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Out & About: Hanover compost photographer discusses the composition of decomposition

  • Evelyn Swett, of Hanover, is a photographer and climate activist.

  • Evelyn Swett, of Hanover, began noticing the beauty of compost piles and started photographing them. An exhibit of her work will be on display at AVA Gallery beginning in October. (Evelyn Swett photographs)



Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, August 10, 2019

The compost bin is where things go when they’re wilted, moldy or otherwise unfit for human consumption. Few people would consider a compost pile to be a work of art.

But for photographer and climate activist Lyn Swett, of Hanover, compost is both a source of artistic inspiration and a metaphor for life.

“Composting started as this thing I did because it’s good for the earth,” Swett said. “The act of composting, for me, is a daily and weekly practice of feeling connected to something bigger than myself. Then I started to notice compost as this really beautiful set of colors and textures.”

Red pomegranate scraps against the white snow. Watermelon sprinkled with green chives. Brown leaves mixed with discarded slices of bread.

“I found it very compelling, visually, to see them mixed together,” Swett said.

She began taking pictures of her compost pile. She didn’t move or arrange anything.

“It was just paying attention to the details,” Swett said.

The walls of the square plastic bin formed a natural frame around her compositions.

“I thought: how is it that something perceived as messy, smelly garbage is really so beautiful?” Swett said. “This is redemption. This is what life is about. It became something that started to really feed me.”

Swett will present a talk titled “Climate Joy: How Creativity and Climate Action Can Inspire Joy and New Ways of Being” at the AVA Gallery in Lebanon at 6 p.m. Thursday. A solo exhibit of her photographs will go on display at the gallery in October.

While Swett hopes her audience will gain an appreciation for compost, this won’t be a how-to lecture. Although she grows some perennial herbs, pollinator-friendly plants and “essential vegetables” for family meals, she’s the first to admit she’s neither a gardening nor a composting expert. There are other good community resources for that.

“That’s not my role,” she said. “My skills are strongest in the creative storytelling arena. I’d love to inspire people to see the beauty in our waste and to pay more attention to our consumption patterns in general.”

Swett’s environmental consciousness is consistent across other areas of her life. She’s been involved in community sustainability projects for many years, and she’s currently on Hanover’s recycling committee. During last year’s Hanover Fourth of July parade, she marched as part of a group called the Electric Lawn Mower Brigade.

With a background in art history and business, Swett has held a number of different jobs, but she feels she’s finally found her calling as a photographer in her mid-50s.

“I’m in this place of midlife awakening, when you start emerging as someone who has a creativity you didn’t know about before,” she said.

She draws parallels between the composting process and the wisdom and creativity that comes from life experience.

“Compost allowed me to start seeing beauty in the regrets and missteps of my own life,” she said. “You need messy, smelly, ugly periods in your life in order for the good stuff to happen.”

Beyond that, composting can also serve as a metaphor for our culture, Swett said.

“You can’t just have pomegranates,” she said. “They won’t disintegrate by themselves. You need a combination. The brown things and the green things. The carbon and the nitrogen.

“It gave me a vision for what it means to be a citizen. It’s not about one color. You have to have a mix to be a productive, healthy society.”

Editor’s note: For more information on Swett’s talk and the dates of her upcoming exhibit at AVA, visit avagallery.org.