Sunday, June 20, 2010

In praise of poo?

A few weeks ago, I stood with half a dozen fellow Rotarians beside a large hole in the ground into which a young tree was being carefully lowered. Around the circle there were murmurs of doubt: The soil was sandy … would the sapling thrive without added fertilizer? “Well,” I remarked, “I suppose one of us could poop in the hole.” The wide eyes and gaping jaws that greeted this suggestion reminded me of two things:

1) Rotary is perhaps not the best venue for scatological humor; and

2) not everyone appreciates the value of good organic compost.

It has not always been thus. Agriculture was invented about 12,000 years ago, and it surely wasn’t long before someone noticed the barley grew tallest over the top of last year’s privy. Humans have been using dung – human and otherwise – to promote vigorous plant growth ever since. Indeed, by the 17th century, sh*t-picking had evolved into a legitimate profession. These “gong farmers” or “night soil men,” as they were called, cleaned out the cesspits of the city folk and hauled it out of town to spread on farmers’ fields. As urbanization increased, these entrepreneurs actually made quite a tidy living. Gives new meaning to the expression “the smell of money,” doesn’t it?

With the advent of modern sewage systems (hurray!) and invention of chemical fertilizers, use of “humanure” in agriculture fell off precipitously. However, like bell-bottomed trousers or the mullet, a cultural phenomenon this distasteful must inevitably stage a comeback. Spurred by concerns about the environmental impact of artificial soil additives as well as strains on waste treatment systems as population density increases, some people are taking the concept of individual recycling to the next level.

Like so many innovations of fashion, Scandinavia has led the way. According to the website Composting Toilet World (!), our Nordic friends originated commercially designed composting toilets in the 1960s (though primitive “earth closets” were available in this country as early as the 19th century; three cheers for American ingenuity!). As far as I can tell, composting toilets are not yet available at Ikea, but surely it's only a matter of time.

While manufacturers promise that their sleek, ultra-modern composting commodes are safe, clean and virtually carefree, those who use them concede that things can go wrong. In an article titled, “Composting Toilets, Pasteurization and Permits,” writer Ron Sutcliffe says, with some understatement, “An unhappy compost toilet will let you know of problems in potentially unpleasant ways.” Happily, he provides a “major problem default sequence” to use if you determine the contents of your compost toilet have become “a threat to your health and the health of the community.” This involves sealing the um … “problem” in steel drums, leaving it in a sunny place for a year, then burying it. Simple and effective! Still, I suggest you decline the invitation to host the neighborhood block party during this 12-month decontamination period.

Commercial composting toilets range in price from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If you’re really frugal, a website provides plans to construct your own unit, using pop bottles and plywood, for about $25.

While I’m all for saving the planet, I won’t be installing a composting toilet (or squatting in the backyard) any time soon. Cleaning out the cat boxes is quite distasteful enough. No, I guess I’ll stick with the sort of all-natural fertilizer that comes in brightly printed bags from Fleet Farm. There are times when doin’ what comes naturally seems like kind of a crappy idea.

1 comment: