Note: If you’re enjoying reading about my Camp Life, I would like to suggest you check out my friend Spence’s blog, Rediscover the Wild in Wilderness. He’s also living in a wall tent (see, I’m not the only crazy one!) though he’s doing it up in Thunder Bay!
ed. I actually originally wrote this post a couple of Saturdays ago. It’s fairly normal for me to wait a few days between the writing and publishing of a post, to allow me a few read-throughs and edits before I publish it, though waiting over two weeks is strange. The reason I waited so long is because, through this specific post I use the word shit a lot. I’m aware that this word has a very visceral sound to it, and it can create a very strong reaction against it. I tried using other words, but none of them really fit. I suppose the reason that I prefer the word shit is because our reaction to the word is similar to our reaction of what the word represents. And that’s exactly the issue that I’m attempting to discuss here. That being said, if you dislike the term, I certainly would not be disappointed if you skipped over this post.
Shit is Old English. The word that is. Shit itself is probably much older. The word is Germanic in origin. Most of our cuss words in English are Germanic in origin. I was wondering about that. Turns out, when the Normans invaded what would become known as England, the Anglo-Saxon peoples that were living there at the time became a subjugated people. Anglo-Saxons of course, were Germanic. Their language became the language of the streets, the language of the uneducated peoples. Not like the Norman language, which was the language of the upper class, ruling elite. Thus, modern day English became a mix of French and German, with the lower class words becoming our cuss words. Technically, by cussing, you are celebrating the language of an oppressed people.
I was thinking these thoughts on Saturday (ed. January 18th) as I was mucking out horse and cattle stalls at a nearby farm. One of the advantages of living on a farm, one of the many advantages of living on a farm, is that the farmers know other farmers, farmers who always have a job to do for somebody with a strong back and a set of work clothes. On Saturday, I worked on the farm of Garry Lean (pronounced Lane). He’s an organic farm inspector and a trainer of other organic farm inspectors. Interestingly, I also met him several years ago in Thunder Bay when he was leading an organic certification seminar.
Mucking stalls is hard work. It leaves you tired and sore, and is an incredible work out. But that’s why I love it. I love cleaning shit up.
I first cleaned shit with Roots to Harvest. This is an amazing program that I was so incredible thankful to work with for the summers of 2011 and 2012. I’m not going to go into many details here, but at its most basic (and, in all honesty, too basic) form, it’s a program that gets teenagers to garden and farm. Throughout the summer, these youth get to work at many farms in the Thunder Bay area, and almost without fail, one of the key jobs is cleaning up shit.
Its funny to see youth come to terms with this. Often times, when first beginning the summer, the idea of cleaning shit is anathema to them. Their reaction makes sense. We don’t really care for our shit nowadays. We have elaborate systems to deal with it, systems which magically take our own shit and send it elsewhere. On a farm, at least on a small-scale one, there is no elaborate system. On a small-scale farm, the usual system is a pitchfork, a wheelbarrow and the aforementioned strong back.
As the youth are digging out the shit though, something happens. Suddenly, it becomes fun. I’m not exactly sure why that is. The work is hard, the days are usually hot and oftentimes, especially with the powerful ammonia pockets that often form in compacted sawdust, the lungs and eyes are burning. Normally, this is not a situation that leads to fun. My best guess is that there’s something almost liberating about being able to play with shit. Its a chance to actually get paid to break one of society’s biggest taboos.
On a small-scale farm like Garry’s though, shit forms another purpose. Shit is amazing compost. There are so many chemical and biological processes going on in it, it adds beautiful health to any soil. Its may be the biggest reason to have animals around a farm. I’ve heard of herds of cattle being used in areas that are suffering from desertification simply because their shit brings valuable moisture and microbiological life to it. Shit is actually restoring land!
After I cleaned out all the stalls, I went home to my tent. I don’t think I’ve described my toilet facilities, but I use a sawdust toilet. Basically, I shit in a bucket and cover it with a layer of sawdust that masks the odour while also helping with the composting process. When the bucket is full, I bring it up to the compost pit in the barnyard and empty it out. In a couple of years, that shit becomes beautiful soil!
In 1907, F. H. King toured farms in China, Japan and Korea. He described his findings in the book, “Farmers of Forty Centuries.” Apparently, farmers there had farmed the same land for 4000 years, and the soil was still incredibly productive. To put this in perspective, the United States has lost one third of its topsoil since it was settled. To be fair, China is, lately, also doing really bad in the soil building process. What was one of China’s big secrets that F.H. King had discovered?
Apparently, the Chinese knew about how amazing shit was! In fact, it was considered a gift to take a shit when you visited somebody else’s house! You were giving them the gift of fertile soil. Brilliant!
Harry Stoddart, author of “Real Dirt: An Ex-Industrial Farmer’s Guide to Sustainable Eating” and, more importantly, one of my instructors, describes peak phosphorus. I’ll let you read the book to find out more, but essentially, his argument is that we, as humans, are running out of phosphorus to put on fields, phosphorus which must be mined and transported thousands of miles from mine to farm. Meanwhile, we are each shitting out phosphorus into our elaborate systems where it ends up being “disposed” of.
Gene Logsdon, author of “Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind,” argues for another huge source of shit! In America, there are 73 million cats and 68 million dogs… which every year create a total of 190,000,000 tonnes of shit. Think of all that amazing fertility that is being thrown away every single day.
My point is that we as a society, really need to start dealing with out shit. We are getting to the point where we really can’t keep on trying to get it to disappear. We can’t afford to keep flushing it away and hoping that somebody else will deal with it. Shit is one of the best sources of fertility that we have, and considering the state of our topsoil, we need every extra bit of fertility that we can get. We need to get out shit together. Because if we don’t, we may be in deep shit.