Dumping Compost: A Literary Look at Human Waste

By Kyhl Lyndgaard, guest contributor:

“While not exactly trying to spearhead a new wave of urinary literature, I have not been shy about relieving myself in my writing.”

–David Gessner, “Marking My Territory”

My loss of faith occurred gradually, over the course of a year in a rental with a waterless toilet. I never expected it to happen. For one thing, I’ve been a good wilderness shitter for many years. I faithfully have dug holes when on canoe trips to Quetico Provincial Park. I hit the bull’s eye when stuck at Lake Helen in a blizzard for three days on Mt. Shasta, dropping my waste into the Park Service’s complimentary zip-lock bags with charcoal, happy for freezing temperatures to harden my little package in its plastic entombment to be hauled off the mountain. My copy of Kathleen Meyer’s How to Shit in the Woods was received as a gag gift, but I read it with the intensity of somebody who actually cared enough to know, and knew enough to care.

A job teaching environmental literature and writing brought me to a liberal arts college in Vermont last year, and I was delighted to find a small, inexpensive stand-alone rental within biking distance of the rural campus for my wife and me. The owner suggested the little yellow house with an ell was the oldest house around, dating back to the mid-18th century. Some locals call it the Dollhouse for its precocious appearance. After serving as a shed for some decades, it was moved a tenth of a mile to its present location in the 1980s and adapted for use as a house. Within two weeks of moving in, I’d seen heron, snapping turtles, and mink in its small backyard pond. A bit of bedrock thrusts through the floorboards in the lower level, with a cast iron tub seemingly levitating above, the lip of the tub resting on a framework of lumber. A small closet with a louvered door hides what turned out to be, for us, a defining feature of the cabin.

Inside the closet was another sort of closet, a yellow plastic mega-throne complete with step stool. You poop in it, then toss in a cupful of a “bio-blend” of moss and wood chips to balance out the moisture. Spin the holding drum every few days, and voila; two months later, the drawer has finished the job. This night soil still needs a year or two of additional seasoning in a heap outside before fertilizing ornamental plants, but when all is humming along properly, it really does appear soil-like. Unfortunately, things rarely hummed for us, not even in a minor key. You see, that little drum, supposedly rated for a family of three, was a part-time worker. Perhaps if this was our weekend getaway, the Dollhouse’s toilet would have done the job with panache. Alas, we were here for the long haul, and my wife was well into her second trimester of pregnancy.

Theoretically, I am fiercely in favor of compost, whether vegetable, mineral or night soil. So let’s get into the literary theory of it. According to M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s A Glossary of Literary Terms, “‘literature’ is sometimes applied . . . to all written works, whatever their kind or quality. . . . At a major American university that includes a College of Agriculture, the Chairman of the Division of Literature once received this letter: ‘Dear Sir, Kindly send me all your literature concerning the use of cow manure as fertilizer.’” Rather than taking this secondary meaning of “literature” as a humorous diversion, I decided to dig into the literature of manure for a while. How would I have answered that letter? And since we’re dealing in the theoretical, I’ll substitute in human manure, or “humanure.”

First, I watched a fantastic video of Sharon Olds reading her poem “Ode to the Composting Toilet.” She chanted with unstoppable momentum: “. . . the effluvium of the offspring / of the earth mingles: fertilizer of / New Hampshire, Kenya, New York, Boston— / Yankees shit, Red Sox shit, / in excremental harmony” and I nodded along dutifully. My composting-toilet-equipped cottage was looking more and more groovy. I hadn’t been in New England very long, but if Yankees and Red Sox fans could agree on a common read, Taro Gomi’s Everyone Poops might just be that text. The poem caused me to ponder the origin of the chants of “Youuuk!” that have been heard in Fenway Park and now Yankee Stadium for a certain portly third baseman.

The most inscriptive account of defecation I have come across is in Richard Fariña’s psychedelic novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Set in and around Cornell University in 1958, the college that Fariña attended and invited his classmate Thomas Pynchon to parties at, one scene examines shit up close and personal. The main character, Gnossos Pappadopoulis, deposits a duker—Youker?—of monumental size and import. “Gnossos stared down again. As he did, a small eddying current in the water lolled it over on its side. It was astonishingly well formed, here and there a miniscule design. Cuneiform of the bowels. Secret cellular knowledge etched by the insides, trying to tell us something.” If messages can be etched into the sides of “the largest turd [Gnossos] had ever seen in his life,” then the literature of manure becomes more experimental and more olfactory than even Olds suggested.

Perhaps not coincidentally, M.H. Abrams was Professor of English at Cornell, and his definition of “literature” may well have illuminated the minds of Pynchon and Fariña while Abrams explicated literary production in his famous book The Mirror and the Lamp. If classical literature is a mirror, and Romanticism is a lamp, it logically follows that Postmodernism is an R. Mutt-autographed fountain. So those Cornell halls and W.C.’s are critical to my understanding of the literature of humanure. I just hope my students never attempt to turn in such a fragrant text, whether to my faculty mailbox or alight in a paper bag on my front step.

My own personal ode to the composting toilet was short-lived. Despite my best efforts, I regularly found myself referencing the owner’s manual, thumbing my way through the ominously lengthy chapter entitled “Troubleshooting.” One week too clumpy, the next too soupy. Just when I thought all was stabilized, I discovered to my disgust that the finishing drawer was not in fact dry. A horrendous brown liquid had spilled directly onto the floorboards. The bio-blend mixture meant to leaven the yeast had, I deduced, blocked the overflow drain, and my wife and I were just too well hydrated for our toilet’s good. Thus I learned a new vocabulary word: leachate, the resulting brown liquid, as seen in a composting toilet. Or in our case, the liquid overflowing from our non-composting composting toilet.

An hour later, I found myself outside in a 35 degree rain in the dark, lugging a five-gallon bucket full of leachate. Where was I going? Well, I was trying to remove sewage without the advantages of modern plumbing, a challenge the enterprising Roman plumbarius had met some millennia earlier. My strategy was to avoid the fallen trees and branches blocking my path, and to get as far away from the house as possible. At one point, a whip-like maple branch to the face caused me to stumble, and some of the leachate splashed up, over, and into the rubber gloves I was wearing. Great.

Did I mention that my wife was now into her third trimester? As I learned, and as she learned only too well, pregnancy heightens a woman’s sense of smell. Meanwhile, the environmental benefits of a composting toilet were looking more and more tenuous with every malfunction that bypassed the finishing drawer.

I began relieving myself exclusively a la Gessner, off the deck or some back corner of the driveway, while my wife was compelled to brush off her inheritance from her great-grandmother—an antique commode, consisting of a nightpan set inside an oaken box. Frankly, it’s the most aesthetically pleasing toilet I’ve ever seen, regardless of its own shortcomings in the plumbing department. Within a week, we no longer suffered from excessive leachate; a month later, the baby still hadn’t arrived, and my wife was still using the Ye Olde Commode. Next, out came the flies from our dry composting toilet. At some point in this process, we decided to reject the once-intriguing idea of home birth. When we toured the birth center, we thought the place was better than a Holiday Inn. A Jacuzzi or something similar was situated in one corner, and a huge flatscreen TV inhabited the other. In terms of square feet, the room was about 2/3 the size of the Dollhouse. Childbirth, our tour suggested, would mark the first family vacation the three of us would go on.

In a matter of months, my ode to the composting toilet had gone sour, or more accurately, ammoniac (which, technically speaking, is basic rather than acidic). Maybe I needed a holding tank with greater capacity, or simply more practice balancing the load. As Whitman opens “This Compost,” “Something startles me where I thought I was safest, / I withdraw from the still woods I loved, I will not go now on the pastures to walk . . .” At any rate, I had given the composting toilet a pretty serious test drive, and found the throne lacking. We ended up moving out with a three-week old baby en route to buying a house a mile down the road with a septic system.

Although my own poop is whisked away, I continue to be faced with human waste on a daily basis thanks to said baby. While changing my infant’s diaper one day, I wiped his butt carefully, leaning in to ensure a clean bottom, unaware that he wasn’t quite finished with his bowel movement. Still 100% on milk, his poop wasn’t so solid. The little guy somehow managed to spray me with green droplets, which left me with two important thoughts. One, I am thankful for my glasses; and two, he reminded me that composting toilet or not, there’s no escaping the fact that Everyone Poops.

Kyhl Lyndgaard is a professor of writing at Marlboro College in Vermont, where he is Director of the Environmental Studies program. His writing has appeared in journals including EcopoeticsGreen Theory & PraxisGreat Plains Quarterly, and ISLE.

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