegetable beds.
You can enclose the heap, or not, put it in a plastic tumbler, or not. There are many theories as to what works best, complex descriptions of how to get the pile warm and working fast; the inevitable truth is that everything breaks down eventually. It’s hard to fail with entropy, for once, on your side.
Dedicated composters have been pushing the envelope, mixing in newspaper, telephone books, and cardboard. So, here’s the plan: Give out one copy apiece of If I Did It to individual organic gardeners, and get them to sign a pledge not to read the book or sell it on eBay.
The glossy color cover, with metals in the pigments, is the first problem. Composters should rip off the covers and let them soak for a few months.
The next step is to shred the pages into pieces small enough to decompose readily. Shredding the pages by hand would be, in its way, cathartic, but very slow. You could use an office paper shredder, or you could put clumps of pages into the kind of tumbler that municipalities use for grinding and recycling Christmas trees.
You may recall the Lewiston, Maine, minister who wanted to burn copies of the Harry Potter books, imbued as they were with black magic. Denied a burning permit, he had to shred them by hand. Let’s give that man something more productive to do.
The principle behind shredding or chopping is that it increases the surface area that the decomposers (microbes, bacteria, worms, centipedes, et al.) can attack. Big clumps of book pages would stymie the decomposers and make the pile wet and airless; unshredded, Simpson’s book would literally muck up the compost heap.
Decomposition works best when you make a mixture of woody, carbon-rich waste (stuff like wood chips, straw, dead leaves, twigs) and softer, nitrogen-rich materials (vegetable peelings, grass clippings, faded cut flowers). So you’d need to balance your newly shredded HarperCollins carbon by forking in a roughly equivalent amount of green vegetable matter. (Here’s a list of good stuff and a list of bad stuff to use in your compost heap.)
The next decision is what to use as a composting activator. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it provides food for the small, helpful critters that do the breaking down.
Stuart Campbell, author of my favorite compost-advice book, Let It Rot, e-mailed this advice: “I would suggest, in all seriousness (sweet irony of the whole OJ scenario notwithstanding), the use of manure. If thoroughly mixed with the paper and given enough time, it should produce wonderful, odorless yet fertile mulch. Any and all kinds of animal manure (other than human) would work well. The ‘hottest’ manure, in terms of its ability to decompose adjacent materials quickly would be chicken shit.”
A useful rule of thumb, by the way, is that the smaller the creature, the more potent the manure—bat guano, whew; elephant poop, mellow. Most experienced gardeners are fond of cow manure; the journey through a cow’s four stomachs usually digests weed seeds. Blood meal is a common manure alternative, but perhaps not a tactful ingredient in this context.
Every few weeks, the gardener would then turn the pile over with a manure fork, mixing green and brown. Give it some water if there’s no rain. By next spring, If I Did It would be turned into the best possible (and free) soil conditioner. Basically, you’d have re-created what happens naturally in the woods. Instead of fallen leaves and pine needles breaking down, you’d have the words of O.J.
Seems like a lot of work, but far more challenging composting problems have been mastered. See “Composting Catastrophic Event Poultry Mortalities,” a paper from the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. (In heat waves, cramped chickens often die en masse.) The Kansas State University newsletter for the cattle industry, “Beef Tips,” thinks even bigger, providing information on “mortality composting.”
From there? One L. Mark Finch composed a poem called “Compost,” which begins with these heartfelt lines:
When I’ve left my husk and you’ve had your weep
Toss me out on the compost heap.
Mix me in with the leaves and such
And sprinkle some water—it won’t take much,
Stir well with a fork, or whatever you’ve got,
Do what it takes to help me rot.
Walt Whitman, an earlier and somewhat better-known American poet, wrote “This Compost,” which includes the following:
Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and
It grows such sweet things out of such