A word with the Author
"The balance of nature is . . . a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things which cannot be safely ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied with impunity by a man perched on the edge of a cliff."
Rachel Carson - Silent Spring
As I was writing this second edition of Humanure, I got a phone call from a fellow who was working on a national Community Disaster Preparedness Manual, a project with a federal mandate and federal funding. This project was precipitated by the concerns surrounding the “Y2K” (Year 2000) scenario, which was supposed to be fraught with the wholesale collapse of civilization due to pervasive computer design flaws. Computers would not be able to recognize the beginning of the new century and would just crash. This could result in wide-ranging and possibly prolonged disruptions of electrical, water, food, and fuel supplies, among other things. Or so we were warned.
The authors of this manual had to assume these disruptions could occur for two days, two weeks, or even two months, and the manual had to include instructions for all three of these contingencies.
The people working on this problem seemed to be able to come up with stop-gap solutions for every potential obstacle: food shortages (food can be stored), fuel shortages (wood or kerosene stoves can be used as backup heaters), or no lights (candles would work). There was one problem, however, for which no solution could be found. In fact, the fellow on the phone confided that they were considering abandoning the project altogether, because, in the words of many experts in the field, “it can’t be done.”
What exactly was this impossible problem, you may wonder? In a word — sewage. What do you do when the toilets won’t flush? What happens when the water doesn’t pump and the drains don’t drain? Conveniences like flush toilets are totally dependent upon the electrical grid and completely reliant on a constant water supply. When the electricity is out and water is unavailable, how do you flush a toilet? Answer — you don’t.
When this question was posed to the professionals in the field — wastewater treatment managers, waste management people, and sewage experts, they all drew a blank. One suggested that gravity drains would still work; sewage could be dumped down those drains, eventually reaching a wastewater treatment plant. It could then be heavily chlorinated before being discharged directly into the environment. He admitted this would only work for about two weeks until the chlorine supply ran out, after which the sewage would be released directly into surface waters, totally untreated. He also admitted that wastewater treatment plants only keep about a two week supply of chlorine because it is such a dangerous chemical. After two weeks, in a disaster scenario, raw sewage would be dumped into the environment — a situation that usually precedes the spread of deadly epidemic diseases.
Two things came to mind when I talked to the disaster-manual fellow. First, people need to realize that life as we know it won’t continue forever. The environmental repercussions of our consumptive, throw-away lifestyles may catch up to us sooner than we think. Computers crashing may look like a Girl Scout picnic compared to global climate changes, cancer, new epidemics, and other calamities that can now be directly linked to our excesses. People also need to realize how fragile their lifestyles are, hanging by a thinner thread than they can imagine. Some power outages and food/fuel shortages could be a wake-up call for many.
Second, I never cease to be amazed at how thoroughly our society has ignored any constructive alternatives to sewage. We’ve put all our eggs in the flush toilet basket, and when the toilets won’t flush, we’re clueless. Ironically, it’s this squeamish refusal to look at our own excrement that makes it such a threat to our health and safety. If we can’t flush it, since we’ve developed few alternatives, we just dump it. This is a big mistake, not only because we’re discarding valuable organic resource materials, but also because we’re polluting our environment in the process, perhaps dangerously so.
So I told the disaster-manual fellow that two five gallon buckets and a large bag of peat moss or sawdust will make an emergency toilet for one person for two weeks. If a compost bin and a steady supply of sawdust or peat is available, that toilet could last indefinitely. With proper oversight and management, that person could be in a Chicago high-rise or in a Boston suburb. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The point is that we don’t know how to deal with human excrement because we don’t see it for what it is. It’s not a waste material, it’s a resource material. When we see it as a resource, we can understand how to recycle it. When we adamantly insist upon seeing it only as a waste material, we’re painting ourselves into a corner. By believing we have to dispose of that waste, we burden ourselves with an increasingly impossible challenge.
The first edition of Humanure went through four printings and around the world to at least 31 countries. It was discussed on British, Canadian, and US airwaves, and on US network TV. It was written up by the Associated Press, and in various national magazines. These are small accomplishments in the publishing world, but significant for a self-published author’s first book. Yes, I did say self-published. That means I, the author, and I alone, take full responsibility for creating this book, designing it, getting it into print, marketing it, and making sure it is distributed. I am not a person with deep pockets or an inheritance. I’m a person who writes during the winter months in a small office off my bedroom, at home, in Pennsylvania.
I first published Humanure with some degree of hesitancy. Afterall, composting humanure in America can be as bizarre a concept to some people as the sacrificing of small animals for religious purposes. I wondered how wise it was to publicly admit that I had shat in a bucket for decades. I knew I risked being considered some kind of crank. I imagined Merle at the local hardware store no longer wanting to shake my hand, or making haste to the washroom to scrub his hands immediately thereafter. I wasn’t sure I even wanted anyone to read the book, and although I knew some people would be fascinated, I just didn’t know who or where they were. I estimated that maybe there were 250 people in the US interested in the topic of humanure composting (one in a million), so I printed a small number of books the first time around and assumed they would sit in my garage for the rest of my life until I discovered, one by one, those 250 potential readers.
Was I ever wrong! No sooner had I printed the first batch of books than a friend wanted one. He showed it to his girlfriend, a newspaper reporter, and she showed up at my door — with a camera. In a matter of days, the story of a man composting his family’s you-know-what in his backyard was out on the Associated Press, with a huge photo of me poking around in a compost pile with a pitchfork. The TV stations thought this story was newsworthy enough to broadcast, and a friend called to say he saw the book mentioned on the TV morning news. He laughed out loud as he told me of the lady news anchor stuttering when she had to say the word “turd” on TV. Someone should have warned her one of Humanure’s chapters was titled, “A Day in the Life of a Turd.”
Next I got a call from a group of nuns wanting me to do a presentation about humanure at their convent. I never would have expected anything like this, but I obliged them, and they taught me something about spirituality and humility, which is mentioned in Chapter Four. As more time passed, I learned more and more new things from others. In the meantime, I kept selling out of books and doing larger and larger reprints. More speaking engagements popped up. Then the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection told me Humanure was nominated for an environmental award. Even the BBC called from London and wanted to do an interview. I seemed to be getting a lot of publicity for a guy who didn’t want anyone to read his book.
Then I started to get reader feedback. I suppose people won’t write to you if they don’t like your book, because all of the feedback has been positive. And a lot of it was intriguing enough that I have included “Reader Feedback” excerpts throughout this second edition.
Why did I write this book, anyway? Probably because I have personally recycled all of my family’s humanure since 1979 (twenty continuous years at the time of this writing) using very simple methods. The resulting compost has always been used in our food garden. We have never produced any sewage from our home. Instead, all of our organic residues are carefully recycled by composting and are then returned to the soil, humanure included, thereby maintaining the fertility of our food gardens and eliminating organic waste altogether.
As I wrote this second edition, I was interviewed by yet another newspaper reporter about my books. The young lady came to my home for the interview and asked, innocently enough, after we were well into the interview, “What do you do with your sewage?”
“We don’t have any sewage,” I replied, matter-of-factly. “I’ve lived here twenty years and we’ve never had any sewage.” The blank look of utter incomprehension on the young lady’s face was worth photographing. She didn’t have a clue, and I don’t blame her. I briefly explained to her that sewage results from the disposal of waste into water, and that when organic materials are instead collected without water and composted, there simply is no sewage. She vowed to cultivate her fledgling understanding of this new concept by actually reading my book. And that, it seems to me, is a good reason for me to have written it.
The more research I did on this topic, the more I realized there was precious little information about humanure recycling in print. It’s no wonder people’s faces go blank when confronted with the concept. Although bits and pieces of information were available, they were scattered about in hard-to-find, obscure references. I knew that where there is ignorance, there is misunderstanding. So I have compiled this information and written this book to try to shed a small ray of light onto what is otherwise a dearth of information. I do not claim, by any means, to have all the answers, but I do hope to be able to provide at least a starting point for those who seek information about the topic.
I do not consider myself an “expert.” I make no pretense along those lines. But with 24 years of organic gardening and composting experience, I’ve learned a thing or two which may be of interest to the average reader. I’m sharing those things with you now, and you can digest what you want, and, well, you know what to do with the rest.
By the way, Merle at the hardware store still shakes my hand. And I’m even getting used to his rubber gloves.
JCJ, Winter 1999
Source: The Humanure
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