Compost Goals — via Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

I’ve run out of compost! I’m not half-way through getting my beds in order and I’ve already distributed what I thought was a large pile of black gold. Without going off campus (and out of pocket) to buy more, I’m going to have to get creative to build up some carbon and nitrogen source for my plants.

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss my short- and long-term compost solutions, but for the time being, enjoy this excerpt from one of my favorite series.

Compost in Discworld

reaper-man-coverIf you are looking for something to read during lock-down and haven’t started Terry Pratchett’s discworld series, then here’s a little taste. If you have already enjoyed some of this world, then skip the next paragraph, but if you haven’t, here’s a little context.

The discworld is exactly that, a flat world. It rests on the back of four elephants who stand on the back of a turtle, the Great A’Tuin, swimming through space. It is a medieval-ish world, full of humans, dwarfs, trolls, and satire. The following scene takes place at the Unseen University, the premier school of wizardry on the disc, and is an excerpt from the book Reaper Man.

Modo the University gardener hummed a little tune as he wheeled the strange trolley into his private little area between the Library and the High Energy Magic building, with a load of weeds bound for composthood.

There seemed to be a lot of excitement around at the moment. It was certainly interesting, working with all these wizards.

Teamwork, that’s what it was. They looked after the cosmic balance, the universal harmonies and the dimensional equilibriums, and he saw to it that the aphids stayed off the roses.

There was a metallic tinkle. He peered over the top of the heap of weeds.

“Another one?”

A gleaming metal wire basket on little wheels sat on the path.

Maybe the wizards had bought it for him? The first one was quite useful, although it was a little hard to steer; the little wheels seemed to want to go in different directions. There was probably a knack.

Well, this one would be handy for carrying seed trays in. He pushed the second trolley aside and heard, behind him, a sound which, if it had to be written down, and if he could write, he would probably have written down as: glop.

He turned around, saw the biggest of the compost heaps pulsating in the dark, and said, “Look what I brought you for your tea!”

And then he saw that it was moving.

. . .

There was another scream.

Ridcully scrambled to his feet.

“Come on, you fellows!” he said, limping heroically onward.

“Why does everyone run toward a blood-curdling scream?” mumbled the Senior Wrangler. “It’s contrary to all sense.”

They trotted out through the cloisters and into the quadrangle.

A rounded, dark shape was squatting in the middle of the ancient lawn. Steam was coming out if it in little, noisome wisps.

“What is it?”

“It can’t be a compost heap in the middle of the lawn, can it?”

“Modo will be very upset.”

The Dean peered closer. “Er . . . especially because, I do believe, that’s his feet poking out from under it . . .”

The heap swiveled toward the wizards and made a glop, glop noise.

Then it moved.

“Right, then,” said Ridcully, rubbing his hands together hopefully, “which of you fellows has got a spell about them at the moment?”

The wizards patted their pockets in an embarrassed fashion.

“Then I shall attract its attention while the Bursar and the Dean try to pull Modo out,” said Ridcully.

“Oh, good,” said the Dean faintly.

“How can you attract a compost heap’s attention?” said the Senior Wrangler. “I shouldn’t think it’s even got one.”

Ridcully removed his hat and stepped gingerly forward.

“Load of rubbish!” he shouted.

The Senior Wrangler groaned and put his hand over his eyes.

Ridcully flapped his hat in front of the heap.

“Biodegradable garbage!”

“Poor green trash?” said the Lecturer in Recent Runes helpfully.

“That’s the ticket,” said the Archchancellor. “Try to infuriate the bugger.”

The heap lunged at the hat.

“Midden!” said Ridcully.

“Oh, I say,” said the Lecturer in Recent Runes, shocked.

The Dean and Bursar crept forward, grabbed a gardener’s foot each, and pulled. Modo slid out of the heap.

“It’s eaten through his clothes!” said the Dean.

“But he’s all right?”

“He’s still breathing,” said the Bursar.

“And if he’s lucky, he’s lost his sense of smell,” said the Dean.

The heap snapped at Ridcully’s hat. There was a glop. The point of the hat vanished.

“Hey, there was still almost half a bottle in there!” Ridcully roared. The Senior Wrangler grabbed his arm.

“Come on, Archchancellor!”

The heap swiveled and lunged towards the Bursar. The wizards backed away.

“It can’t be intelligent, can it?” said the Bursar.

“All it’s doing is moving around slowly and eating things,” said the Dean.

“Put a pointy hat on it and it’d be a faculty member,” said the Archchancellor.

The heap came after them.

“I wouldn’t call that moving slowly,” said the Dean. They looked expectantly at the Archchancellor.

“Run!”

Portly though most of the faculty were, they hit a fair turn of speed up the cloisters, fought one another through the door, slammed it behind them and leaned on it. Very soon afterward, there was a damp, heavy thud on the far side.

“We’re well out of that,” said the Bursar.

The Dean looked down.

“I think it’s coming through the door, Archchancellor,” he said in a tiny voice.

“Don’t be daft, man, we’re all leanin’ on it.”

I didn’t mean through, I mean . . . through . . .”

The Archchancellor sniffed.

“What’s burnin’?”

“Your boots, Archchancellor,” said the Dean.

Ridcully looked down. A greenish-yellow puddle was spreading under the door. The wood was charring, the flagstones were hissing, and the leather soles of his boots were definitely in trouble. He could feel himself getting lower.

He fumbled with the laces, and then took a standing jump onto a dry flagstone.

“Bursar!”

“Yes, Archchancellor?”

“Give me your boots!”

“What?”

“Dammit, man, I command you to give me your blasted boots!”

This time, a long creature with four pairs of wings, two at each end, and three eyes, popped into existence over Ridcully’s head and dropped onto his hat.

“But—”

“I am your Archchancellor!”

“Yes, but—”

“I think the hinges are going,” said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

Ridcully looked around desperately.

“We’ll regroup in the Great Hall,” he said.

“We’ll strategically withdraw to previously prepared positions.”

“Who prepared them?” said the Dean.

“We’ll prepare them when we get there,” said the Archchancellor through gritted teeth. “Bursar! Your boots! Now!”

They reached the double doors of the Great Hall just as the door behind them half-collapsed, half-dissolved. The Great Hall’s doors were much sturdier. Bolts and bars were dragged into place.

“Clear the tables and pile them up in front of the door,” snapped Ridcully.

“But it eats through wood,” said the Dean.

There was a moan from the small body of Modo, which had been propped against a chair. He opened his eyes.

“Quick!” said Ridcully. “How can we kill a compost heap?”

“Um. I don’t think you can, Mr. Ridcully, sir,” said the gardener.

“How about fire? I could probably manage a small fireball,” said the Dean.

“It wouldn’t work. Too soggy,” said Ridcully.

“It’s right outside! It’s eating away at the door! It’s eating away at the door,” sang the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

The wizards backed further away down the length of the hall.

“I hope it doesn’t eat too much wood,” said the dazed Modo, radiating genuine concern. “They’re a devil, excuse my Klatchian, if you get too much carbon in them. It’s far too heating.”

“You know, this is exactly the right time for a lecture on the dynamics of compost making, Modo,” said the Dean.

Dwarfs do not know the meaning of the word “irony.”

“Well, all right. Ahem. The correct balance of materials, correctly layered according to—”

“There goes the door,” said the lecturer in Recent Runes, lumbering towards the rest of them.

The mound of furniture started to move forward. The Archchancellor stared desperately around the hall, at a loss. Then his eyes were drawn to a a familiar, heavy bottle on one of the sideboards.

“Carbon,” he said. “That’s like charcoal, isn’t it?”

“How should I know? I’m not an alchemist,” sniffed the Dean.

The compost heap emerged from the debris. Steam poured off it.

The Archchancellor looked longingly at the bottle of Wow-Wow sauce. He uncorked it. He took a deep sniff.

“The cooks here just can’t make it properly, you know,” he said. “It’ll be weeks before I can get anymore from home.”

He tossed the bottle towards the advancing heap. It vanished into a seething mass.

“Stinging nettles are always useful,” said Modo, behind him. “They add iron. And comfrey, well, you can never get enough comfrey. For the minerals, you know. Myself, I’ve always reckoned that a small quantity of wild yarrow—”

The wizards peered over the top of an overturned table. The heap had stopped moving.

“Is it just me, or is it getting bigger?” said the Senior Wrangler.

“And looking happier,” said the Dean.

“It smells awful,” said the Bursar.

“Oh, well. And that was nearly a full bottle of sauce, too,” said the Archchancellor sadly. “I’d hardly opened it.”

“Nature’s a wonderful thing, when you come to think about it,” said the Senior Wrangler. “You don’t all have to glare at me like that, you know. I was only making a remark.”

“There are times when—” Ridcully began, and then the compost heap exploded.

It wasn’t a bang or a boom. It was the dampest, most corpulent eruption in the history of terminal flatulence. Dark red flame, fringed with black, roared up to the ceiling. Pieces of heap rocketed across the hall and slapped wetly into the walls.

The wizards peered out from their barricade, which was now thick with tea leaves.

A cabbage stalk dropped softly onto the Dean’s head. He looked at a small, bubbling patch on the flagstones. His face split slowly into a grin.

“Wow,” he said.

The other wizards unfolded themselves. Adrenaline backwash worked its seductive spell. They grinned too, and started playfully punching one another on the shoulder.

“Eat hot sauce!” roared the Archchancellor.

“Up against the hedge, fermented rubbish!”

–Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man (1991, 189–90, 193–200) (full summary here)


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