Dancing with Winter’s Death

Homestead, Humanure, inspiration
Adult Soldier Fly resting at the edge of the composting toilet after laying her eggs.

It used to be I only dwelled in fields of wildflowers at the peak of summertime, stopping by the garden on the way home with fresh vegetables colorful and crisp. I dipped in pristine waters, cooling hot moist skin after hilly forest rambles, pack full of juicy berries. Seed starting in early spring, mulching garlic beds in fall. A kaleidoscope of summer feelings, hopeful and bright.

Yet this is only one step in the dance.

Winter can often be a barren time, one we associate with darkness, shivering cold, lack of green growth, lack of sun. The life cycle slows here and we hardly notice anything reaching for the sun, for the sun isn’t as potent and all encompassing during winter. High tunnel greens grow at a snail’s pace. Instead, most growth happens within and it burns with the heat of stored sun inside of wood stoves.

Now I not only grasp what is lush and ripe in summer, I dance with the fecundity of winter as well. Interior soul journeys, but also adventures with matter. Winter holds so much more than I ever realized. For it is winter, when the life cycle slows down, that is most conducive for activities on the edge. Transformation of matter slows and in these times, is most easy to work with.

Spinal pattern on a freshly skinned buck.

For example, fall comes and deer all over the Ozarks are taken by hunters. Meat is ushered into freezers, into soup pots, grills, dried into jerky and ground with pork fat for delicious easy meals all year long. A nice rack is perhaps saved, but what of the hide, the hocks, the little dancing toes?

A step in the dance of life

Playing with matter

Interrupting death
Delaying decomposition
Stepping stones toward Rebirth

This year I’ve been teaching myself how to tan hides. Fleshing, bucking, de-graining, neutralizing, softening.

Deer hide neutralizing Ph in the fresh waters of our creek.

A handsy affair, a timeless process// Can’t not be tactile and making-shoulders-sore the next day. Scratch that – make it definitely going to feel it the next day.

There is a decomposition delay in the edge between the sweet hide fresh off a deer to sour green hair slipping holes of rot smell you cannot believe. Quite a space indeed as matter is transformed into something of extraordinary value and strength. Tanning hides into buckskin is a human-making activity, a self actualizing step forgotten in modern times. A step up from making tools from inert objects, sway a vulnerable flesh coat away from the edge of decomposition.

Deer hide during the softening stage.

Connected earth-based living hinges on this sway

Take poop

Yesterday we did our annual digging out of the compost cave in one of the stone bays of the humanure toilet. Letting it sit for a year, getting eaten by untold microbes, worms & soldier flies, within a year’s time we’ve safely, easily, completely hands-off taken a waste product and turned it into a fertile resource for the farm.

This is far cry from pooping in water, channeling it away from your home in tubes, your poop in a mosh pit with everyone else’s poop as it is “purified” through chemical admixtures, and then sent back via a tube to your sink.

Our poop never leaves our home, but it also doesn’t sit with stank spreading bad vibes around the countryside. Shortly after it drops, it it is sprinkled with another decomposing matter, an off shoot of the milling yard, sawdust. Here with the soldier flies, worms and microbes, poop is transformed in a non-smelly way into a valuable resource reminiscent of the forest floor.

Its highest potential as humanure is realized through symbiotic relationship with those-who-work-at-the-edges. In winter, when growth slows, we cart it around and spread it at the base of fruit trees and understory shrubs of our food forests.

A circle unbroken. We work with a multitude of nearly invisible beings, the angels of Rebirth who live in our composting toilet.

What is gross about death is not these steps, for they are decomposition swayed, they are rebirth envisioned and acted on. Death is usually only gross when it hasn’t been given the proper setting. A rotting carcass is repulsive for maybe a day or two in bad heat, but there are so many decomposers lying in wait to take the matter across the bardo.

Carrion beetles transforming a Copperhead

Who can say when one thing changes into another? The decomposers make it a swift transition from one form to the next. Soon enough, blood and guts, bone and brain disappear or turn into frass & soil.

When I interrupt the process of deer skin not turning into rot, but into a supple water resistant fabric, I am swaying the next form of the deer. A garment I wear is a stepping stone along the way to soil and then … who knows, a thousand fragrant wildflowers swaying in a summer’s breeze.

Harvesting Humanure on the Homestead: When nature calls, we choose to let her take care of it

Homestead, Humanure

Today was an exciting day that marked an important milestone on the homestead. We harvested our first round of humanure! Yes, we opened one of the 2 bays of our composting toilet to use the fertility we’d be accumulating and make way for more.

If you’re not sure what humanure is, check out our previous posts on it: 

 

 

humanure composting toilet natural building clay plaster

 The entrance to our fertility laboratory 

Humanure Smells Like Forest Duff

If you’re unsure what that’s like, think about if you went and buried your head in a big pile of leaves on the forest floor. It’s a smell I love!!

 

To be honest I was a little nervous at what we’d find, although my nerves proved unfounded. We last used this bay over 18 months ago and haven’t checked on it since having sealed and dated it like a vault. After leaving our fertility deposits on the daily for a little more than a year, today was the day to make our first withdrawal. For those of you unfamiliar with a double bay composting toilet system I’ll explain it a little for clarity.

composting toilet bays

An early shot of the 2 composting bays. We used local rocks to create the foundation. 

The double bay style of composting toilet is a passive way to harvest fertility and safely manage humanure.

 

As the name implies, it consists of 2 alternating bays that are consecutively filled with manure and urine. After each deposit of humanure and/or urine, a generous portion of sawdust or wood shavings (or other carbonaceous material) is poured on top. This ensures efficient and odorless composting. Using this method, there is no need for lime or other deodorizers. It doesn’t smell if there’s enough carbon!

composting toilet natural building clay plaster humanure

A look at our composting toilet from the ground up.

The first bay is closed off when full and the second one is put into use.

Depending on timing, the first bay may be safe to harvest once the second one is filled. This was the case for us. Given the fact that we are in need of the space in the first bay and intended to use the humanure, we went ahead and applied it directly to the base of some of our fruit trees. Another option would be to move in to another location where it would sit for another 6 months (making for a total of 24 months) to ensure safe low temperature composting.

A look inside at our system. The bin in the middle is filled with a scooper and sawdust or planar shavings.

 Harvesting our fertility is an empowering, easy and rewarding part of homestead living.

Being biological entities, it seem crazy to me that we aren’t more clued into the magical ways in which we can harness the biological miracles we have access to. For instance, black soldier fly larvae LOVE to eat. They happen to dine on a wide range of fare, including feces. They are also known as privy flies, I wonder why?

The Soldier Fly (source)

We can ally with then by allowing them access to egg laying sites on our humanure systems and let them do their thing. This means they further transform our past food into future soil food! We often hear them in incredible numbers taking our humanure one step closre to humus. FYI these flies DO NOT eat as adults (they wont land and spread feces on your food!) and pose no health risk whatsoever. On the contrary, they are of great benefit. (Read more from one of @quochuy’s recent posts on these wonderful beings.)

 

We can let nature take care. It’s what it’s meant to do.

 

By using simple biological processes like composting, we can rid ourselves of the idea of labeling things as waste, and instead see them as potential resources. The fertility lab (our aptly named composting toilet) was the first structure we erected. In fact we hadn’t ever built anything before and we knew this was a crucial element of Earth centered living and a priority on the homestead.

 

Why we didn’t install a Septic System

Where is Away?

We knew that the conventional model for dealing with our humanure (more commonly called poop) was to treat water with chemicals until it’s potable, then contaminate it with potentially pathogenic feces, then mix it with a whole more of the same and either store it in a giant underground tank or send it through a sewer system to be further assaulted with chemicals.

 

Either option is insistent upon the notion of “away”, some fanciful modern construct where our wastes happily disappear. Instead of buying into the existence of “away” and installing an expensive and unnecessary plumbing and septic system, we chose to let nature take care of us and our outputs, and indeed transform them into a usable product!

 

 

When nature calls, we choose to let her take care of it.

 

 

Composting toilets are a simple, low tech and affordable step towards a healthier planet and saner culture.

When organic materials are combined in proper ways, aerobic decomposition occurs with the aid of micro and macro organisms and we easily & responsibly mange our humanure.

The result is humus, the building block of the soil food web. This is the life force in soil that binds and connects elements into a cohesive whole. Through understanding a few simple concepts, anyone can safely transform their humanure and urine into usable soil building compost. (Again, we’ve gone into the practice of humanure in an earlier post. See links at beginning of article.)

The way I learned composting was through the W.O.N.C acronym. If Water and Oxygen and in balance as well as Carbon and Nitrogen, the composting process should proceed smoothly.

 

We achieve this balance by adding planer shaving to our deposits. This simultaneously absorbs any excessive moisture, adds texture (to allow space for oxygen) as well as adding large amounts of carbon to the nitrogen rich deposits. The result is a smell-free system that requires very little in the way of maintenance. In contrast to the popular 5 gallon bucket systems where buckets are emptied into an outdoor composting bin and washed after use, we only spend a few hours a year maintaining the system and never have to handle or move poop (this isn’t to knock the bucket system! We have seen excellent case uses of such a system.) 

 

 Closing the loop

We’re happy to return the fertility to the land that feeds us. The food we eat nourishes us, which ends up in the composting bays, which turns into humus, which feeds the soil food web and ultimately the trees that feed us. Closing the loop on the nutrient flows through our homestead is a major part of what Permaculture design is all about.

While thermophilic or hot composting systems can achieve a pathogen and parasite free product relatively quickly, the mesophilic method takes time.

 

Dealing with poop seems gross, and in its raw state it is. It’s stinky and has the potential to spread disease and parasites. Rather than take on the responsibility ourselves, we let natural systems do the work for us. We eat and excrete, it’s part of our make up. But so does everything else…

 

Compost really is a magical thing!

 

If given the correct conditions (high enough temps to kill pathogens and parasites) and/or proper time (some sources say a full 2 years of curing to render humanure parasite and pathogen free) we can transform a “waste” (which don’t really exist) into a resource.

 

The resulting compost can be safely used on vegetable gardens. In our case we still chose to apply the compost as part of our heavy mulch layer under our fruit trees. This is extra assurance, just to be sure. That said we were both pleasantly surprised how earthy the final product was. It smelled like a forest floor.

 

 For anyone seriously interested in learning more, I can’t recommend The Humanure Handbook by John Jeavens enough! He’s put the time into the research and testing and knows his shit! Read it, buy and it stop wasting your resources.