A Conversation with the Compost Queen

Trina Paulus, author of the best-selling Hope for the Flowers, talks about environmental activism, the spirituality of waiting, and two very special butterflies named Yellow and Stripe.

Trina Paulus
Trina Paulus

September 1997 marks the 25th Anniversary of Hope for the Flowers, a whimsical, moving parable about life, hope, and transformation. As part of the celebration Trina Paulus, the book’s author, illustrator, and calligrapher, adds a new talent to her repertoire—recording artist. Her newly-recorded audiobook version of Hope for the Flowers is being co-published this month by Listening Library in cooperation with Paulist Press (“two fine companies,” according to Trina, who is an advocate of independent publishing).

Hope for the Flowers tells the story of two caterpillars named Yellow and Stripe who yearn for “something more” in life. While Stripe tries to find this “something more” by climbing a huge pillar of caterpillars to reach an unknown goal in the sky, Yellow learns that the true way to “get high” involves letting go of everything and submitting to the dark uncertainty of the cocoon—only to discover the new life of being a butterfly, a new life which enables her to show Stripe the way as well.

Trina and I spent several days exchanging e-mail messages and phone calls, in between her active life as a composter, environmental activist, and all-around lover of caterpillars and butterflies. When I last spoke with her on June 26, the day of the Earth Summit, she was headed for the United Nations Building to join in the release of five hundred butterflies, her enthusiasm not the least bit dampened by the fact that she just days before had a cast removed from her leg. She’s a visionary, delightful woman, excited about the splendid potential each of us has to shape our lives, as well as our world, in transformative and healing ways.

Carl: What an exciting time for you—with both a new tape and the anniversary of your book.

Trina: I want to celebrate all over the place in as many ways as we can think of! I’d like to finally do a sequel—but so far, we have been so busy getting the audiobook done for this occasion that there has been little time to make other plans. But we are just beginning! This interview begins this special year!

Doing the audiobook has been a rare honor, as it is coming out in September, the very month of the 25th Anniversary. September 1972 was when I received the very first copies of Hope.

Carl: How were you inspired to write Hope for the Flowers?

Trina: My constant use of the symbol of the butterfly coming from a caterpillar through a cocoon is one big factor. The other is my experience of the revolutionary sixties, and the last and not least is that I signed a contract—a first book that I had written about hope—and had to work every day at finishing it. Well, this book became not itself but a sort of cocoon that Hope for the Flowers burst from after seven months of unsuccessfully working on book number one.

Carl: The audio version features a new ending to the story. This depicts the main characters—Stripe and Yellow—almost as leaders, leading the caterpillars into a world filled with beautiful butterflies. Do you hope that we can create (or allow) such a world here on earth?

Trina: Take another look, Carl! It’s not a new ending—just putting pictures into words. Those last non-verbal pages are so important I felt we had to tell that part of the story for an Audio production, so I wrote eight new lines. Stripe’s and Yellow’s lives had influence they never knew about, just like our lives have. This is the kind of leadership that counts, don’t you think?

Yellow appeared to those struggling caterpillars as a glorious winged creature; she had in loneliness and doubt allowed—cooperated—with her transformation. She had “…risked the only life she knew after seeing another caterpillar go into a cocoon.” She triumphed: she could then show Stripe and the others what their life was all about by just being herself and flying around. (Laughs) Isn’t that a nice thought? If we are just our best selves, and just fly around as our true selves, we will be “doing” for others—at least the beginning of our “doing” is this “becoming.”

And then dear Stripe! He had the courage and wisdom to turn around and come down the pillar. Yellow would have just carried him off, and he would not have had to go through that awful climb down. But somehow, Carl, for me, Stripe just had to come down that pillar. Being just carried away seemed too cheap a solution.

I figure that if Stripe finally got the point, why not all those other caterpillars too—eventually. They seemed so dull and stuck and rejected Stripe’s testimony when he gave it. But I like to think that they each did some serious thinking afterwards. And then, they were able to feel for themselves the inner meaning of the “juice” inside which is always seeking “the more of life—the real revolution.” That inner urge gets pretty silenced when we habitually crawl over others for our livelihood , but it’s there in every one of us somewhere.

In any case, that inner call that got the caterpillars on the pillar in the first place now inspired them to get off. And such actions are catchy. So on the page after Yellow lays her eggs, there is a whole pillar of caterpillars just disappearing. Where do they go? Turn the page, or listen hard to the tape. Cocoons, cocoons, cocoons! Next page, butterflies and lots of flowers—everywhere flowers.

We have many tasks in our lives. We each have a unique mission in the world for the larger good, just like butterflies. “They carry the seeds of love from one flower to another—Without butterflies the world would soon have few flowers,” is the quote that points to this further task, beyond aiding even our own species. This is so very exciting to me—this sense that we humans are part of all the universe—it’s all our family. We are here to celebrate and work within this creation, not to dominate and abuse it.

Carl: In addition to the story, the audio version also features music.

Hope for the Flowers
Hope for the Flowers

Trina: I am so grateful to Bob Simpson who gave pictures and color to the audio with the exquisite music he composed. Everyone who hears it wants more and I hope he will come up with a Hope symphony! The music is so uniquely right for the book. Besides being a little longer in the beginning and ending parts, he has created little pieces—like illustrated letters in sound to begin each chapter with a sense of what follows. Each is so clear and appropriate that I can just imagine children listening to this before bed and telling their mother, “Oh, here is where Yellow is so sad when Stripe leaves her,” or “Here he’s beginning to change!” before the chapter begins. Just from hearing the music you can feel what is going to be happening.

Carl: On side two, you offer your reflections, both on Hope for the Flowers as well as on your life story.

Trina: This was both very honoring and very scary for me, to be asked to tell the story of how the book came to be, the ideas behind it. All this ended up so very personal. It is an experience that left me feeling very vulnerable. I never so fully told my story before and I am told it works. I’m too close to judge it well.

Carl: Any new projects under way that you would like to share with our readers?

Trina: I am making a new book, starting where this one left off, but it’s hard to pull out of my other environmental projects. This has Stripe and Yellow on their greater mission as a team. I would love to finish it during this 25th anniversary year.

After two decades of raising a son and becoming known as the “environmental watchdog” of Montclair, NJ, where I live, it’s great to get back into butterflies and Hope. I’ve tried to be part of this community and done my sometimes unusual things within it—like making my front lawn into a garden by composting a whole yardful of leaves for six months, forming the results into double spiralmounds and planting butterfly attracting plants. This is on a main county road in an upscale suburb!

For six years I’ve also been the regional “sludge troubadour”—singing both the praises of putting our human manure and all our organic used resources (called garbage by most) back on the land, and warning about its mis-use if not free of contaminants like heavy metals. It needs to be clean sludge at its source, and composted correctly or processed as a liquid in wonderful living machines. It’s tricky to be advocating the clean stuff and yet be so against the polluted mix they are trying to give and sell to spread on our dwindling food-producing land, which cries out for organic nutrients—but not contaminants that just stay there or get in our food. I advise everyone to keep their eyes open for this stuff the sludge industry is calling “biosolids” which can be coming to your local store and used to grow your food and flowers.

I got the title Compost Queen here in New Jersey after pushing a wheelbarrow with a compost pile in Montclair’s 4th of July parade. People loved it and gave me second prize in the marching division! (laugh) Well I guess this gives you a picture of what I’ve been doing these years! Composting and caterpillars becoming butterflies are the same mystery—transformation. It’s the basic life-out-of-death-to-life-again mystery that lies at the heart of everything important.

Because of Hope‘s 25th anniversary I’m getting back into Hope as we prepare to launch our celebrations in September. I think its message is needed now more than ever.

Carl: Speaking of its message, the book is described as “a tale—partly about life, partly about revolution,” which reminds me of how much the idea of revolution was in the air at the time it was first published, 25 years ago. Nowadays we don’t seem to talk as much about revolution. Why do you think that is?

Trina: Do you think perhaps we have lost hope? Hope that things can change, really change for the better? Things seem to be consolidating into very centralized world orders dominated by a few and government at the service of global forces. Most of us feel so small in front of threats like genetic engineering messing up our whole food supply, or the privatization of our common resources. I think doing work you love (jobs aren’t the answer), living simply, making beauty, having land, learning about water systems and growing your own food are the sort of things that matter. And it is community that makes this all possible—small groups—doing things on a scale where relationships can count.

Those movements so alive in the sixties—the civil rights movement, women’s movement, environmental movements—are less flamboyant and their opposition has settled in. The spiritual revolution we are in now is powerful, but I hope to see it blossom further into more service—the services of love, that’s my mantra. The Benedictine monks have the slogan, “Ora et labore”—Work and Prayer. That’s the winning combination, isn’t it? This inner/outer balance is the heart of my own tradition. It’s full of prayer, but its heart is a call to loving service—giving the cup of cold water to anyone and everyone, not judging—stretching the idea of neighbor to the ends of the earth and to Death Row and our own parents and children. The two great commandments are both love, right? This is the key to living “off the pillar.”

Carl: Do you see Hope for the Flowers as being in any way a political book? Or making a social statement?

Trina: Of course it’s political!! But big “political” — and very local too. “One man’s greed means another man’s need,” is a line from a song I wrote about the pillar. That’s big political! That’s describing situations that call out for radical change. But you don’t get there by smashing pillars—you kill too many caterpillars that way. Inspiring caterpillars to get off them is the way.

Carl: My favorite line in the story comes when Yellow is struggling with StripeÕs request for her to join him when he tries to climb the pillar for the second time. She realizes that “somehow, waiting and not being sure was better than action she couldnÕt believe in.” ThatÕs a powerful statement—and also a challenging one, for I believe we live in a world where “not being sure” and “waiting” are not valued. Can you share with us any insights on this wisdom? Where did you learn the value of uncertainty and waiting?

Trina: This is a frequent theme in the book. Yellow’s leadership of love is possibly best shown in her ability to wait. She waits to know what she should do next with her own life—against her immense urge to sacrifice her own becoming to please her “man.” She waits within her own cocoon. She waits for Stripe to get the point. She waits for Stripe to make his long journey down the pillar. She waits for him to go into the cocoon and finally she waits while he is experiencing his transformation within it.

My reverence for waiting and not being sure was most deeply nurtured by my experiences of silence and that great, feminine, pregnant celebration of this mystery given to us in the season of Advent, those 4 weeks before the winter solstice, the feast of new life, which the early church chose to honor the birth of Christ. I had the privilege of living this season in its full splendor during my years with The Grail, an International Women’s Movement, at their U.S. center at Grailville, Loveland, OH, and it has enriched my life with dimensions of meditation, silence and prayer not easily found.

I still try to live the spirit of Advent, but it is not possible to experience this sort of profound celebration of the not-yet of things, the waiting, in today’s world, which has so fully eliminated that season that we think of Christmas as beginning with Thanksgiving, and ending, not beginning, on December 25.This is the season that seems most totally condensed by our present world—to our detriment—I believe. We need to honor the “not yet” times in our and others’ lives, like we honor what is happening in a cocoon.

Visit Trina Paulus online at www.hopefortheflowers.com.

This interview first appeared in the September 1997 issue of New Leaves.

Enjoy reading this blog?
Click here to become a patron.


"Weirdness rules! It's all OK and God probably gets a few giggles out of it ..."

Why Are the Mystics So… Weird?!?
"Okay, you need to dial this back. This is a forum for conversation, not insults."

Why Finding God In All Things ..."
"You can? You must have run the experiments yourself. Your hostility speaks volumes. What do ..."

Why Finding God In All Things ..."
"I have no objection to love. The fact that it exists has no bearing on ..."

Why Finding God In All Things ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment