Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Composting Wisdom

I constructed my first hugelkulture this past weekend.

That probably doesn’t mean much to most people, but it felt like an accomplishment to me.

Hugelkulture is a German term that means “hill culture.” It is a gardening technique that mimics what happens on a forest floor. In the forest, a tree will fall and over the years begin to decay. Storms come along and knock branches off of other trees and they pile up on the logs. Also over the years branches, twigs, leaves and needles will add to the pile. Rain comes and washes soil up onto the pile and after a while there is new plant life growing on a decaying pile of debris—and that pile of decaying debris will nourish that new growth for decades.

We had a few logs around the place that were beginning to decay. I dug a shallow pit and rolled the logs into it. Then I gathered up some good sized limbs and piled them on top. After that I added a layer of branches and twigs, a layer of leaves, a layer of compost, and then I shoved the top soil from the pit back on top of the mound. The final layer was another coating of compost. It looks like this:

Sunday during the discussion time in our service, Curt asked, “How do we develop wisdom.”  Believe it or not, the hugelkulture helps me think through that question.

Proverbs 3:13 says, “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding.” And Job 12:12 observes, “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” Verses like these imply wisdom comes with age and experience, but I don’t think that it is automatic. Many of us probably know people who have a whole sack full of experience but never seem to learn a thing from them. I suspect if we’re honest most of us have experiences we seem to repeat because we don’t extract the wisdom they offer to teach us; I know I do.

When you build a hugelkulture there are certain woods that should be avoided. Cedar and redwood don’t work well in a hugelkulture. They take forever to decay—that’s why we make fences, decks and outdoor furniture out of them. If you’re building a hugelkulture so you can use the decaying wood to fertilize the garden you plant on it, choosing a wood that resists that very process is counterproductive.

In thinking through the process of gaining wisdom, cedar and redwood represent to me those experiences that we hold on to--that just won’t seem to go away. For whatever reason, maybe they are too painful, or too embarrassing, or too …, so we don’t let them go. We don’t break them down so we can extract the nutrients of wisdom out of them. This keeps us from using them to nourish and sustain our next generation of experiences, relationships and decisions.

Another species of wood to avoid is Black Walnut. It decays and breaks down just fine, but there are oils and resins released in that process that can actually be toxic to many young flower and vegetable plants.

This represents those experiences that we have “gotten over.”  We may be able to think about them, and talk about them, and maybe even laugh about them without flinching. We can break them down just fine, but there is some residue from them that might make us averse to risk, or unable to trust members of the opposite sex, authority figures or family members. They may adversely affect how we see ourselves or other people.

When I was 7 years old I was a fairly chubby kid. I remember my Dad once making a joke about my weight to a group of men. It got quite a laugh. I’ve broken it down and let it decay.  I can talk about it. I can even say that I’ve forgiven my Dad and it didn’t affect our relationship. I even learned a lot about how to respect my own kids and grandkids. But I can tell you this, feel free to invite me to a pool party, I’ll come, but don’t expect me to swim. After 45 years the residue of that experience still shapes the way I perceive my physical appearance—it’s still a log in my hugelkulture.

Is that wisdom? No. I suspect I have missed out on a lot of fun and friendship over the last 4 ½ decades. I guess I could blame my father, but that wouldn’t be honest. That one incident is not at all representative of the entire scope of his fatherhood. The tragedy of that story is that I never was able to get past the residue of that experience and it stunted the growth of some of the seedlings that came after it.

I think the final lesson about wisdom from my hugelkulture is that ultimately a hugelkulture is a big pile of humus. It just so happens that humus is exactly what plants need to grow. It is significant to me that our word humility comes from the same root as the word humus. I think humility is to wisdom what humus is to plants. It takes humility for wisdom to grow.

It takes humility to learn from our experiences because to learn we have to face ourselves and admit we have something to learn. It takes humility to break down our experiences and extract the nourishment from them. It takes humility to admit that sometimes we can’t figure out how to extract that nourishment by ourselves, and then it takes humility to pick up the tools of counseling, spiritual direction or deep conversations with trusted friends to help us dig out the wisdom.

Our faith is focused on a God who identifies with the common—we worship a God who was born in a stable, died on a tree, rose from a cave and still wears a body marked with scars. It is only fitting that such a God would use the compost of everyday experience and basic humility to teach us wisdom.

So I guess obtaining wisdom comes down to a choice. Do we allow our experiences to merely be an unsightly brush pile or do we build a hugelkulture? It seems to me the only difference between the two is a little intentionality, a little humus and a little sweat.



  1. I like the analogy of comparing Wisdom with this intentional organic process of dealing with debri to create fertile growth. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  2. Thank you Bruce! I especially liked the Black walnut example; There are toxic things that seem so invasive, so difficult to root out... Good advice about next steps too!

  3. Thank you for your post, Bruce. Humility certainly seems to be the key ingredient that helps us actually learn something from life experiences. You are so right to remind us that we often need others to help us work through what there is to learn from life experiences. It takes humility to admit to others we can't figure everything out on our own. We need the wisdom of others, their perspective, and the Holy Spirit working through them to open our eyes to God's wisdom for us.