Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the October 19,  2003 Newsletter issued from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

At some point, the person wanting to reduce his or her own impact on the environment, and to live in a manner respecting the true value of things, has to confront this fact: Our own feces creates a real mess if handled wrongly, but has great value if handled right.

Our society's usual manner of handling it completely ignores its value, and flirts with suffering from its dangerousness. How many beaches are closed, how many miles of rivers are off limits to fishing, and how many tons of chlorine are dumped into our drinking water because of "fecal coliform bacteria" -- bacteria originating in the intestines of warm-blooded animals?

Last week I made the point that unless a person has a urinary tract disease, human urine is so sterile that it can be used to wash out wounds. In fact, Newsletter subscriber Leona Heitsch in Missouri wrote recalling that her mother once told her that "...when she was a kid, they used the contents of the chamber pot to balm their hands after picking up potatoes in the raw Michigan cold... it neutralized the effect of the cold earth on their hands and relieved dryness and cracking."

In contrast to urine's sterility, average human feces consists of about 25% bacteria, sometimes much more. If that bacteria contaminates human food, serious illness, sometimes even death, can occur.

Therefore, I've long felt ambivalent about what to do with my own manure. On the one hand I have read how important the use of human manure is in Asian agricutlure, and I have seen some of these practices myself in India. On the other hand, my mother was as neat and clean as they come, and she passed on her concepts to me the way any good mother does. My default attitude toward my own feces has been until now "flush and forget."

But, here, now, I don't allow myself the luxury of not examining the consequences -- the ethics -- of everything I do, and everything I think.

One catalyst in my deciding to confront the question of what to do with my own feces came when I read The Humanure Handbook, A Guide to Composting Human Manure by J.C. Jenkins. Happily, the entire book is available online at www.weblife.org/humanure/default.html

In this book we read that human manure, or humanure, by wet weight is 5-7% nitrogen, 3.5-4% phosphorus, 1- 2.5% potassium and 4-5% calcium. These are nutrients that living things need and they should not be flushed from local ecosystems.

For me the most striking part of the humanure book is a chart showing how much heat and time are needed to kill disease-causing bacteria. If you heat something at 113°F (45°C) for one week, not only disease-causing bacteria but also dangerous viruses, roundworms, amoebas and other such organisms will die. The same can be accomplished if you heat it at 145°F (63°C) for one HOUR. Figures applying best to composting are these: You'll kill disease-causing organisms if your compost heap maintains a temperature of 122° F (50°C) for just one day.

I have seen that my own heaps, when I do a good job building them, paying attention especially to the carbon/nitrogen ratio, cook along at about 140°F (60°C) for several days before starting to cool off slowly. In other words, if I should compost my own manure, the resulting compost should be free of disease-causing organisms.

In fact, for some time I been using the following system:

A "Porta Potti Continental," a kind of portable toilet, came with my little trailer. Basically it's a regular commode seat fixed atop a large, plastic container. When the container is full, the seat easily detaches and the container can be carried by its handle to where its contents can be poured out. I pour the contents onto my compost heap. You can see something resembling my Porta Potti at www.lewisgray.com/Sanitation_products/Portable_Toilets/TF_PortaPorti165.htm

Immediately upon dumping the Porta Potti's contents onto my heap, I scatter some already-prepared compost atop it, to "seed" it with composting bacteria. Then I spread about 6 inches of fresh straw or other organic material over that, effectively sealing the odor inside. During following days I pee atop the fresh straw, as described last week. In a couple of weeks the straw becomes saturated and it becomes time to dump the Porta Potti contents again. The Humanure book advises to NOT occasionally stir up the straw to aerate it. Just let it sit there and cook as long as it wants, and when the bin gets full (after about a year at my rate), then start another bin. A few weeks after finishing the first bin, you can begin gardening with the compost.

This systems works beautifully for me, but I'm not sure if it's transferable to other people. For one thing, I know that what comes out of vegetarian me has much less smell than that from others who eat animal flesh. Similarly, my diet is high in fiber, so what comes from me is much looser than what comes from people eating processed food. Each person needs to experiment with his or her local conditions.

It's all quite simple. And, when you think about it -- about taking control of this aspect of your life and making something good out of a waste -- it's even quite beautiful. No chemicals, no pollutants, no taxes, no costs at all, in fact ending up for free with a fine compost that makes flowers blossom, and vegetables grow like crazy.