Zen and the Art of Composting Human Waste

Everyone Poops

When I was little, I had a book called Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi. You know the one: captivating illustrations of deer pooping on the move. Babies pooping in their diapers. One-humped camels pooping one-humped poops. After all, everyone poops (although I do remember a curious lack of girls in that book — but we don’t do that sort of thing, do we? No, we emit rainbows or whatever.)

I suspect that this book was supposed to diffuse society’s inherent discomfort with the notion of excretion, to educate us out of our tendency to laugh and jest at the mention of this most intimate bodily substance.

Once upon a time, I brought up this very topic with my mother, pondering aloud, “Why do we grow up thinking that poop is so funny?” After a brief discussion, we concluded that poop simply is hilarious, and we sat there laughing, sharing a pivotal mother-daughter moment.

Incidentally, I have an intimate relationship with human feces.

For several seasons, I worked as a backcountry campsite caretaker. One of the most important duties of a caretaker is to manage the human waste composting system that has been implemented at most of the campsites and shelters. The privy is, in fact, a most crucial component of conservation and resource management up in the backcountry. It provides a singular location at which hikers and campers can relieve themselves — this vitally helps decrease the negative environmental impact of hundreds of hikers passing through fragile alpine areas and scattering their bowel movements all over the shallow top soil of the mountains.

The composting system provides a means for rotating the waste through a very deliberate cycle of decomposition that culminates with dispersing the resulting “humus” back into the environment — a small peace offering to Mother Nature in exchange for our recreational destruction.

The very important heavy-d00dy gloves

Doing a “run” means two full days of chopping, stirring, and homogenizing the 70 gallons of shit that has built-up within the privy’s collector, mixing it with bark so that it can properly aerate. Caretakers generally do 4–6 “runs” per season, on top of the daily task of heaving this collector out to homogenize its contents. Keeping with this daily chose if necessary for successful future decomposition.

Ultimately, we caretakers end up spending many, many hours face-to-face (erm, face-to-turd?) with the aftermath of those camper-friendly dehydrated dinners.

The privy

O n an ambulance, EMT’s jest about blood and gore in order to cope with the nature of the job. Similarly, caretakers enjoy de-stressing by managing to integrate poop into almost every conversation as a means for psychologically processing the experience of stirring, chopping, and mixing all that shit. Do we get any respect for it? Often times, not. Yet we are green warriors, fighting in the name of conservation, thanklessly dawning the black rubber gloves, sacrificing our senses for the greater good!

One should not underestimate the inspirational capacity of a 70-gallon bin of shit. The repetition of methodical chopping and the strange beauty of witnessing this important life-cycle allows the caretaker to almost transcend toward a peaceful, zen-like trance.

Doing a run takes patience, and is one of the most tedious tasks of caretaking. The first time I pulled the collector out from beneath the toilet to homogenize its contents — with great difficulty, for this requires brute strength — I dry heaved myself into oblivion, surely on the verge of vomiting.

Chicken poop, I could handle. Human poop, perhaps not.

But eventually, as a caretaker, you develop your immunity. Your senses become callous and you sport your Poop Face (a sort of caretaker equivalent of putting one one’s “game face”) and the next thing you know, you’re pausing to lean in a little closer….you are utterly mesmerized by the swirling, natural brown hues that could be a comforting, earthy palate for living room walls..hues, light-to-dark, hues that are bedazzled with little yellow stars, a masterful painting…

(Here, you may or may not almost-vomit again when your reverie is smashed by the realization that those enchanting little stars are bits of corn, and those green swirls are probably the result of digestion gone wrong, and over to the side there’s a pair of dirty underwear that someone evidently decided to use as toilet paper, and an entire pop-tart has suddenly emerged from the deep. It’s blueberry.)

Taro Gomi probably had it right with his attempt to curate increased societal comfort with the idea of human waste. Perhaps the most profound result of composting sewage manually is the realization that many of us live totally disconnected from the notion that we operate in a world of cycles. It is beyond easy to leave our remnants in the toilet, to wave them goodbye as we flush them away to some mysterious abyss, never again to ponder where, exactly, our waste is going. What does that transitional process entail? What kind of labor does it involve? Who does it affect? What kind if impact does it have?

I, like many before me, have found comfort in blissful ignorance. I have allowed certain things to remain vague and down-right mystical because this has allowed me to shun my own accountability, my own complicity in environmental and community deterioration on account of the politics of human waste.

Maybe we’re not supposed to stop laughing at poop. But maybe we are supposed to perk up, pay attention, and learn what happens to it next. Life is all about cycles. Do I feel closer to the earth from having gone through this process? Why yes, yes I do.

Professional editor. Folk herbalist. Feminist. Mountain woman. Follow on instagram @qmnichols

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