We all know about notes and note-taking systems. But some lessons from gardening can really bring our notes to life and sustain our creativity. The answer is compostable knowledge
During my years in India I lived in a farmhouse on three tree-lined acres. One of the stipulations of the lease was that I had to employ, at my own expense, the three gardeners who maintained the property. Every morning they would tend the gardens, mow lawns, and rake fallen leaves.
This produced a lot of garden waste. So every week they set alight a huge, aggressively smoky bonfire. That was pretty hard to live with. We’d have to retreat inside with closed windows every time it was lit.
After some weeks of this I had a chat with them. Could they compost the waste instead of burning it? They were reticent. I explained the idea in detail, helped them dig a pit in a vacant corner of the land, and showed them how to lay down the garden waste.
Pretty soon one pit became two, then three. They seemed to be happy using the compost and we didn’t have to run inside and close the windows any more.
After several months they came to speak with me. They were a bit shy and I wondered what was wrong. Maybe the composting was too much work and they were hoping to go back to burning the waste?
Thankfully, they loved the compost. It worked well in the garden and also in their own vegetable patch. The problem was they had too much. So they wondered if they could sell it. Apparently the compost was the talk of the village. Of course I said they could. They could keep whatever profits they made from the excess compost. This made them very happy.
Notes As Compostable Knowledge
I started this blog during those days living in India. Since 2004 I’ve posted 2,243 articles. In recent years I wrote about 50 articles a year, although last year was slower, and only 31 articles appeared.
But I start many, many more articles each year. Right now there are 47 incomplete articles in need of my attention.
Of course, most of these won’t get finished, or posted. What to do with the waste?
The answer is to compost it.
I’ve written before about notes, using Obsidian, and second brains. Composting is an essential part of this workflow. Recycling ideas from my own work is every bit as important as getting new ideas from reading and experiencing the world.
Every half-finished draft, even the ones that never formed into a clear idea, still have something of value in them. Maybe it’s an example or story. It could be a concept or idea I was wrestling with. Sometimes it’s an article I’d read that merited comment or criticism.
So, rather than deleting these files, or letting them drift into an eternal digital silence, I break them down. I turn each interesting piece of information into a note that can live on, as compostable knowledge.
And of course, finished work must also be composted.
Smaller Chunks Compost Faster
How many old documents do you have that you saved but have never opened again?
I’ve got a pretty vast archive. Not just old articles but also hundreds of film reviews, as well as all sorts of assignments, essays, and reports. But I’m unlikely to open anything dating back to my college days just for fun, such as essays on 10th century BCE poetry, or the Politics of the Roman Empire.
Over time, large chunks of information become indigestible.
This is especially true for purposeful writing, things we write out of obligation, or to meet deadlines. Old scratchings in a journal might be fascinating years later. Things we banged out in a caffeine-induced haze the night before they were due never are.
But everything we write contains small ideas that are worth holding on to. The art is in breaking the work down into small enough chunks that they’re easy to add to the compost pile. A thousand words could become three 40-word chunks.
This process, creating small chunks, simple notes, doesn’t require heroic levels of effort. That’s what makes it sustainable.
Composting Takes Time
The thing about composting is that most of the time you’re not doing anything. The stuff just sits there, breaking down, becoming ready to fertilise something new.
When you write, you create and combine ideas. You hold them in a certain way. But when you break those ideas down into notes, you allow them to let go of the way you held them. They’re free to settle into the background knowledge that lives in a library of notes. Ready to be recombined in fresh ways.
The power of using a tool like Obsidian is that when we search our notes we can harvest new combinations of ideas. Something you read last week could combine with something heard on a podcast last year, or a piece of an unfinished article from several years ago.
Composting plants honours the organic cycle of life. Sun and rain and nutrients from the soil combine to produce plant life which yields flowers and leaves. They in turn wither and die, and through composting become nutrients for another life cycle.
Compostable knowledge honours the value of your own life and the thoughts and insights you have. Every article, assignment, introduction, note, or other piece of writing contains within it seeds for future writing and self-expression.
Your mind is your own garden.