Everything Comes Into This World Hungry

Copyright 2011 Nance Klehm


illustration by Edie Fake

All organic waste is compostable. If it wasn’t, we’d be living amongst pile-ups. Compost is just a matter of how much time and energy it takes given the methods employed or the conditions the material is exposed to. This is the truth: everything comes into this world hungry and everything flows towards soil.

Soil is a body that supports plant growth. It is a structural mantle that supports many other things and transmits water. Soil is both decomposition engine and support network for all living things. It is the living sponge that filters our water and air, thereby cleaning them both. It stabilizes our constructions, prevents flooding, protects our landscapes against drought, and ensures the health of our food, water and air. Soil is not a thing. It is a web of relationships that stands in a certain state of a certain time. Compost is this too, but in a higher state of ignition. Chaos.

Recently I was asked one of the most exciting questions ever by a hospital in a developing country: “Could we use urine tainted with cholera as fertilizer?”

This is a hot question.

This is the same hospital that has a pit in the ground in which they toss placentas from mothers who give birth in the hospital. This pit was not made in order to ritualistically bury the placentas. It exists only because the placentas needed to be put somewhere else – in a different pit from the other human body castoffs, We can see this as a marking of specialties (if not also a factor of the number of births).

Public health systems everywhere are concerned with the elimination of waste — as an expense, both from their pocketbooks and in environmental terms. However, waste could be seen as a resource. The binary way of thinking gets broken down fast when resources and waste are redefined. The difference between me and the hospital is that they see their task as getting rid of waste after they take care of people. I see as this same task as compost production of the wastes in order to take care of people.

A very fine line exists between the fetid and the fecund.

Cholera: a disease that can indefinitely live in water. If people come in contact with cholera through drinking or washing, they could lose ten to twelve liters of liquid from their body in one day. This would lead, obviously, to dehydration, shock, and death within hours. When cholera hit urban populations in the United States in the early to mid nineteenth century, cities were inspired to create municipal waste water treatment systems.

And the placenta: a temporary organ that connects the developing fetus to the mother’s uterine wall to allow nutrient uptake, waste elimination, and gas exchange via mama’s blood supply. Placentas, when expelled by the body, can be healthy, bloody, jellyfish looking things; a concentrated bundle of vascular tissue that can be donated to a blood bank or incinerated into a crispy bit or dumped into a pit in the ground. It can be used to make a placenta print or eaten like a delicacy raw or cooked. That is, if the placenta is healthy. If it is deemed unhealthy (perhaps carrying Hepatitis B or C or HIV like any other human blood product), it can still escape being an ingredient in a stinky pit or burnt by being planted with a tree to nourish that tree’s roots.

Both of these pits, one with medical waste and one with placentas, waft their stink over the hospital’s grounds in a middle of a city. Pathogens exploit soils that don’t have abundant, diverse, and active microbes. In other words, pathogens are invited to run amok in most of our damaged soils.

This sort of question (though as disturbing as a bad compost heap or dump) is evidence of a disconnect. However, the question is easy enough to remediate. It comes from people who beg for a simpler answer which, when explained, will be embraced due to need. In other words, these people are humble enough and have to be practically engaged in the execution of these ideas. And in even more words, these people are post-theoretical.

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In contrast, my usual in-box questions concerning soils, composting, greywater and urban foraging read as if everyone is still confused about living processes of both landscape and body. The questions that I usually get asked exist and remain in the theoretical and are only partially engaged. They are motivated by idea instead of being responses to need. They spring from the head and lack a direct connection to the body. These questions have the tendency to turn into unhealthy messes into complicated disasters.

A few not-so-hot questions …

An off-grid couple – one, a graduate of biology, and the other of environmental studies (who met teaching an Outward Bound course) asked me if they should just pour off the bacteria-laden soup of their poo barrel, which they had left out under the clouds to feed right onto the ground because it “was stinking”.

Another woman in a shared apartment building with a tiny yard in the city asked me what the next step was. She had been collecting her poop in buckets and had them stacked in the garage. She had 24 of them at this point so it was apparent she had been diligent on her collection for some time (a bucket a week is the average, if you were wondering). The way she talked about the buckets, I realized she was trying to elicit praise from me.

The homeschooling parents who asked me if it was a good idea to dig their child’s potty trainer contents into the only sliver of ground that remained unpaved in their back yard (a.k.a., where the swing set sat).

And the inexperienced composter who wrote this to me: “We had an inspection done of the septic tank and it needs to be pumped. We’re talking maybe 1500 gallons of old raw sludgey sewage. I’m wondering: is there something we could do with this stuff on our site? Our land is all sand, and occasional yucca, etc, etc. I’m not sure if the pumper is legally allowed to offload it on to somewhere else on our grounds, but maybe he could be persuaded. Do we have it distributed all over? I guess I’d then add as much wood chips and/or straw and/or newspapers and/or yard waste as possible …? And water? Or is the stench gonna be just too much?”

Questions like these require rewiring.

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I am convinced that a healthy (defined as a diverse and abundant) soil biology can transform the organic waste and the otherwise pathogenic materials that we release into our environment. In rich places such as the U.S., it would be chemically treated using much energy and drinkable water, and in poor places, dumped into pits, vented, or not, or piled up and then covered by some other material (or not and left open for exploration by the curious). This transformed soil can become pathogen free, pathologically absent, damned nutritious and outright beautiful soil for food, medicine, and habitat for all us creatures. Allowing us to run barefoot, lick our fingers, and leave on the grit that sticks to a carrot we pull out of the ground.

And if we build this subterranean and surface habitat and work in community with it by pooping and peeing in a bucket and feeding our compost pile, planting fruit trees with our bloody rich placentas, and even embracing our rice water, if cholera-stricken … if we can opt to be antiheros and just plain caring and engaged, our habitat could be pretty dang groovy out there and we would all have better biceps and shoulders and hamstrings for it.

After all, WETNESS IS OPPORTUNITY.