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Dec. 9, 2022

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From dust to dust — to compost in Clark County

Remember Land only site in world restoring wildlife habitat with mulch commingled with human remains

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
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5 Photos
Remember Land Executive Director Elliot Rasenick stands in front of a mound of NOR, or natural organic reduction, from Kent-based human composting funeral home Recompose.
Remember Land Executive Director Elliot Rasenick stands in front of a mound of NOR, or natural organic reduction, from Kent-based human composting funeral home Recompose. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

EAST OF BATTLE GROUND — Elliot Rasenick was silent for a long moment, the stillness broken only by the sound of a crow’s caw, flowing streams, and the wind rustling trees in the valley.

On 700 acres of recovering timberland near Bells Mountain east of Battle Ground, surrounded by shallow hills, he meandered toward a mound of deep-brown mulch with his head bowed.

“You can feel the instant impact, the gravity, of these piles of soil,” he said, coming to a stop at the mound, bordered with mushrooms and rich, thick grass.

Rasenick bent down and picked up a pile of the mulch. The handful of crumbly, deep brown material was flecked with white bone fragments.

The mulch, also called NOR for natural organic reduction, comes from composted human remains processed at a business in Kent called Recompose. The NOR in front of Rasenick was made from 35 Recompose clients who chose to donate their remains to Remember Land, the only known place on the planet that’s using human mulch to restore wildlife habitat with commingled human compost, Rasenick said.

“It smells just like compost,” said Rasenick, executive director of Remember Land, the nonprofit that owns the property. “Pretty wild, huh?”

Restoration

About an hour earlier on that day in late October, Rasenick boarded a utility terrain vehicle, turned the key and started the loud engine. He began a drive along a path through Remember Land’s hills and valleys and forests and plains.

The vehicle rolled to a stop in the crunching gravel. Up ahead, the patch passed over a small corrugated-pipe culvert, which funneled a winding tributary of Rock Creek. Rasenick said that the culvert is keeping salmon from traveling upstream to spawn.

The culvert and the area around the creek is part of a new 15-year restoration project from Remember Land. Work that began last month, with Clark Public Utilities providing workers for the first phase: removing blackberry bushes.

“Because there’s so much blackberry, the alder trees can’t root and grow up,” Rasenick said. “If we don’t do something, there’s simply no diversity at all, and critically, no canopy at all to shade streams to keep them healthy and cool enough for salmon.”

Sometime around February, workers and potentially a group of volunteers will begin using the NOR for planting trees.

“We understand the NOR as supporting us in creating a shortcut in some of that forest succession. A lot of these forests have been clear-cut over and over again over the last century and a half. All the soil is depleted.”

Rasenick kicked up the engine and drove the vehicle up the curving gravel road, piercing deeper into Remember Land.

Death

Rasenick grew up near Chicago and came to Portland in 1996 to study biology and religion at Reed College. He said he was curious about the most mysterious wonders of life.

“I wanted to know how the world works culturally and also what makes the world work physically,” he said.

He recalled a moment at his Southeast Portland home, after graduating from Reed, when he was listening to a meditation teacher. The teacher described how the best way to get through a conflict with someone is to recognize that they will both die — an idea that stuck with Rasenick.

“It completely transforms the whole experience with that conflict,” Rasenick said. “I started to use that to make it through challenging experiences.”

After Rasenick acquired Remember Land for an ecosystem rehabilitation project, he was left without the means to get compost to restore the soil.

“I was struggling with what to do to rebuild soil on site,” he said.

Through a partner nonprofit called Forterra, Rasenick was connected to Recompose owner and founder Katrina Spade, who was seeking a place to use the NOR.

“I was incredibly enthusiastic,” Rasenick said. “I instantly got all the extraordinary ways this made sense about the bigger conversation with death.”

It sparked Rasenick’s interest in the cultural impact of composting commingled human remains as opposed to burying a person in the ground in one spot “where we pretend we can extend homeownership in perpetuity,” he said.

“That’s fundamentally what owing a cemetery plot is all about,” he said. “This myth of homeownership means something that I can pretend I’ll take it forever. It’s absolutely that same drive that our life can have meaning and there’s some sense that we can be settled by this experience. That this place is mine forever.”

Remember Land has had a small number of bereaved loved ones visit the land, but Rasenick is still working on creating a meaningful experience for them. Visitors occasionally come to the site on a monthly basis, but that will likely change as Rasenick creates a never-before-felt experience of seeing an ecosystem that one’s loves ones help restore with their NOR.

“It’s great for us because clients can literally return to the earth and be useful in death,” said Anna Swenson, outreach manager at Recompose.

Gardeners, hikers and environmentalists are among the people who chose to donate their remains to Remember Land.

“Family members who visit Remember Land have a profound experience,” she said.

Teaching

Rasenick paused at an overlook of the property, with a large, sturdy green pole barn standing below the hill. The building is likely to become a classroom and eco-restoration school one day, so students — especially ones whose loved ones’ NOR is being used — can learn ecosystem rehabilitation on the property, Rasenick said.

“It largely depends on when we can find funding,” he said. “We have drawings for the classroom ready to submit for a permit with the county. We’ll use those drawings and plans to look for donations in 2022 and 2023.”

The idea of alternative death care is a growing trend in the United States, and human composting is one branch of that movement.

Recompose lobbied Washington legislators to allow human composting in 2019. Washington became the first government in the world to legalize the practice and Oregon followed after that. Colorado became the third in May, and similar bills allowing Recompose are planned for New York, California and Massachusetts.

After death, clients’ bodies are placed in a “cradle” surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. The cradle is placed into a Recompose vessel and covered with more plant material, according to the company’s website. The vessels are stacked in appearance like a giant, white honeycomb. Inside, microbes break down the body over about 30 days. Recompose delivers NOR to Remember Land about once a month.

The 700-acre nonprofit is funded through multiple grants, including the Clark Conservation District, Clark Public Utilities, CPU, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Services Agency; the latter two are divisions of United States Department of Agriculture.

The land

Along the way to the final stop of Rasenick’s trek into Remember Land, he explained how the 700 acres have been repeatedly logged and degraded.

All of this site was clear-cut multiple times over the last 170 years, with the most recent harvests happening about 30 years ago, he said. A development company had purchased the property and planned to build homes on it before Remember Land acquired it.

The land was first populated by Indigenous people, primarily from the Cowlitz Tribe. Rasenick said he’s been building a relationship with the Cowlitz to involve them in the project.

Sometime before 1900, the land fell into ownership of the Cresap family, a group of early Clark County pioneers. The family used it primarily as a timber resource for many years.

“This is the last largest parcel of the original land,” Rasenick said. “Some of the upland areas are maturing nicely. Certainly, there’s no old growth remaining. Some of the meadows are relatively healthy.”

Remember Land collaborated with Forterra as its fiscal sponsor for three years in August 2018 to buy the property. Earlier this year, it was transferred to Remember Land.

Soil scientist Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a Washington State University professor, collaborated with Recompose for the pilot study of NOR. She suggested that five years of NOR be spread per acre per year; that’s about 500 people’s remains per year. She also has a graduate student who’s studying Remember Land.

“There’s a strong history of using compost and similar organic amendment for rehabilitating forests and other lands,” she said. “The product from NOR is effectively compost. It’s expected to bring similar benefits. It’s not only physical and biological material. There’s the remembrance of the person or people that come with the NOR product.”

Carpenter-Boggs said she hopes the conservation work’s importance is strengthened by using NOR.

“It layers on a greater respect for the place and the appreciation for the beauty and quiet somewhere between a cemetery and wildlife.”

While no one else on the planet is using human commingled compost in such a way, Rasenick said it’s a heavy responsibility that will evolve over time.

“There’s a sense of the weight of the responsibility that I certainly feel,” he said. “It’s my hope we’re not the only ones for long.”

After Rasenick stopped the vehicle and approached the pile of NOR, picking up the soft, brown matter and gently replacing it, he pointed out where some elk and deer had trekked over the pile. Their footprints dotted the dark soil, bringing the bodies’ remains one step closer to nature.

“Isn’t that wild?” he repeated.

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