Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Misadventures in Going Green: What is This, A Mutiny for Worms?

Note: This post contains some affiliate links to products and resources that will help you prevent tiny worm insurrections.

Having learned my lesson with litter bucket composting, I resolved to do better the next time around. After I had moved to California and was planning a garden, my then-boyfriend's aunt serendipitously gifted us a box of worms.

Raising worms, or vermiculture, is another way to turn (some) food scraps into fertilizer It's supposed to be a bit easier than regular composting, too-- if you have a worm frame (like this one by Nature's Footprint or this one by VermiHut), you can move around and swap out trays of food scraps as they're broken down into nutrient-rich worm doots. The worms'll migrate to where the food is, so you don't really need to worry about spending too much time moving them around or picking them out by hand.

We did not have a worm frame.

What we did have was a large Rubbermaid-style container; the kind you'd use to keep winter clothes in an attic. After being assured that this would suffice, we put a layer of paper and hay in the bottom, added some worm-safe food scraps, and drilled holes in the sides of the container for ventilation. In went the worms, and we let them sit near the door to the laundry room. It was too hot out to just stick them outside, so we didn't worry too much about it beyond adding new food scraps as needed and making sure things didn't get too dry. It's not like we'd have to worry about them figuring out how to climb and making a break for it, right?

"Perfect!" I thought as I read vermiculture sites with a nearly religious fervor, "This is going to be way better than regular composting."
I am dumb.

To this day, I have no idea how it happened. All I know is that, over a period of weeks, worms steadily disappeared from the container and reappeared throughout the house-- usually desiccated into ramen noodles as envisioned by Guillermo del Toro. We made sure they were getting enough air, they kept climbing out. We made sure things were moist, they insisted on drying up on the floor. We made sure that they hadn't been given papaya, pineapple, or anything else unsafe for worms to have, they mutinied their non-existant asses all the way into the living room. I didn't want my tiny fertilizer buddies to suffer, but the "How To" sites I'd been combing for info weren't any help-- as far as they were concerned, worms leaving food, darkness, and safety in favor of a foot-and-a-half vertical climb up a smooth surface should not have been a thing.

[caption id="attachment_2017" align="aligncenter" width="334"]"ⱽᶦᵛᵃ ᶫᵃ ʳᵉˢᶦˢᵗᵃᶰᶜᵉ﹗" "ⱽᶦᵛᵃ ᶫᵃ ʳᵉˢᶦˢᵗᵃᶰᶜᵉ﹗"[/caption]

Eventually, the container sat empty. We considered putting fresh worms in and stapling tiny screens over the ventilation holes, but IIH had left me too tired and run down to consider maintaining a garden by then. About a year later, I made my way out of California and back across to the east coast. Now I live in an apartment, which is probably a good thing-- even if I have a lot of potted plants, the lack of a yard saves me from any more composting notions.

Interested in vermicomposting, but not sure how to start? Check out some of these titles to help get you on your way:


Friday, January 8, 2016

Misadventures in Going Green: Composting.

Like a lot of Pagans, limiting my impact on the environment is important to me. It kind of comes part and parcel with the nature veneration thing-- you try your best to avoid donking it all up by making conscientious choices. What those choices are varies from person to person: foregoing factory-farmed meat, eating organic, eating local, supporting green industries, growing their own food and herbs, and so on. Naturally, once I managed to move out of an apartment and into a house with an actual yard, I was stoked about the possibility of being able to grow my own things. As part of my attempts to live sustainably, I wanted composting to be part of that.

How hard could it be? You start with food scraps, yard waste, maybe some paper or cardboard, make sure it stays moist and aerated, and compost happens. It's the circle of life (or close enough).

So, I got a container, drilled holes in it for aeration, put it in a spot in the yard where there'd be enough room to keep it turned regularly, and went to town filling it up.

[caption id="attachment_1963" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Bam. Bam.[/caption]

As it turns out, I greatly underestimated the amount of compostable food scraps a household of three people can produce. Even when one of them is a gamer dudebro who subsists entirely on Mountain Dew and takeout, that's a lot of vegetable scraps. Like, a lot-lot.
I also greatly underestimated the amount of poo that a 10 pound rabbit can produce in a week. Between bunny turds, used bedding, and food scraps, the bucket was full to bursting in a fortnight.

Still! No worries. I'd keep it turned, eventually it'd become compost, and it was still better than sending all of that stuff to a landfill where it'd only putrefy to begin with. So, I turned that bucket religiously. Every other day I tumbled it, made sure the contents weren't drying out, and crossed my fingers hoping for some baby dirt.

[caption id="attachment_1964" align="aligncenter" width="300"]"Dude, I put my extra cheese and nasty hard tortillas in an area. They get all rotty. A fly has a baby. Dirt is born. Share this moment with me." -- Raymond Q. Smuckles "Dude, I put my extra cheese and nasty hard tortillas in an area. They get all rotty. A fly has a baby. Dirt is born. Share this moment with me."   -- Raymond Q. Smuckles[/caption]

As it turns out, it's markedly difficult to separate baby dirt from banana peels and moldering bunny doots. My reused cat litter bucket didn't have a trap or extra door of any kind, so opening it up to obtain the precious soil nutrients inside was going to be a bit of an endeavor.

When I caught my then-boyfriend's dog eating out of the bucket, I realized it was an endeavor I was not going to undertake. She was fine afterward and I didn't find her behavior particularly alarming; this was the same animal who, left unsupervised for several minutes, had also managed to eat a quarter pound of Miracle-Gro, a live cactus, most of a bottle of lithium, and nearly the entire contents of a cat litter box. So I separated out what compost I could find, spread it around some of the trees in the yard, and scrapped the rest (bucket included).
It'd be several years (and yards) before I attempted to compost again... But that's another story.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Lachrymatories: Ancient Mourning Practice, or Marketing Strategy?

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Lachrymatories, or tear catchers, are tiny bottles purported to have a very unique purpose: to catch and hold tears.

Picture mourners using them to capture the embodiment of their sorrow as offerings for the dead. Women holding onto them when they were separated from their lovers by war, the better to be able to show them just how much they'd been missed upon their return. Not all of them were for sadness and mourning, though-- sometimes a lachrymatory was presented as a wedding gift or upon the birth of a child, the better to remember tears of joy.

[caption id="attachment_1906" align="aligncenter" width="239"]Photo by Georges Jansoone, via Wikipedia. Photo by Georges Jansoone, via Wikipedia.[/caption]

Though these tiny bottles are best known for frequently appearing in ancient Greek and Roman tombs, their use is disputed. There's more evidence that they were for perfumes and unguents than for catching tears from mourners. That didn't stop later artisans and manufacturers from making them, and it's easy to find stunningly beautiful Victorian-era lachrymatories of blown glass and gold. Occasionally, it's possible to find a collection (like this one from ottomanembroideries) of carefully preserved pieces in cobalt blue and clear cut glass. Modern glassblowers and ceramicists create still more elaborate pieces in bright colors and unusual shapes, and there are some really pretty pieces from Czechoslovakia with metalwork.

Lachrymatories hold a strange kind of fascination for me. I've always absolutely loved the idea of something somber given a bright, beautiful form-- it's a big part of my preoccupation with painting ravens, crows, and other carrion birds. The idea of a tear catcher rendered as a delicate blown glass confection has definite appeal, in an aesthetic sense. However, as Victorian Gothic says in The Enigmatic Lachrymatory, or Tear Bottle:
Google Books searches reveal no discussion of the lachrymatory custom in etiquette manuals, nor do they appear in product catalogs. There are seemingly no unambiguous descriptions of real or fictional characters making actual use of a tear bottle as a normal part of Victorian mourning practice.

In an ironic twist of life imitating art, the stories of mourners capturing their tears in tiny vials has influenced the creation of modern tear catchers. Even though they're sold to hold perfume or essential oils, it's the romanticized image of a tearful Victorian heroine that gives them their cachet.

Fortunately, due to the abundance of vials found in ancient burial sites and Victorian boudoirs, collecting tear catchers is easy. There are any number of eBay and Etsy listings of bottles ranging from modern blown glass to ceramic circa 100 BCE. Even though they may never have held the tears of an ancient mourner, isn't it a poetic notion?