Monday, July 16, 2012

Holy Shit!

Last weekend I attended the Great Blue Heron Music Festival held in the woods of Chautauqua County here in Western New York State. As far as music festivals go this one is small to mid-sized with 5-8,000 attendees showing up over three days. The festival features a mix of bluegrass, zydeco, and rock-n-roll. Positive vibes flourished as the perennial motto "Happy Heron" echoed all around.

Fireflies lit the misty paths between our campsite and the main stage as the speaker systems carried both new and familiar melodies through the hemlocks and sugar maples into our ears. 

Today I want to tell you about something at the festival that left an impression on me other than the music - the toilets. 

Eating a gigantic lamb gyro with fresh lettuce and tomatoes covered with creamy tzatziki dressing, coupled with a full night of dancing until my toes blistered left me standing in front of a dimly lit blue plastic door to a Port-o-John at about 3 AM. 

As I waited in line to use the "facility" my face grimaced for the heinous cloud of shit-stench in which I was surely about to enclose myself. 

Upon entry I was shocked to find something entirely unexpected. A robust scent of cinnamon over-powered my nostrils. 

Apparently a group of volunteers had been keeping the whole line of high-traffic toilets tolerable by some organic addition of the holiday spice periodically throughout the night. This simple unexpected change in perception flipped the experience to the positive and I went right back to the dance tent. This experience started my thinking once again on the concept of sustainability, specifically the utilization of "humanure." 

I was reminded of contemporary heroes of sustainability. A friend and colleague - Heather Flores - gave the keynote speech at the the Rocky Mountain Sustainable Living Fair in 2010. In her speech she proclaimed...
Unless you are willing to "shit in a bucket" you are not taking permaculture as far as you can.  

Even for the liberal greenies in attendance this was a bit much as could be seen in the faces of earth-mommas swaddling their babies scrunching their noses at the thought.

If only they could experience human waste managed in a pleasant way. 

In his book Holy Shit Gene Logsdon explains the practice of cultivating human waste for garden fertilizer. He reminds us that in the golden age of Japanese agriculture the highest compliment a guest could pay a host farmer would be to leave behind a "gift" in the form of feces on the host's compost pile. The compost plies of the time were so valuable that they were kept under lock and key!

Hard to imagine in this day and age. But how did we come to this? The guttural response many of us have toward the very word - SHIT - goes a long way to explain the cultural taboos we have all agreed to place on even mentioning human feces in the current zeitgeist. From a public health stand point this makes sense as poop is by nature filthy and spreads disease if improperly managed. But what if we had some protocols minimizing germ exposure in the whole experience of humanure composting?

In his day Thomas Crapper had a great idea. Get poop under water and out of the house as fast as possible.  Once sealed under water away from air, bacteria and viruses can not aerosolize. That shit is "safe." 

But in this age, the age where fresh water is becoming more and more scarce and in turn more valuable it makes no sense to poop into several gallons of otherwise clean water. 

My experience with cinnamon masking the shit stench in the middle of the night last week at the Great Blue Heron Music Festival gives me hope that a smart and even pleasurable alternative to Crapper's technology awaits my community of resource-minded people. 


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