Tragic waste: some thoughts on the s-word

Watching the bats from the kitchen stoop at Madroño Ranch the other morning was a little like watching my own thoughts. They swooped in and out of my line of vision, limited by the dawn darkness, more audible than visible.

Actually, my comparison is disrespectful of the bats; their flight is only apparently erratic, driven by the ever-changing location of the insects they were chasing. My thoughts are actually erratic. As the promise of light bloomed into dawn, the bats settled into the bat house, a feat of precision flying and landing almost like none I’ve seen, and I noticed the pile of guano under the house and thought that soon it would be time to collect it and put it into the compost pile.

And so began my musings on shit and the difference between good shit and bad shit. My apologies to the bats become ever more profound.

One of our current projects at the ranch is figuring out how to use the abundant quantities of manure the residents of the Chicken Palace produce. Currently, it’s just collected and dumped onto the compost pile, but we’re working on a plan to get the chickens more fresh greenery to eat, in part self-fertilized (by the chickens, that is). We’re planning to cordon their pasture off into sections and seed the sections with cover crops, alfalfa, rye—whatever the season will grow. We’ll soon have a rainwater collection system in place and will be able to irrigate with it (assuming it ever rains again). Using a portable fence, we’ll be able to rotate the chickens from section to section. We have no idea if this will work, but it seems like a good idea and a fine, closed-loop use of all that poop. We’re also looking to collect buffalo leavings (summer “interns”: consider yourselves warned!) and use them as well.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I used all sorts of synonyms for shit in the previous paragraph; one of the few I didn’t use is “waste,” because in natural systems, or systems that mimic natural systems, shit isn’t waste, it’s integral and beneficial. Paraphrasing Our Hero Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Mealsthat industrial agriculture has taken an elegant solution—crops feed animals, whose manure in turn fertilizes crops—and “divide[d] it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm… and a pollution problem on the feedlot.” Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the current source of most of America’s meat, produce mountains of manure that becomes toxic to the animals and to the communities around them, and the monoculture farming that produces most of America’s grains and vegetables doesn’t use animals to fertilize the soil, requiring farmers to use chemicals instead. That’s the difference between good and bad shit: when something that could be beneficial becomes useless, even toxic, waste.

In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if a community’s or even a culture’s capacity to endure might not be assessed by how effectively it mimics nature in dealing with its own discharge. I’ve just been rereading T. C. Boyle’s darkly comic Drop City, which begins at a northern California commune of the same name in 1970. The commune’s stated raison d’etre is to provide its residents with a place to escape the confines of bourgeois America and get back to the land and basic values by expanding their consciousness with meditation and drugs.

Of course the place is utter chaos, overflowing with the metaphoric excrescences of abusive sexual practices, racism, child neglect, and rampant narcissism, along with literal shit. The septic system is overloaded and the two characters who concern themselves with the problem get no help at all from the community. Eventually, the county government threaten to raze the buildings because the commune constitutes a health hazard. Because they can’t deal with their own shit on any level, the residents of Drop City abandon what was once beautiful land and move their chaos to the bush country of Alaska just as summer is waning. When they get there, most of them realize that they need to leave or get their shit together so they don’t die.

The problem is that getting your shit together necessitates acknowledging that you are, in fact, going to die. (It’s still Lent, after all. You knew we’d get to this.) Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death, identifies the human dilemma in scatological terms: we are the “god[s] who shit.”

Look at man [sic], the impossible creature! Here nature… [has] created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience…. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, not even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden man bears, the experiential burden…. Each thing is a problem and man can shut out nothing. As Maslow has well said, “It is precisely the god-like in ourselves that we are ambivalent about, fascinated by and fearful of, motivated to and defensive against. This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods.” There it is again: gods with anuses.

Human civilization, says Becker, is built on this unease, which encourages us to throw our energies into an “immortality project” by which we deny our smelly mortality; those who confront it with none of the filters an immortality project provides wither into mental illness. Becker doesn’t attempt to solve this conundrum but rather to set some boundaries within which we can wrestle with it with “the courage to be.” He writes in his conclusion: “We need the boldest creative myths, not only to urge men on but also and perhaps especially to help men see the reality of their condition. We have to be as hard-headed as possible about reality and possibility.”

So it was with interest that I watched the video produced by a Japanese media artist to explain to Japanese children why everyone was so worried about the Fukushima nuclear reactor after it was damaged by the tsunami and earthquake on March 3. The video compares the damaged nuclear reactor to a boy with an upset stomach who needs to poop. So far the boy has just farted—smelly enough for everyone around him—but the video assures us that a team of selfless doctors are doing all they can to prevent Nuclear Boy from pushing out his stinky poop.

The video says that the Fukushima reactor is more like Three Mile Island Boy—who just farted—than like Chernobyl Boy, who not only pooped but had diarrhea that went everywhere, likening nuclear waste to a dirty diaper. My first thought after watching it was that Japanese doctors would be overwhelmed by waves of constipated children, convinced that evacuating their bowels might bring their struggling nation to even deeper depths. My next thought moved me to images in last Sunday’s New York Times of the city of Chernobyl in its abandoned state and the interview with one of the guardians of “the sarcophagus,” the concrete structure built to contain Reactor No. 4, and that can’t come in contact with water without risking the escape of highly radioactive fumes. Scientists estimate that an area around the reactor the size of Switzerland will remain affected for up to 300 years. The aftermath of a nuclear meltdown “is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame.” The guardian figures that the work he does will be available to his children and grandchildren.

Using my heavily truncated recapitulation of Becker’s thought, it seems that proponents of nuclear power (which I have sometimes been) are refusing to be “as hard headed as possible about reality and possibility,” are as unwilling to get our shit together as the drug-addled utopians of Drop City. We are as schizophrenic as the video artist who proposes that we just not poop. A few pages away from the article about Chernobyl was a piece by a Japanese astrophysicist who wrote in reference to the Fukushima reactor crisis:

Until a few years ago, power usage in Japan was such that during the summer Obon holidays, when people typically return to their ancestral homes, it would have been possible to meet demand even if all nuclear power plants were turned off. Now, nuclear energy has come to be indispensable for both industry and for our daily lives. Our excessive consumption of energy has somehow become part of our very character; it is something we no longer think twice about.

Now that I’m trying to tie together all these thematic threads, I have to swoop back to my bat-intensive stoop, to the manure-heavy compost pile in the pasture outside the Chicken Palace. May we humans be as useful as Madroño’s bats and chickens as we consider our energy future; may we refuse to resort to the narcissistic chaos of Drop City’s residents, who left their spiritual and literal bad shit for someone else to deal with.

What we’re reading
Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Martin: Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

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