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 Book Reviews – Fall 2006 Minimize


The Humanure Handbook
The Dire Elegies


The Humanure Handbook – A Guide to Composting Human Manure
By Joseph Jenkins
Jenkins Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City PA 16127; www.jenkinspublishing.com; 2005 (This review is of the 1999 edition.); $25 & s&h. Available in English, French, Korean, Mongolian and Hebrew.

I used to think that if only we could get industrial wastes, with their multitude of toxic metals, carcinogenic organic compounds and other frightening things, out of municipal sewage, then that sewage would be ok to use as a fertilizer. I had it completely backwards.

Since reading The Humanure Handbook – A Guide to Composting Human Manure, I realize that what we really need to do is get the humanure (human manure – a resource, not a waste product) out of the waste stream, compost it, and use it as fertilizer. How much fertilizer? We U.S. citizens each waste about 1,000 pounds of humanure per year, says Jenkins. Much of this ends up in landfills, with, coincidentally, the 1,000 pounds of other waste that we each generate in a year. Jenkins says the value of the agricultural nutrients in humanure in 2000 was $18.67 billion. Humanure could substitute for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate, which are probably on their way out anyhow, because their production requires fossil fuels. You would think our terrorist-mongering government would be all over this issue. Who’s going to make a bomb out of humanure?

Jenkins has been composting humanure at his Pennsylvania homestead for over 20 years, and he’s researched the subject thoroughly – both first-hand and in the literature. In The Humanure Handbook, he enlightens readers about the absurdity of our high-tech system of using clean water to flush our bodies’ byproducts, only to end up with a contaminated product (sludge) for which no ideal disposal solution exists, and once-clean drinking water that is then treated with yet another toxic substance, chlorine, before it’s returned to your tap. In fact, if the whole world treated its humanure the way we do in the United States … well, it just couldn’t: There isn’t enough water for all that flushing and sewage “treatment.”

Jenkins is not humorless in his devotion to humanure. A cover illustration of a “Good Earth Humanure Co.” truck, theoretically full of a rich load of fertility, advertises: “Your Shit is Our Bread and Butter.” The author refers to the 228 billion pounds of uncomposted, wasted fecal material that U.S. citizens produce each year as “the really Gross National Product.”

Composting is the alternative to septic systems, sewage treatment plants, out­houses and (in other countries) night soil (i.e., application of raw humanure to agricultural fields – not a good practice). Through a combination of heat and time, pathogens in composted humanure are reduced to levels below those attained at treatment plants or in septic systems. Not only is composting safer than any other method of humanure disposal, it is also economical. In 10 pages, Jenkins gives good, simple but thorough directions for constructing a bucket toilet and a three-bin composting system that will save a lot of money, compared with a septic system or a municipal sewage system. (He also discusses commercial composting toilets.) His methods are good for any homeowner and even apartment dwellers (as some have testified in his book), and Jenkins envisions the day when the Humanure Truck actually does go from home to home collecting valuable nutrients for recycling. In the meantime, composting can be done locally, and the compost does not need to be turned, says Jenkins. In fact, turning can disturb the layer of thermophilic (heat loving) organisms that break down humanure and kill pathogens. (Jenkins does not advocate turning any home compost pile, whether it contains humanure or other organic ingredients – another reason his book is such an interesting read.)

Jenkins advocates composting urine with feces to destroy any possible pathogens, but also he highlights the value of urine: “It is estimated that one person’s annual urine output contains enough soil nutrients to grow grain to feed that person for a year.”

Regarding legalities, Jenkins lists information on composting toilets state-by-state but adds that his process involves composting outside, rather than under a toilet, so only composting rules should apply. Anyone who has problems with local authorities might ask them to read this book.

Maybe someday we’ll be like the Chinese, who have best-compost competitions. “Now that’s getting your shit together,” says Jenkins, but he admits that we have a lot of “fecofrigginfobia” to get over before that happens here. To help overcome feco-phobia, this book should be in every school, library, town office and place of worship. It should be the basis of freshman science classes in high schools. Read it yourself and/or attend a workshop on humanure composting at the Common Ground Country Fair this September. Information on composting toilets is also available at www.jenkinspublishing.com.

– Jean English

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The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America
Karla Linn Merrifield and Roger M. Weir, editors
128 pages. $19.95 at selected bookstores and from Foothills Publishing, www.foothillspublishing.com.

In this anthology of endangered species poetry, 59 U.S. and Canadian poets encourage us to increase our awareness of endangered plants and animals in North America. The editors assembled this first anthology of its type to inspire readers to act on behalf of these species.

“Poets here have left their ivory towers to encourage their neighbors to walk in the woods, observe the world, learn – and act,” says editor Karla Linn Merrifield. In the epigraph to the unique collection, Dr. Edward O. Wilson, renowned Harvard entomologist and two-time Pulitzer-Prize winning author, points out, “…the better an ecosystem is known, the less likely it will be destroyed.”

This is the premise of The Dire Elegies and the reason author Bill McKibben says in the book’s foreword, “These magnificent poems work as a chant to summon more” of the love to save the endangered from extinction.

Included in the anthology are eminent poets William Heyen, Maxine Kumin, W. S. Merwin, Enid Shomer, John E. Smelcer, Gary Snyder, Brian Swann and others. The book’s cover illustration depicting hibernating painted turtles was donated by New Hampshire artist and naturalist David M. Carroll, recipient of The Burroughs Award for his Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year.

Maine poets are well represented in the anthology. They are Jay Franzel of Wayne; Anne W. Hammond of Bath; Gary Lawless of Nobleboro; Kathleen March of Orono; Lewis Turco of Dresden; and Mariana Tupper of Bristol.

The species notes that accompany the poems are interesting and valuable. For example, after Shirley S. Stevens’s poem “On Spotting a Pygmy Owl,” one reads: “The endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum, of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, numbered only 12 birds when it was listed in the U.S. in 1997. A USF&WS recovery team began its work to rescue the species in 1998, but its fate remains precarious.”

Mainers will appreciate the words of Gary Lawless in “Treat Each Bear”:

   Treat each bear as the last bear,

   each wolf the last, each caribou.

Lawless’ poem “Last Whale” is so moving that it’s sure to make readers reconsider their actions.

In MOFGA member Mariana Tupper’s “Alewives,” the poet confesses:

   I should have come hungry to witness this,

   arrived sweaty and sleepless

   as I imagine them to be.

One of my favorite poems in the book is Susan Edwards Richmond’s “Condor.” Read the book to find out why – and you’ll be glad you did, for the many other moving, humorous, sad and powerful poems that honor nature.

Editors Merrifield and Weir – a husband-and-wife team – are donating their earnings from the book, and FootHills Publishing is contributing 20% of proceeds from sales, to the National Resources Defense Council’s BioGems campaign (www.savebiogems.org).

– Jean English

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