A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Monday, May 16, 2016

All about poop

     My April update had turned into my May update… such is my life these days in the slow lane! With most things lately, parenting a newborn baby has meant slowing way down in the productivity department. I sympathize with this momma tortoise, because that is about where I am at, moving at the speed of molasses with a needy little one in tow. To be fair, I had mentally scheduled us a few months of “get absolutely nothing done on the homestead” after the birth, so I am pleasantly surprised that we are accomplishing just a little more than expected.

      It has helped to have an absolutely fabulous little baby to care for, who is generally  good tempered and a good sleeper. As soon as she goes down for a nap, I stealthily tip toe away and furiously set to getting chores and assorted to-dos done in the unknown window of time before I hear her little groggy cry calling for me. Another god-send has been the handwoven baby-wearing wrap that talented weaver Connie Westbrook made for us. Several times a day, Caris consents to being stuffed into the folds of cloth hugging her to our chests, where she dutifully passes out while being jostled around in the course of eating, doing dishes, taking walks, talking with friends, working in the garden or the like. Each day, all planning goes out the window and we don’t quite know what to expect, thereby being pleasantly surprised when we stay on top of more that we thought possible.

      Much of our new role as parents seems to revolve around tending our baby’s needed inputs and outputs. Breastmilk in (requiring very little effort on my part) and a mustardy yellow poop out. I don’t think I had ever given poop very much thought in my life, but lately it has been featuring prominently in my days... And nights for that matter. Because I am now the adoring servant of a 2 month old, I don’t resent this new proximity to her poop. Rather, I have accepted it as part of the package of parenthood, as has Mike, who swaps out with me tackling her excretions.  

     Since we have been getting so many inquiries about what we are doing for diapers and such, here goes an explanation….  Thus far, we have opted to use various hand-me-down cloth diapers from friends, being the eco-thrifty people we are. While it is tempting to save ourselves the trouble of washing diapers, the thought of what the total pile of dirty disposable diapers would look like if it was sitting on the floor of our house was too overwhelming (diapers make up somewhere between 2-5% of landfill waste… yuck.) There are some cool hybrids on the market now—biodegradable “Tushies” or flushable insert + cloth cover “G diapers”—but they aren’t cheap, thus every few days we pull out the scrub brush and washboard and clean cloth diapers the old-fashioned way. Total cost= $0. Total time it takes= 1 hour every other day. Is this trade off worth it? To us, for now, yes. I thought I would dislike the task of diaper washing, but it has become much like washing dishes… a mildly off-putting yet strangely meditative task once you get into it. The sun and clothesline help bleach out stains and disinfect before the diapers repeat their thankless duty.

     Our daughter’s poop is only one stop on the poop tour of our homestead, lucky you! The next stop is our composting toilet. This might be the most off-putting feature in our unconventional home. Because we don’t have a flush toilet and septic tank, and also because we figure we can put the poop to better use than hibernating underground until pump-out time, we have opted for a “humanure” system. It is pretty simple—do your business in a dressed-up bucket, cover with sawdust, and then empty once a week into a specially designated compost pile to decompose. (This is the low-tech version of a composting toilet. There are many companies that make fancier versions requiring less hauling). Does it smell? If using the right amount of sawdust, I will say not really… After emptying the bucket, we will wait several years for our humanure pile to heat up and decompose to the point where all pathogens are killed before using it around our fruit trees. I do know people who use it in their gardens, but I personally would rather not risk the direct contact with produce. We instead opt to put other animal’s decomposed poop on our garden beds! (We were very excited to receive a recent load of finished horse compost for our garden.)

      If the thought of humanure makes you a bit grossed out, let me point out that first, it is a very old and venerable practice. Traditionally, in China, farmers would put outhouses on the edge of their fields so that those passing by would leave their contribution to the farmer’s field’s fertility. Second, humanure is an industrial-scale modern-day practice in the US! If you live in a city or suburb and you have ever wondered what happens to your poop after you flush it down the toilet this is it--cities treat sewage until it is safe to apply agriculturally and then sell it to various rural localities and fertilizer companies. Each city has a different brand name for their fertilizer. For example, from Minnesota you can buy the twin cities’ municipal solid waste under the name “Minnegrow 5-4-0” from your garden supply center. The only cringe-worthy part of the whole operation really is the increasing amount of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics that get passed from toilets back into the soil and from there into streams and rivers. That is cause for concern. If you, like me, find this topic strangely fascinating, I recommend listening more about it from the archived Radiolab broadcast, “Poop Train” at- www.radiolab.org/story/poop-train . Also check out The Humanure Handbook  by Joseph Jenkins to learn more about composting your poop. But all this is to say, I like knowing the source contributors of our soil’s fertilizer and keeping them very local!

     The next stop on the poop tour is our outhouse, situated in the hugel-swales of our orchard.  We designed our outhouse so that it was light enough for two of us to lift and move from location to location as holes filed up. The screened-in sides keep things nicely ventilated and flies out so that one can have a scenic and not too stinky depositing experience. As the shallow holes fill with manure and sawdust we bump the outhouse down the row of trees, leaving little fertility pockets along the swales. Each outhouse in our community has its own clever name and slightly different system. For example, our neighbors use their “Saloon,” (emphasis on “loo,” thus named for its swinging doors.) Down the road is the “Phu Ping Palace,” (pronounced, you guessed it, “poo-ping,” named after a fancy skyscraper in Bangkok.) Ours is called “Poo with a View” for its scenic outlook over our homestead.

    Well, if I haven’t grossed you out too much yet, for the last stop on the poo tour is over the creek at the neighboring homestead. Our neighbor Brian just finished building a brick and cob oven in their outdoor kitchen and has been firing it up for baking bread and pizza. The secret ingredient in the exterior plaster? Their cow’s poop of course! Animal manure is used around the world as a strengthener in clay plaster and earthen floors. Perhaps because its fine fibers or enzymes, it seems to add extra strength without the stink you might expect. The only reason it isn’t in our house’s plasters is that we don’t have a ready supply to manure the way our neighbors do with their cows, Crème Brule and May Apple. At any rate, the results are delicious and hopefully for our stomachs, long lasting!