Short Essay on Our 'Humble Piles'

A Rapture of Humus and Human Aversion to Waste

after the election and, wow, there it was, a story in my local paper
that cried out that the world was changing in a sensible direction. I
simply had to stare at it for a while before I could even read it.

The world-changing aspect was simply the fact that the paper - the Chicago Tribune,
which I don't expect to cross serious taboo lines - ran it at all, as a
feature story in its Chicagoland section: "Taking the 'waste' out of
human waste," by Lauren R. Harrison.

was a story, to put it indelicately, about the composting of human
excrement for eventual use as garden manure. It was straightforward and
informational, above the fold, with photos and graphics, 1,500 words, a
jump to page 5. That's all: a feature story about a small, innovative
program with a cute name, Humble Pile, and a daunting mission to turn an
aversion-shrouded waste product into what it really is, an
extraordinary resource.

as I am of the mainstream media for dumbing down or sensationalizing so
much of the news and reporting it in a context that feels like a padded
cell, I take a moment to applaud the Tribune for stepping out of its
comfort zone and risking censure by the easily offended. We live in a
society that has so many layers of euphemism protecting us from the
realities of our bodily functions, this couldn't have been easy.

we are going to change our relationship with nature, which is the
beginning of environmental sustainability, then addressing the aversion
and shame surrounding this basic function of life is an important place
to start. Only human beings create "waste" of any sort, and in so doing
proceed to waste enormous resources futilely attempting to remove it
from the circle of life.

as Harrison points out in her article about Nance Klehm,
"bio-instigator" and founder two and a half years ago of Humble Pile,
Americans used more than 120 billion gallons of water - 30 percent of
the total water usage - flushing their toilets in 2005, according to the
American Water Works Association. And vast quantities of electricity
are used at water treatment facilities around the country to remove the
waste, a hygiene model that ultimately will not be sustainable.

just interested in people understanding that their body is producing
soil all the time," Klehm told the magazine In These Times, which also
wrote about her program, "and there's no reason not to return it back to

is our future," writes poet Maxine Kumin in "The Brown Mountain"
(quoted in an excellent essay by Christopher Todd Anderson, "Sacred Waste: Ecology, Spirit, and the American Garbage Poem," in the literary-environmental journal Isle):

The turgid brown mountain steams,
releasing the devil's own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments -
cat vomit, macerated mice, rotten squash,
burst berries, a mare's placenta,
failed melons, dog hair, hoof pairings -
arises a rapture of blackest humus.

waste disposal is a technical problem, it's a spiritual one. Just as we
fear death, we shudder in disgust at rot and feces and other elemental
aspects of life, in the process vaulting ourselves into a state of
perpetual alienation from it.

decisions at the national and international level on the control of
pollution are crucial, of course, but I also remain vigilant about what I
call the infinitesimal shift in psycho-social consciousness that
suddenly transforms the way we as individuals see the world. What if we
began regarding waste and garbage as sacred? What changes would that
set into motion?

Tribune article notes that 22 families in several Chicago neighborhoods
are taking part in Klehm's program, replacing their flush toilets with
"composting toilets" - five-gallon buckets, with snap-on seats, filled
with sawdust that breaks down the waste and controls odor. The waste is
collected and transferred in 32-gallon drums to a "secret location"
somewhere outside the city for composting. The secrecy is necessary
because the process violates various municipal ordinances.

participants described the procedure as clean and no more odorous than
the flush-toilet method; and the composting is a two-year process, with
samples of the resulting manure tested for the presence of coliforms
before it's distributed for garden use.

Pile is part of a slow shift in attitude toward our own bodily waste.
In October, for instance, Reuters reported that the U.K. has begun
pumping biomethane gas generated from sewage into its grid for home
heating and cooking usage, and the country plans, by 2020, to meet 15
percent of its domestic needs with biogas. Also last month, San Antonio
announced the opening of the first sewage-generated biogas plant in the
United States. The city also composts the remaining sewage.

tiny changes, cautiously reported, are, I hope, the beginning of the
end of our polite denial and superstitious exorcism of half the life
cycle, at a cost ultimately fatal to the other half.

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