A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

On Villaging: POOP TO SOIL

By Helen Zuman

Let’s talk about poop.

I live in Beacon; I walk six miles per day. Occasionally, in the neighborhoods lining Fishkill Creek, I’ve smelled sewage—poop mixed with water. I’ve also smelled this when passing the plant at Dennings Point, where poop goes to be mistreated, i.e., laced with chemicals. Sure, the scent repels me; yes, I mouth-breathe to fend it off. But, at the same time, I embrace the deeper question it raises: Why mix poop with water in the first place?

Within the confines of industrial civilization, pooping in water has become so common that most of us, I’m guessing, see it as the only way.

It’s not. Neither the native New Yorkers who once stewarded the fertile banks of the Hudson River nor the early generations of European colonizers relied on underground pipes to carry their bodily waste “away.” In fact, the first sewer systems in the US—serving (or disserving, depending on your viewpoint) Brooklyn and Chicago—did not appear until the 1850s.

But (I hear you thinking) don’t we have to rely on sewers, sewage “treatment” plants, and other such modern infrastructure, when humans crowd into cities? Don’t we court death by plague, if we refuse? Surely we can’t, at current population levels, afford to upcycle our poop.

That may be true; it may not be. It’s hard to say, until we’ve tried.

And it’s hard to get excited about trying, if all you can imagine is the “Ick! Yuck!” downside. To remedy this (eminently understandable) dearth of pooptimism, I suggest what worked for me: a chance to dive right in.

Three years ago, at Earthaven Ecovillage in Black Mountain, North Carolina, I had the honor of being initiated into the mysteries of humanure, while serving as “Poop Czarina” for the Medicine Wheel neighborhood—home, at that time, to about fifteen people, many of whom used our indoor bucket toilet. (A bucket toilet comprises a five-gallon bucket, sometimes lined with a paper bag to prevent stickage, and a toilet seat, either resting atop the bucket or supported by a separate, slightly taller structure.)

As Poop Czarina, I hauled full buckets to the humanure area up the hill behind the house; dumped buckets into a cylindrical hardware-cloth enclosure; kept the poop covered with straw (to keep pathogens in and critters out); rinsed the buckets and set them out to sun-dry; lined refreshed buckets with paper bags; and kept the bathroom stocked with sawdust (for covering each offering, as soon as it was made).

The most repugnant step was the dumping. And the first dump was the hardest. Before my maiden foray, I asked the outgoing Poop Czar—whom I’d thus far leaned toward dismissing as some vapid Millennial with a decidedly non-eco fixation on sportsball—to give me a play-by-play of the process, so I could avoid any obvious pitfalls and anticipate how I might feel. He agreed, and I noted, as he spoke, a thread of friendship stretching between us.

And that was just the beginning. As I plunged further into the wonders of humanure, I noticed myself reweaving the web of relationship in other ways. For one thing, I found that I could handle pretty much any poop-tastrophe (including full buckets with missing handles, interruptions in the rinse-water supply, and offerings that had never quite solidified), so long as I could talk (and joke) about it with my housemates. For another, I had to coordinate with a number of others to keep the system running smoothly—Where could I get more sawdust? Who could build a new corral, to replace the one filling up? How could I convince certain mystery persons to quit squandering precious bucket capacity on great swaths of toilet paper? For a third, I eventually got to pass on everything I’d learned to the next Poop Czar, laughing all the way (as the accompanying photo, snapped during that poo-torial, attests). Plus, there’s nothing like pulling the lid off a finished poop pile, after a year’s wait, and inhaling, from a loamy handful, the sublime scent of living soil (itself an intricate relational web).

When I’m not at Earthaven, I still poop in water, and flush my poop “away”. However, that’s set to change: in the basement of the house my husband and I are renovating squats the tank of a Phoenix composting toilet, which will soon enable us to transform both poop and pee into ambrosial fertility. Forget turning water to wine, lead to gold—this, for me, is the ultimate alchemy.

Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). She lives in Beacon, NY and Black Mountain, NC, and blogs at helenzuman.com.