We used to burn everything

It is hard to believe in these days of regular waste collection it hasn’t always been like this. At Camperdown, Primary School 114, at the end of each day the school bins would be collected and the contents fed to an incinerator. This big steel box was set into a corner of the block away from everything and each evening the contents were burnt. To say the were burnt might be an over exaggeration as they smouldered and belched putrid smoke for hours. Paper readily burnt but left over food also ended up there and it stunk as it decomposed.


Our local hardware store made a steady income selling portable concrete brick incinerators as well. Although truth be told most homes had an old steel 44 gallon fuel barrel cut down to serve the same purpose as the smokey thing in the school ground. Home owners lit this device perhaps once a week. It too gave the same odious smell. Plant rubbish was heaped until it had reached the size of a car port on a neighbouring block. At a suitable time it was burnt in a very hot fire throwing sparks into the air or it served as a bonfire base on Guy Fawkes Day.


In early autumn the air would turn brown across the countryside. In crop growing regions farmers would deliberately burn off their uneaten stubble. It was not uncommon form our eyrie high above the plains to see puffs of smoke drift into the still evening air from farms in all directions burning this waste. Smoke also drifted in the air from far away places in the Wimmera or the Mallee.


Just as commonly in late autumn through the leafy suburbs of Melbourne householders raked up the leaves of elm trees that dropped into their gardens. They spent weekend their leisure time burning the leaves in the street as they listened to a football match on the wireless on damp Saturday afternoons. These fires weren’t burning brightly as the raked leaves were wet and they smoked on both sides of the thoroughfare.


These few illustrations are meant to indicate that when it came to waste the first solution used to get rid of domestic and industrial waste was to burn it. Occasionally neighbours may have complained to each other about a backyard fire. Washing drying outdoors ruined by smoke blowing across the fence possibly caused friction from time to time but no one got overly nasty because in winter everyone burned wood and smoke was common. It was worse though when the SEC began making brown coal briquettes. The smoke was quite toxic from these slow burning little black bricks used to heat hot water and chilly homes.


At the Pubic Park the mature poplars and elm trees did as trees do and dropped their leaves in winter. Throughout the park the wide gravel paths became quite greasy with fallen leaves after heavy rain. Dad would spend weeks raking and reraking the paths until the last leaf dropped. The collected leaves were dumped onto the same heap as they had been each year for decades. The mound made was a form of fun to a kid. I threw the leaves into the air. I threw myself onto the soft mound and generally made merry in the newly raked leaves.

Nearly sixty years later our daughter is living in one of those leafy suburbs of Melbourne where leaves were once burnt on weekends. But the practice used to manage the leaves is the same as the one my father once used. The waste went to the same corner of the garden for a generation before my daughter lived there and the heap just grew. As a visitor with little to do I offered to plant some new plants for her and I remembered to leafy mound when thinking of mulch to apply around the shrubs. It was no surprise to me that the old leaves would make good mulch I was surprised though at how deep I had to dig into the mound to find good humus. This act reminded me how little of the material in the leafy heap at The Park had converted into compost in all the years leaf matter was tossed there. It was a reminder I am like my father when making compost. He was no master either. Simply put my compost experience in the home gardening has not been successful because I am too lazy to make it.

In the last few few years we have volunteered as gardeners at The Heights a National Trust Property in Geelong. Here a couple of dozen people give their time each week out of a love for gardening to help preserve this wonderful property. One of our number Rob Hutchinson has a passion for many things, one of which is compost making. It is a happy coincidence he is like this because in the autumn the gardeners cut back truckloads of matter and he managers its conversion to humus.

If the conditions are right it takes Rob eight weeks to turn a truck load of sticks and leaves into rich compost. First he cuts the wood into smaller pieces. The thicker wood is put aside for firewood, or to be turned by him on his lathe into something of value. Then he runs over the pile time and time again with a heavy grass mower. (Previously he used a small mulcher but he gets best results mowing.) Next he shovels the mass of leaves and sticks into an enclosure. If the rubbish is not a good mixture of green and dry material he might add grass clippings or more dry material. His ideal is to encourage the aerobic material to heat up and “burn” under the cover of heavy carpet. A week later he will work over the whole lot with a fork and cover it for another week. (I might have worked at compost this much but there is more work to do.) Instead of allowing the material to mature where it is he will shovel the whole lot into the next stall. In doing this he adds more oxygen into the mix. Again he will cover it for another fortnight encouraging the mulch along adding water if it is too dry but all along keeping it hot. Before the gardeners get to use it he will have shovelled the lot into a third stall. By this time all the leaf matter has disappeared and the twigs have become fragile. The remaining lot will rest under cover until the gardeners reuse the former waste back into the soil as compost.

For one hundred years broad acre farmers have been conned into thinking their paddocks needed fertiliser to make good pasture. When natural fertiliser became scarce they applied even more artificial super to this fields. In time they learned seeding the ground between the stubble was the best way to retain moisture in the ground and help the new crop establish itself. But the practises of burning stubble, and tilling the ground killed the useful bugs in the ground and depleted it of humus. It also meant the life threads of beneficial fungi also died. In time crops became less reliable as did rain.

Fortunately, maverick farmers broke with these harmful trends as it became more obvious the world is in the grip of climate change. They observe not only is permafrost melting in millions of hectares across the globe icebergs are breaking away from the ice shelf in both hemispheres. Storms are occurring more frequently and violently. Droughts are now becoming more regular and large areas of the Amazon is burnt each year. These actions add even more carbon to the atmosphere. The Mavericks know something different must be done.

What they are doing is restoring health to the soil. They are adding carbon to the soil, and not the atmosphere, and they are leading a change, like my 73 year old friend Rob. Buy returning compost to the soil it is retaining more carbon, more water, more worms, more beneficial bacteria and the soil is repaying their efforts as crops again grow without artificial assistance as they alway have.

I recommend an issue seen on the ABC Country program Landline. Of 08/09/2019.

For measure I also recommend the good work of Soils for Life.


1 Comment

  1. Lloyd Owen says:

    Keep writing Bruce and don’t slow down. This one is great and I want to back track through the blog bunch I have skipped. Too many diversions. A string of things today and a book the library wants back tomorrow I can’t extend as someone else wants. Still processing the day long Justice Symposium on Friday pointing up Victoria’s looming imprisonment imprisonment crisis not to mention climate etc as some of musing attests. We will catch up!!!
    ps The French Movie is good and there is a sequel.


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