This Compost: A Special Dream Essay in Honor of Earth Day

by Kat Samworth


Recently, I picked up a 1950’s American Literature textbook that Dad had treasured in his last years. In a moment of reflection, I spoke a prayer asking him to connect to me through his book. Eyes closed, I opened “randomly” to Walt Whitman’s eco-poem, “This Compost.” As I read each line, I felt a shiver of connection to Dad as well as a deeper, older truth that seemed to be reaching out to me.

Although I am a novice when it comes to poetry, “This Compost” pulled me in. I began reading it on a regular basis, almost like a prayer. I read it to myself. I read it out loud. I sat quietly with this poem. And each time, something new arose. Like composting, it was a process of allowing

During this time I had a dream. In the dream I was in my childhood home with a woman and a man. The woman reminded me of a poem that I used to know. At first I couldn’t remember but then it started to come back. The man gave me a big smile and asked me about the poem as well. In the dream, I found myself remembering more and more of the poem and its connection to this land of my girlhood home and to the ancestors that were here before me.

Upon awakening, I immediately remembered the Walt Whitman poem. I believe that the woman and the man in my dream understood the importance of this poem for me. With their nod of encouragement, I turned again to “This Compost” with new eyes. It was as if this poem and this dream together were reaching out to me.

There is so much richness in “This Compost.” Whitman’s uses the compost metaphor beautifully. Perhaps you can relate to the natural cycling process that he walks us through. It speaks to me personally, reflecting my inner landscape and experience with dreamwork. It also points to a natural journey we all experience as humans on this earth.

The poem begins, “Something startles me where I thought I was safest.” We think we are safe, that all is well. And then something happens. Something startles us out of our innocence, of how we thought life was supposed to be. This happens in our families, our relationships, our communities, our governments. It is happening on our earth home with shifting climate change.


When we are startled in these ways, often we get scared and we naturally react. We “withdraw from the still woods.” We search for coping mechanisms that we think will keep us safe once again. Our vulnerability and our sensuality close up. Our tendency is to turn away, to determine what we will NOT do. Whitman emphasizes this using three consecutive lines beginning with “I will not…..”


“I will not go now on the pastures to walk,

I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,

I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.”

Dreams too find ways to startle us. They also show us the ways we react, reflecting to us the ways in which we turn away. Our anger, our judgment, our fear, even our numbness. The places of “I will not….”

And from these places we lose hope, we become disillusioned. Our soil, our compost is filled with the remains of generations of “gluttons and drunkards”. “How can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?” We become conditioned by the generations that came before us and believe we are made of these “sour dead.” We are sure that “foul meat” is in the soil. We believe that it exists in the “distemper’d corpses”, our past hurts, traumas, transgressions, as well as those of the countless generations before us. It also exists in the careless ways we have treated each other; the careless ways we have treated our earth home. Can we ever have health in our soil again?

Whitman’s answer? Yes!

The poem takes a turn. The difficult places do not last. There is a big shift – a complete 180 to hopefulness and wonder.

“Behold this compost!”

A shift happens suddenly from the sour, foul experience to “Behold this compost.” What happens to make the switch from despair to hopefulness?

Like with any compost pile, there is a mysterious, magical process that happens. A compost is filled with discarded, foul material. An alchemical process works it into rich fertilizer. In the poem, the images of foul carcasses get transformed into images of hope, rebirth and transformation. The “bean bursts,” the “onion pierces upward.” There is “resurrection of the wheat.” “Young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs” and “new-born of animals appear.”

These kinds of hopeful images also show up in our dreams to transform us from “I will not” to “Behold this compost!” The woman and the smiling man in my dream are leading me in a hopeful direction, offering me a new awareness, nudging me to remember the deeply held truths within me that this poem is pointing to.

The truth of this hope really sinks in; “winds are really not infectious” and “this is no cheat.” There is a realization that we can actually feel safe within this mysterious transformation. And we can begin to live in a place of trust as we step into a new way of being.

When we can live in this place of trust, we have the freedom to experience the amazing beauty and passions of life and of what the earth offers to us….”cool drink from the well”…, “blackberries so flavorous and juicy”…,  All these fruits… “none of them poison me.”

And finally the “This Compost” winds down with a sense of awe for Earth’s patience with us, giving us “such divine materials.” “It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.”

This poem and the dream that encouraged my exploration of it feel like special gifts to me on my own personal journey. In addition, I realize how the poem can offer collectively hope in a time when the truth of climate change “startles” many of us where we thought we were safest. We might be tempted to turn away, to “withdraw from the woods we loved.” But Whitman offers us hope, using the raw stuff of compost (carcasses, foul liquid, drunkards, gluttons, distemper’d corpses), showing us what naturally and miraculously can grow from “such corruptions.

Kat Samworth is a dreamwork practitioner living in Wilmington, Delaware.  You can visit her at her website


This Compost

By Walt Whitman


Something startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day–or perhaps I am deceiv’d;
I will run a furrow with my plough–I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person–Yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear–the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk–the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever.
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.