A letter to Barack Obama from The Compost Doctor

The Compost Doctor



That’s how you start this sort of thing. Not Dear Sir. Dear Sir’s a bit too personal. Sir on its own sounds far more, oh I don’t know … respectful. It’s got gravitas, if you know what I mean.

There was a page in the paper the other day full of letters by so-called important people to the President Elect, I’m sure he never saw them, you know the sort of thing – asking him to shut down Guantanamo Bay at the earliest opportunity and so on – just a bit of publicity for the writers I reckon, to show that their advice might be something that he might listen to. But anyway, they didn’t write Dear Sir, they just used the Sir.

I get the odd letter. And emails. And messages left on my answer phone. Not many letters these days obviously, and I’m glad because they are wasteful, even though anything like that is great shredded. That’s where people go wrong really. Too much green. Not enough brown. Brown includes shredded paper. I tell them, ‘Think crumble my love, not sponge!’ It is like baking really. You might think that’s crazy. Cheryl did. But that’s another story.

Anyway, most emails start with ‘Hi,’ or maybe ‘Dear Dr Compost,’ which is a bit annoying, I know it sounds like I’m splitting hairs here, but I’m The Compost Doctor, not Doctor Compost. Compost isn’t my name for goodness sake! My name is Alvin, Alvin, you know as in Stardust … as in golden… as in billion-year-old carbon, which makes it very fitting I think, if you are old enough or maybe it’s young enough to get the references. You remember Alvin Stardust, used to hold the mike in a very strange way, Stardust. Oh yes. ‘…We are stardust, we are golden, we’re a billion-year-old carbon, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…’ You know? Woodstock. 1969. Yasgur’s farm. Peace and Love and all that.

I was only thirteen back then, but somehow I was aware of it going on even though it was a hell of long way away from Cardiff. Not that Mam and Da were hippies mind. I wish. It must have been in the ether somehow. Even now when I hear Voodoo Child I get a shiver right up and down my spine, as if, I don’t know really, as if something’s calling me. Mad eh? Wish I’d been there though. Amazing it must have been. What a vibe, what a vibe! Hardly any violence you know, one heroin overdose that was probably on the cards anyway and one poor bloke in a sleeping bag run over by a tractor in next door’s hayfield. I hope he was stoned, I really do.


Anyway, I loved that Joni Mitchell track. And I knew as a lad that somehow it was my song, I didn’t know how, but it’s funny, isn’t it, how things work out? It’s as if you do know your destiny all along. It’s an act of faith, isn’t it? Following a path. Even following the map, believing there’ll be something at the end of the journey. Especially if your girlfriend’s navigating… Only joking.

I know why I’m rambling. Because I’m sitting here trying to write a letter to President-Elect Barack Obama. Things like that you can’t just sit down and do. No. You have to go all round the houses first as a sort of warm up. By the way, my surname’s not Stardust, though I wouldn’t mind if it was. No, it’s Brown. Alvin Brown. Sounds like a soul singer doesn’t it?


At school they’d go, ‘Where’s that brown boy?’ and laugh their heads off and it might sound stupid to you but that gave me empathy, even though I’m white, it really did. My first girlfriend was called Joy, and we got into soul and reggae and hung around Tiger Bay and Joy ended up with a black lad. I still see her when I go home. She’s got a couple of kids now. I wonder if they all sat up all night watching the election. I did. Been on a buzz with it ever since. That’s why I want to write this bloody letter. It’s not about being black either, in case that’s what you’re thinking, although three bloody great big cheers for that. No, it’s about, well, you’ll see. Here we go. No excuses now.


Firstly, I must congratulate you on your magnificent victory. I’m not going to dwell on it though, I’ve been reading your books, and I’m thrilled. I really am. In my lifetime I’ve never felt inspired by politics...


No, that’s not true, In my lifetime I’ve never been inspired by politicians. I didn’t go mad in 1997 when Mr Blair got in because I didn’t trust him and I really hated that awful record that accompanied that time. You know the one, ‘Things Can Only Get Better.’ And to me that sounded extremely smug. Talk about counting your chickens. And all that cool Britannia rubbish and Gerri bloody Halliwell wearing a Union Jack frock and celebrity parties at Number 10 as if everyone in this country was having a great time of it, oh it really made me angry! People thought I was being a right old misery when I said that leaders were all the same, just puppets there to keep the status quo. And that meant the rich staying rich and the poor staying poor. Now they’re accusing me of being too optimistic!

I’ll think I’ll cut that bit out later; after all, what’s past is past. Poor old Gordon. I feel sorry for him. I do. But he is a Brown, so he can’t be all bad, and you know what? I don’t actually mind him. He’s just not ‘telegenic’ – that’s his problem. That’s what they call it. Barack Obama is though. Barack’s cool. Let’s face it. Right. Come on. Focus now. I need to get this off my chest and in the post. And I’ve got a few visits to make this afternoon. Usual thing probably – people just aren’t being patient enough. I say ‘It’s fine my love, really, just keep it aerated’ and then I give them some tips on accelerators, remind them to empty the Hoover bag into it, and they’re happy. Pet hair’s good too – but what with Obama girl being allergic, I expect the new puppy won’t shed much, if at all. No, people just aren’t used to waiting for anything. Not these days. I tell them, ‘You can’t microwave this, my love!’ Right, where was I?

In my lifetime I have never been inspired by politicians, and I am very much enjoying the experience of so being. If I were that way inclined, which I may well be, privately, I might think that you are the embodiment of what is known as the Zeitgeist. I would like to think so, but I think it’s more important, for you in particular, to keep your feet very firmly on the ground. And from what I’ve read, you’re exceptionally good at that. And that’s why I think that you might have more than a bit of sympathy for my view. Which I am slowly, granted, getting round to expounding. Because, as it were, keeping your feet on the ground is not a million miles away from what I do. I will start by quoting one of your greatest writers, John Steinbeck. Bear with me, it’s not short I know:

‘The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat.’ … I’ll leave the next bit out, but then it goes on; ‘He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth.’ And then, ‘If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.

‘He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. Then he talks a bit about the ploughing and setting seed with this diabolical machine, ‘raping’ he calls it ‘raping methodically, raping without passion… And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.’

Well now. Goodness me, that always brings a tear to my eye. It’s almost biblical isn’t it Sir? We can see it now as the prophecy that it was. Even though it wasn’t really a prophecy as it was already happening, it had happened. Dust bowls, that’s what you got. Dust bowls and displaced folk, uprooted, scattered like so much lost seed. Reaping what you sow, karma, pay back time, whatever you like to call it. And it’s still going on. Though over this side of the pond, I have to say, that at last, things are getting a little better. In some ways it might just be what they call ‘greenwash’, you know, councils ticking boxes with recycling targets and selling compost bins for a third of the price if you download a coupon. Fact is, we’ve filled up nearly all the landfill sites, and we don’t know what else to do. Makes me weep the sight of a landfill site with a flock of gulls all over it. It gives me the same feeling as watching some junkie on TV stick a dirty needle into a vein. It’s a crime against the earth, nothing less. But I am an optimist. And so are you. Gardeners tend to be. Hey! Now there’s a car sticker if ever there was one! ‘Gardeners tend to be!’ Do you get it? Oh, I’m pleased with that! Words eh? Funny things aren’t they? More meaning than you think sometimes.

The thing is Sir, I’m not altogether sure about what we might call your ‘green credentials’. You’ve said that you are a believer in climate change and that you call ours ‘a planet in peril’ and this is all music to my ears. My concerns might sound very trivial to you as you prepare to embark upon leading the free world. And I haven’t said so-called free or put the free in inverted commas because I know that that would annoy you. Because you’re not a cynic like we all are over here. I think that you, and perhaps it is because of your particular heritage and experience, do know what freedom means. More than I do, frankly. 

But, as I was saying, my idea is that, well, of course, I wouldn’t want to step on the toes of any of the gardeners at the White House, but I just wondered if the garden at the White House was organic? And if not, whether you could see your way to making it so? And naturally (pardon the pun) that would include composting your kitchen and garden waste. (I’m sure they must get manure from somewhere for those roses mind.) You see, if you made a point of it, you could have a lot more influence than me, that’s for sure! I don’t necessarily mean YOU literally. I’m not even going to mention how busy you’re going to be but, you do have time to go to the gym and maybe you could spare ten or fifteen minutes of that on turning a bit of compost (I think you might find it very therapeutic) and showing the girls that worms are absolutely brilliant little things and we’d be nowhere without them.

My Da, God rest his soul, was a great gardener. And to this day if I see a worm on the road, where he’s been swept away in a rainstorm like the poor Joad family at the end of the Grapes of Wrath because some human has tarmacked over his earth I pick ’em up I do, and I put them back on a bit of the brown stuff. Women can be a bit funny about this sort of thing I know. But it’s only the way they were brought up. Conditioning, that’s all it is. Cheryl said I cared more about worms than I did about her. Screamed at me she did. She said she’d have tipped the compost over me if she could bear to touch that ‘shit’ as she called it. I think you can see she wasn’t right for me, though I did love her, but unfortunately she turned out to be just one of those dead end streets that you run down in a panic when you don’t know where you’re going.


What am I thinking of? As if he needs to know that! That whole bit will have to go.

So, Michelle might not ‘dig’ it (there I go again) at first, but she seems like a sensible lady so I think she’ll see the symbolism of composting at the White House and the importance to the United States not only as a means of reducing your domestic waste, but on a deeper level, as a means of, I’m sorry I have to quote Joni again here, ‘getting back to the garden.’ Let’s face it Sir, you’re in the business of saving the world. Oh come on, admit it. And so am I damn it, so am I! My patch of it anyway. And I think, Sir, if you are anything like me, you will understand the poetry of compost. It works as a metaphor because it is the truth of all our lives that what appears to be worthless, dirty and fit for nothing can be our real and only treasure. It is alchemy, it is all the magic I need, to watch potato peelings and cabbage leaves transform into rich, brown matter that will feed my new plants.

Nothing really goes anywhere does it? It all just goes round and round just like the planets themselves. It is nature’s recycling and regeneration, and I cannot overstate what I consider to be the extreme importance of us understanding this beautiful process and how it connects us not only with the earth at the most fundamental level, but also with ourselves, our own nature, of our potential to use the leftovers of our lives to nourish our future selves and our progeny. Without fertility, there is nothing Sir, nothing at all to fight for.


Oh dear, I’m going to start talking about Lotus Flowers in a minute and then we’ll be here all day!  I’m sure you have compost doctors in the United States that would be honoured to come round and get you started, and I wouldn’t even presume to offer my services. Someone of your stature could even give our own Prince of Wales a call! Now, that really would be something, wouldn’t it? Talk about a special relationship! Him coming over to sort out your garden, get you growing a bit of food! Seriously though, he might have some funny views on some things, but you’d do worse than to listen to him when it comes to the importance of proper soil. I bet he pees on his compost. I do. It’s one of the best things to get it going, that and nettles. And as it goes, Presidential urine must be top notch stuff so don’t be embarrassed to use it, man!


Anyway, I think I’ve said what I wanted to say. I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, let alone shred or compost it. But if you do, thank you for your time, and I hope that good God, this is even harder to finish than it was to begin! and I wish you all the very best for your Presidency and I am looking forward to hearing all about it... 


No, no, no! That sounds as if he’s going to send me postcards! and I am looking forward to seeing you regularly on the news... Oh for pity’s sake! The man will think I’m in love with him! I’ll just leave it at and I am yours most sincerely,

Alvin Brown

The Compost Doctor

Well. All that was years ago now. I kept a copy for posterity, see, but I’m clearing my desk out and it’s for the shredder now. And I never did hear back. Well, what did I expect? And it has to be said that he hasn’t really lived up to everybody’s expectations. To be honest I’m starting to wonder about him myself. Can’t see any big changes on the green future front. Not really. But then it’s the oilmen and banks that rule the Industrial Age, isn’t it? Always was. But do you know what the First Lady has done? Only gone and made an organic veg patch! Really, she has! Coincidence? But they say the lead levels are very high. Caused some embarrassment, apparently. Now there’s a metaphor for our times. The President’s organic veg patch is polluted. That should give him some food for thought.

Photo: Kyle Ellefson

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