According to the dictionary, compost is "a mixture of decomposing vegetable refuse, manure, etc. for fertilizing and conditioning the soil." The Practical Handbook of Compost Engineering defines composting with a mouthful: "The biological decomposition and stabilization of organic substrates, under conditions that allow development of thermophilic temperatures as a result of biologically produced heat, to produce a final product that is stable, free of pathogens and plant seeds, and can be beneficially applied to land."
The On-Farm Composting Handbook says that compost is "a group of organic residues or a mixture of organic residues and soil that have been piled, moistened, and allowed to undergo aerobic biological decomposition. "
The Compost Council adds their two-cents worth in defining compost: "Compost is the stabilized and sanitized product of composting; compost is largely decomposed material and is in the process of humification (curing). Compost has little resemblance in physical form to the original material from which it is made." That last sentence should be particularly reassuring to the humanure composter.
J. I. Rodale states it a bit more eloquently: "Compost is more than a fertilizer or a healing agent for the soil's wounds. It is a symbol of continuing life . . . The compost heap is to the organic gardener what the typewriter is to the writer, what the shovel is to the laborer, and what the truck is to the truckdriver." 4
In general, composting is a process managed by humans involving the cultivation of microorganisms that degrade and transform organic materials while in the presence of oxygen. When properly managed, the compost becomes so heavily populated with ther-mophilic microorganisms that it generates quite a bit of heat. Compost microorganisms can be so efficient at converting organic material into humus that the phenomenon is nothing short of miraculous.
In a sense, we have a universe above us and one below us. The one above us can be seen in the heavens at night, but the one below us is invisible without magnifying lenses. Our ancestors had little understanding of the vast, invisible world which surrounded them, a world of countless creatures so small as to be quite beyond the range of human sight. And yet, some of those microscopic creatures were already doing work for humanity in the production of foods such as beer, wine, cheese, or bread. Although yeasts have been used by people for centuries, bacteria have only become harnessed by western humanity in recent times. Composting is one means by which the power of microorganisms can be utilized for the betterment of humankind. Prior to the advancement of magnification, our ancestors didn't understand the role of microorganisms in the decomposition of organic matter, nor the efficacy of microscopic life in converting humanure, food scraps and plant residues into soil.
The composting of organic materials requires armies of bacteria. This microscopic force works so vigorously that it heats the material to temperatures hotter than are normally found in nature. Other micro (invisible) and macro (visible) organisms such as fungi and insects help in the composting process, too. When the compost cools down, earthworms often move in and eat their fill of delicacies, their excreta becoming a further refinement of the compost.
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