Books can be powerful. Sometimes they can even change your life. As part of our ongoing series on individual choices that impact the environment— “Your Choice; Your Planet”—the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Curtis Gilbert brings us the story of one book that changed his mother’s life… a book that so profoundly affected her that she felt compelled to share its teachings with strangers. It wasn’t the Bible or the Koran… or “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” And the part of his mother’s life that it changed is one so exceedingly private that most people don’t even like to talk about it. He’ll explain:
Books can be powerful. Sometimes they can even change your life. As part of our ongoing
series on individual choices that impact the environment — “Your Choice; Your Planet” —
the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Curtis Gilbert brings us the story of one book that
changed his mother’s life…a book that so profoundly affected her that she felt compelled
to share its teachings with strangers. It wasn’t the Bible or the Koran… or “Chicken Soup
for the Soul.” And the part of his mother’s life that it changed is one so exceedingly private
that most people don’t even like to talk about it. He’ll explain:
There’s a sound — something familiar to everyone who lives in a Western, industrialized
country — but it’s a sound you’ll almost never hear at my mother’s house.
(sound of toilet flushing)
Five years ago, my mom turned off the to water to her toilet. She put a house plant on top
of the seat and opposite it built a five-gallon bucket in a box that took over all the duties
of its porcelain counterpart.
“Well I had seen ‘The Humanure Handbook’ in the FEDCO Seed catalog — and it just sort of
intrigued me. And I decided one year that I would read it since I was curious about it year after
year. And I read it and then I began to feel really bad every time I flushed the toilet.”
That’s because every time my mom flushed the toilet she was rendering undrinkable several
gallons of otherwise perfectly good water. And what’s more, she was whisking away valuable
nutrients that she could have just as easily returned to the earth.
That’s right… Humanure is a contraction consisting of two words: human and manure.
Here’s how it works: You use the humanure bucket in pretty much the same way you’d use a flush
toilet. Everything’s the same, except that instead of flushing when you’re done, there’s another
bucket right beside the humanure bucket and it’s filled with sawdust. You use a little cup to
scoop up some sawdust and then you just dump the sawdust in the humanure bucket when you’re
finished using it. That’s it. And the crazy thing, the thing that always surprises people when
I tell them about my mother’s humanure project is that it doesn’t smell bad.
“Anytime anything’s stinky in the humanure, you just cover it with sawdust and it doesn’t stink
anymore, except of course what is already in the air, which is like any toilet.”
Once a day my mom takes the bucket brimming with sawdust and humanure and dumps it into her
massive compost pile. There, it mingles with her kitchen scraps, weeds from the garden, and
just about every other bit of organic matter she can find… and in two years time the humanure
cooks down into dark, rich, fertile soil.
For the first couple of years, my mom was content just to operate her own humanure compost
heap and let her garden reap the benefits — but the more she did it the more of a true believer
she became. Strict adherence to the faith wasn’t enough for her anymore. She had to become a
missionary. She bought a case of Humanure Handbooks and set up a booth at an organic gardening
festival called Wild Gathering.
“And I think I sold one at that Wild Gathering. And then after that I was giving them away right
and left to my sisters and nieces and friends and whoever! And I used them all up and then this
last year I decided that not only was I going to get another box of Humanure Handbooks, I was
going to collect humanure at Wild Gathering!”
My mom knew she’d a lot of buckets for the project, so went door to door at the businesses
in town. She didn’t say what she needed them for, and luckily they didn’t ask. She collected eight
buckets full in all — not quite the payload she was hoping for. Attendance at Wild Gathering was
pretty low that year, due to rain, but relatively speaking, sales of the Humanure Handbook were
“I sold more at this last Wild Gathering. I think I sold five or six. And I gave one away for
Christmas this year to Natasha, who had been having plumbing problems. And I started my spiel and
she was really quite interested. And, I think we may have a convert there before long.”
Conversion. The ultimate goal of any evangelist. My mom admits that she doesn’t know of anyone
she’s actually brought into the fold — but she likes to think she’s planting seeds. Just
introducing people to the idea that there’s a alternative to flush toilets, she says, is a huge
“This is really a shocking idea to a lot of people and a lot of people who come to the house will
not use it. I have to make the water toilet available to them.”
My grandmother won’t use it. Neither will my mom’s friend, Rochelle. And then there’s my
girlfriend, Kelsey. Last summer the two of us spent several days at my mom’s house in Maine
before taking a road trip back to where we live in Minnesota. After quietly weighing the
ramifications of sawdust versus water toilets, Kelsey finally decided to brave the humanure…
well, sort of.
Curtis: “So you used it for some things, but you’ve told me before that there were some things
that you couldn’t bring yourself to do.”
Kelsey: “No, I couldn’t. I did not have a bowel movement during our entire visit to your
house, over the course of four days.”
I’d like to think that Kelsey’s physical inability to make full use of the sawdust toilet
was an anomaly, that most people would have no problem going to the bathroom at my mom’s house
in Maine… But I doubt that’s the case. And that’s not the only reason I’m a little skeptical about
my mom’s vision of a world humanure revolution.
Curtis: “It occurs to me, and I’m about 100 pages into the book at this point, that this is
all well and good for people living in rural areas, but I live in a city. Where am I going to
put a compost heap?”
Mom: “You know, there could be chutes in buildings. There would have to be temporary storage.
Trucks would come in and take it out. Great huge compost piles would be built and it would work
down very… I think that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
I’ll admit it; I’m still skeptical. I mean I believe in humanure, sure. But I also haven’t
put a house plant on top of the toilet in my big city apartment…and I probably never will.
Call me a summer soldier in the humanure revolution if you will, but when I go home to my
Mom’s next Christmas, I’ll be flushing with sawdust and I’ll be proud.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Curtis Gilbert.