The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox September 23, 2018

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.

 

However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.

 

So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.

 

 

General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.

 

Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.

 

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).

 

Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.

 

Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.

 

What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.

 

Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.

 

Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.

 

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part V: Nature Reciprocity August 12, 2018

The principle of “seven generations” comes to us from the Iroquois nation, where is considered to be the “Great Law of the Iroquois.”  This principle said that each decision that was made needed to consider not just the immediate future but the 7th generation, those yet unborn. This principle has become closely tied with modern sustainability movements, where there is a growing understanding that for any society and ecosystem to endure, they must be treated in a way that nurtures and sustains, rather than pillages and depletes. This is a fairly radical idea to a Western culture, where concepts like manifest destiny and the relentless pursuit of growth that have driven westerners literally spent centuries pillaging the land, colonizing new places, driving out native peoples, stripping forests bare, and so forth. This idea of recirpocation is essentially foreign to most growing up in the shadows of that exploitative past.

 

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Of course, those living nature-based spiritual paths, like druidry, are struggling with the dissonance between this cultural path and finding a new relationship with nature.  And so, going to connect with nature deeply, however, and we come from a cultural heritage where the kinds of behaviors I listed above are normalized, and where we benefit from them, whether or not we want to, then reciprocation becomes even more critical to understand and embrace.  In the last few weeks, we’ve been delving deeply in to the different ways that druids and other earth-honoring individuals can connect with nature. We’ve looked at nature wisdom, how to learn about nature in various ways and nature engagement, where we can learn to use nature to build value and connection. We’ve also considered nature reverence last week.  This week, we think about reciprocity, where we learn to give more than we take, and create a sustaining and regenerative relationship with the living earth.

 

Reciprocation

Inherent in the use of nature (which we discussed two weeks ago) and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. The term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves in time (with or without human help). But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good and it doesn’t necessarily take the view that humans have taken too much.  Here in the USA; white settlers to this land found it full of incredible richness and abundance–all the while omitting the people and practices that made that abundance happen–these lands were carefully tended Native American tribes for millenia. In a few short centuries, the old forests are gone, the extraordinarily productive food forests are no more, and many species are dwindling.  It is for this reason that it isn’t enough to “sustain” what exists, but instead, give more than we take, help regenerate and heal, and do good on the land–all the work of reciprocation.  I believe that this kind of work helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs–and ultimately, our own survival.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

The principle of reciprocity with nature:
Conserving life and natural spaces;
Regenerating and healing ;
Making offerings within and without

 

Conserving Nature

I honor the conservationists of the 19th and 20th century in the US as ancestors: each time I am able to visit wild lands, public lands, and national parks, I see the tireless work of their hands and hearts present in each stone placed upon the path, each tree that was protected and not felled, each natural wonder that is still present and public for me to witness. And so, one way to connect through nature and do the work of nature reciprocation is through conservation activities.

 

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Multiple schools of thought exist within the larger conservation movement; the US National Park service offers these two different definitions: conservation focuses on protecting natural resources and regulate the sustainable use of nature; preservation focuses on protecting landscapes and protecting nature from any use and eliminate human impact entirely. As druids and nature-spirituality oriented people, part of our own ethic and interaction with nature must come to terms with these two perspectives, and perhaps, seek a third perspective that is more fitting with our own ethics and path. For me, neither of these perspectives deal with the inherent sacredness of nature or reciprocation, and so in the end, I find both to be lacking for various reasons. I don’t have a better word than “conserve” nature, and people know what I mean by that, so I’ll set this debate aside (but its good to realize that this debate exists when using the term!)

 

Conservation can take on many different forms from independent individual action to getting involved in groups to donating to causes.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Sanctuaries for Life. If you own land, you can work to create and maintain various sanctuaries.  Organizations like the World Wildlife Federation and Monarch Watch, as well as possibly your State Extension program (if you live in the US) offer tools and information to help you establish wildlife sanctuaries, butterfly habitats, and so forth.  I have found that doing this kind of work has several benefits: one, it is educational for you as you learn more about these practices; two, once you gain the signage, it is good information for neighbors and others who may be wondering why you are doing something obviously different with your land; three, it is excellent “awareness raising” for those same neighbors, who ask questions and want more information. Finally, it supports good organizations doing additional conservation work.
  • Join a local organization and participate. Nearly everywhere, local organizations are dedicated to helping conserve and preserve the natural ecosystem.  Where I live, there is a lot of work being done on rivers, and one of the organizations I frequently donate to and assist is an organization called the Evergreen Conservancy, who has funded several large projects to clean up acid mine drainage from local rivers (including one that I now enjoy kayaking on). I love the work this organization is doing, it is local to my county, and I can easily get to know folks and participate.  You can physically see the results in the clean flowing water.
  • Learn about a species or two and focus your energy. Another way of thinking about conservation is to focus in on a few species, or one species, and learn about how to protect that species. I’m really interested in some of the species that United Plant Savers works with, particularly, Appalachian herbs that are so quickly disappearing from the ecosystem like American Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Trilium, and more and I’ve been focusing my energy on those herbs.
  • Attend Clean ups and other events: Often, communities, parks, and local organizations will arrange for various clean up activities–river cleanups, trail cleanups, tree plantings, removing invasive species, etc.  They often need a lot of volunteers, so this is another way to engage in conservation.

These activities are only some options–there are so many more out there! are about establishing and engaging in relationship; by working with healing any part of the land, you are working to reciprocate.

 

Regenerating and Healing Nature

The above conservation activities are based on existing ecosystems–protecting them, making sure they remain in good condition, offering care. But many of our landscapes are not pristine or in need of conservation–they are in need of regeneration and healing. And so, taking a more permaculture design perspective, we might think about reciprocation as land healing work–both physical healing as well as spiritual/energetic healing, as both are necessary. Usually, these places are right outside of our doors: the lawn, the little strip of abandoned land between the road and the back of your workplace, the recently logged forest behind your house.  I’ve spent a good deal of time on my blog detailing this practice already, so here are a few of my favorite

  • Making and Scattering Seed balls: Scattering seeds of rare species (such as those on the United Plant Savers’ list) using seed balls, or planting species out in places where they are needed. This work requires quite a bit of knowledge (as you want to make sure you are planting native plants, not spreading ones that may cause harm). As part of this, I have developed a “refugia” garden that are designed to produce seeds and cuttings that I can then propagate elsewhere.
  • Lawn Regeneration and Yardens: A second regeneration activity is working to create ecosystems in place of lawns.  Lawns are often places of consumption; they offer little to wildlife or insect life.  By converting some sections of lawns to various gardens (pollinator-friendly gardens, even with good eats) you can help develop more robust ecosystems for birds, wildlife and insects to thrive.  Here is an example of a larger site using permaculture principles (my former homestead in Michigan).
  • Carbon Sequestration: Home-scale and community-based carbon sequestration This is something that is only beginning to be talked about.  We already know that forests are one of the best carbon sinks–so planting trees and allowing trees to grow is one way to contribute. In Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, 1/10th of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Oasis in the City, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates describe their work with carbon sequestration – through composting initiatives and biochar, they calculated that in a few years, they had sunk about 400 lbs of carbon into their soil.  Increasing soil fertility often increases the carbon in soil.
  • Composting:  A lot of active healing of the land focuses not only on planting things but on keeping the land we have healthy. Landfills are a serious problem, both in terms of land space and land use, but also in terms of what goes into them.  By starting a composting pile or joining a composting initiative, you can divert some of your food waste and turn it into productive soil–that can then be used to convert lawns to gardens, grow tomatoes, and more!
  • Larger Initiatives that regenerate and heal: There are a lot of larger initiatives that are worth considering–many of these would fall under “regenerative activities”.  One that I’ve been interested in lately is stormwater runoff.  Stormwater is a huge problem for most of the temperate places in the world that have roofs, parking lots, roads, etc.  Most communities, counties, or states have laws that govern how stormwater must be handled before it goes into rivers and streams–but many of these laws are not upheld. By working in groups and as communities, we can install rain gardens, more friendly surfaces, living roofs, and other ways of protecting and keeping waterways clean from further damage.

 

Using permaculture principles and practices, and using sound judgement, we can land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health.  I have primarily focused on the things you can do in the mundane/outer world in terms of healing and regeneration; next week, we’ll talk more about inner things you can do that also focus on reciprocation and blessing. I also want to note that if the above kinds of things appeal to you, consider studying permaculture design further–I found this to be one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done, and it really helped me shift my own mindset and know that I could be a force of good and make a difference in terms of healing the land. There are permaculture design certificate courses that you can take all over the world, including some totally free ones that can be done virtually.

 

Offerings to Nature

Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. In some cultures, failure to make such offerings had dire consequences for those who depended on nature for survival–famine, pestilence, and so on might occur.  For other cultures, offerings were more symbolic in order to help facilitate a good harvest. And so, while first two areas with regards to nature reciprocation are things you can physically do, the final area is much more energetic and magical in nature–it is primarily a gesture of goodwill and honoring nature.

 

There are lots of ways that we can build offerings into our practice as druids and nature-centered spiritual practitioners.  Since the tradition doesn’t have a specific way of making an offering (as other traditions may), the choice of offering is very much up to you.  I wrote more specifically about sustainable and meaningful offerings here, so I’ll only briefly summarize in this section and offer some suggestions.

  • Offerings of physical things: The general principle here that I like to follow is this: my offering should be an offering of something that I value and that is important to me, not simply an empty gesture of something that I purchased.  Many things that can be purchased are problematic because they put additional strain on the land (the resources that produced it, the shipping and fossil fuels, the packaging, etc).  I believe it is better to either gather your offerings, make them, or grow them.  They could be as simple as acorn caps that you have gathered in the fall and painted a symbol on (I used something like this for many years).  I currently use a sacred offering blend that I grow myself; I posted a recipe on my blog for my sacred herbal offering blend this not too long ago.
  • Offerings as Rituals: Offerings don’t just have to be physical things. Many offerings can also be ceremonial in nature; like a land blessing or healing ceremony.  A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of a ceremony that enacts the principle of reciprocation, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.
  • Offerings as Time/Life Energy: The above areas (conservation and regeneration) are also offerings–they are offerings of your time and life energy.  If done with sacred intent and intentionality, I believe these are some of the best offerings you can make to the land and her spirits.
  • Offerings of Creative Gifts: You can make an offering by playing music (which plants respond to), drumming, or dancing as well.  These can be gifts offered to the land itself, or gifts shown to humans in honor of and inspired by nature.

When it comes to offerings, I think that your intentions are what matters most–that you are genuine, that you have given the offering considerable thought, and that you offer something that is meaningful.

 

Conclusion

As the Great Law of the Iroquois, the law of seven generations, suggests, reciprocation can be not only an activity for individuals, but also a cultural value, something that a group of people accept to be right and true.  If the earth is sacred, we can treat her in a sacred manner that does not deplete her, and practice reciprocation in our interactions with her. To me, reciprocation is at the core of what nature spirituality can offer, what it can aspire to be, and what its potential is–creating life-sustaining and life-affirming values, people who live those values, and someday, perhaps, life-affirming and nurturing societies.

 

Reparation and Healing the Land as part of American Druidry December 10, 2017

Sunrise over the land

Sunrise over the land

Two weeks ago, I talked about what American Druidry looks like. One of the big issues that came up in conversations here on the blog in the comments and also in the comments on the Druid’s Garden Facebook page was guilt from those of non-indigenous heritage. Guilt about the legacy of abuses against Native Americans in this country–a legacy that continues to this day. Guilt of being here on this land, knowing that many of us who are here now are here because of three centuries of genocide. Guilt about knowing that despite all that we may do now, this past bloodshed colors the way that we interact with the land, our relationships with the spirits of the land, and everything else we try to do to connect with the land and build sacredness.  In the last two weeks, I’ve heard how people feel the spirits of the land aren’t open to them because of this legacy, how they don’t even know what to do to begin to rectify it, or they don’t think they have a right to do anything to the land, or how they are afraid to act because they might do more damage. For some people, these feelings of guilt are literally preventing them from doing much of anything because they don’t feel they have a right to the land. I’m glad we are having these conversations, and I think these are the start of understanding a way forward.  This week, I want to more deeply share my perspective.  That is, I want to talk about moving beyond guilt and doing reparations: the work of repair.

 

The Right to Speak?

These kinds of conversations can be difficult, especially today, and there’s a lot of question about who even has the right to speak on a topic. Before I begin this conversation, therefore, it is useful to know who I am. I’m a druid, and I have been walking this path for over a decade. I’m a permaculture designer, an herbalist, an whimsical artist, a land healer, a teacher of many things.  But maybe when we say”who I am” what we mean is what blood I carry. On one side of my family, I am a fourth generation descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the US after the potato famine forced many farmers to leave Ireland. These proud Irish came, settled here in Western PA, and mined coal. On the other side, my family has a very…colorful past. We have in the same generation (mingled in later bloodlines) a very well-known historical figure, a prominent general, who successfully defeated the Native Americans on their own soil and slaughtered thousands in his lifetime. We also have Shawnee man of whom little is known (as it is a taboo topic to the older generations in my family, but DNA records demonstrate that this “unmentionable fact” is true). We also have Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, PA German) ancestry. This pretty much makes me a mutt with direct ancestral ties both to this land and the bloodshed that happened. Does this mixed ancestry give me the “right” to speak on this issue? I have no idea, but at least, now you know where I’m coming from and can evaluate what I say based on that, if such things matter.

 

To me, my own ancestry or what my ancestors did or didn’t do isn’t as important as the work I do today. What was done before me were other people’s lives, decisions, and choices.  I live in the shadow of those choices, and I certainly have to deal with them, but I can’t change the decisions of my ancestors or others here that caused these things to happen. I can’t change the bloodshed that was caused by General George Custer and his contemporaries.  I can’t change the pillaging of the Allegheny Mountains for coal, steel, and iron. I can’t change the past. The only power I have is the work I can do in the present.  I think that this is the best response I can have: to help repair the damage that was done, to help put balm on these centuries-old wounds, and to rebuild my own relationship with the land. And so, I focus my energies on that work, rather than lamenting the past or my ancestors’ place in it.

 

The Work of Repair

When we hear the term “reparations”, most frequently in the US it is tied to discussions and activism surrounding the monetary compensation for past horrible crimes (genocide, slavery, war crimes, etc).  But this term has a lot of meanings, and its useful to explore those, especially in the context of nature spirituality on American soil.

 

Merriam Webster’s is a good place to start to think about this term and what it can offer us:

  • 1 a : repairing or keeping in repair
    • b reparations plural : repairs
  • 2 a : the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury
    • b : something done or given as amends or satisfaction
  • 3 : the payment of damages : indemnification; specifically : compensation in money or materials payable by a defeated nation for damages to or expenditures sustained by another nation as a result of hostilities with the defeated nation usually used in plural

All three of these definitions give us something to consider in terms of the work of repair.   We do need to be active in the tending of the land (definition 1a-b).  We also do need to make amends for the wrong or injury that has been done to the land and her peoples.  And finally, we do need to find some way of compensating those who have been wronged.  And unlike ancestors’ actions and the choices of past generations, which is inherently disempowering and makes us feel bad without anything to be done, the work of repair offers us the ability to actively engage in this work today.

 

A Framework for Repair: Nurturing, Care, and Peace

On this blog, I’ve long talked about three ideas that I think offer us a framework for the work of repair: shifting from exploitative practices to nurturing ones, the permaculture ethical system of care, and peace-making as a spiritual practice.  My long-term readers will recognize the currents that run into this conversation, but I’ll also summarize for those of you newer to the blog:

 

First, Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, in the opening chapters, Berry describes two orientations toward the land: that of the exploiter and that of the nurturer.  He describes the exploiter as the agribusiness person who seeks to extract as many resources as possible from the land for profit.  We might easily point to any number of colonizing activities, stealing land from native peoples, pillaging natural resources, fossil fuel extraction activities, mountaintop removal, etc.  In other words, he describes the behaviors and activities and unfortunate cultural heritage of the present day United States, a cultural heritage that each of us have inherited.  The nurturer, by comparison, is a small family farmer in Berry’s estimation, someone who is as much concerned with the health of the land as he/she is with its productivity.  The nurturer, then, makes care a primary concern and thinks not only about what is taken now, but how those actions impact the health of the land and her people.

 

Expanding on this notion of care, the permaculture ethical system offers us further tools.  The ethics of people care, earth care, fair share, and self care are interwoven: to care for the land is to care for the people, to take one’s fair share is inherently to care for self and others, and so on.  The point here is care as a primary virtue. Within permaculture is the idea that humans can be a force of good.

 

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

This leads me to the third thing: we can tie care and nurturing directly to the work of druidry through the tradition’s emphasis on peace, the work of reciprocation, and the work of honoring the spirits.  I think this is critical: its not just that the land is somehow under our care, but that we are in direct relationship with it.  Its a deep reverence and respect that druidry offers this conversation–the work of peace.

The Work of Repair

In my experience, it is necessary to show the spirits of the land that I’m a different kind of human: the last four centuries, particularly on the East Coast of the US where I live, have primarily involved people who look like me pillaging the land.  When I walk into the woods or enter any other natural place, how do the spirits know I’m a different kind of human?  Certainly not by what I say–the cultural legacy of the US has shown, time and time again, how words can’t be trusted.  No, the spirits of the land will know me based on my actions: what I do, directly, to care for the land and engage in the work of repair.   It is through this work, I believe, that I have continued to develop a very deep relationship with the spirits of my landscape, of the Allegheny Mountains, and of many other places that I have visited.

 

And I’m not just talking about doing ritual in the woods.  I think that doing rituals and that kind of land healing work is critically important (and I’ve advocated for it myself, led large group rituals, etc). But rather, I’m talking about the physical labor of helping to plant trees, heal land, clean up trash, reseed the landscape, etc.  And so, what I believe the work of repair is work that is:

 

  • both psychical and energetic in nature
  • offers healing and strengthening to the land
  • puts the land in better physical shape than it was found (i.e. engages in activity that directly speeds the healing of the land; such as many permaculture techniques)
  • offers these actions from a fundamental place of care, nurturing, and mutality

 

I can’t sit here and tell you what you should be doing to do the work of repair. Each of us has to find our own way forward with this work given our limitations and resources–but the above philosophies and orientations and the above definition can certainly help put you in the framework for the repair work.  What I can do, though, is tell you a bit about some of the things I’ve been doing and how that fits the above framework.   I’ve talked a ton about energetic repair already through my long land healing series from last year, so I’m going to now give some physical repair examples.

 

Some Examples of Repair

I wanted to share three recent examples of the work of repair work that will heal and strengthen not only the land here, but my physical connection to the land.

 

Countering Black Friday with Tree Planting

Some of the trees planted!

Some of the trees planted!

I think Black Friday is the most horrific day of the year, it is an anti-holiday that pays homage to mass consumption and cycles of waste.  I went out once when I was 17, and have never participated in it since then.  And so, to counter the consumerist frenzy that takes place on Black Friday, I always like to do something in line with people care, earth care, or fair share on that day.  I think this is a wonderful way to show the spirits of the land that you are a different kind of human and reject the lure of consumption.

 

This past Black Friday, a friend and I planted 45 trees on my new property.  Earlier on this blog I mentioned how the land here has been timbered four times in forty years, and how I was working with the spirits of the land here to help heal.  As part of that work, I have been working to replant the forest–both with seeds as well as with small trees.  After consulting with the spirits, we’ve decided to try to bring this forest back to something more akin to what it would have been before my white ancestors arrived: in PA, that’s about 33% chestnut with other hardwood nut trees and an understory of PawPaw, Elder, Spicebush, and more.  And that’s exactly what I worked to plant: 25 chestnuts, 20 paw paws, and a few other assorted nut and fruit trees (persimmon, hazel, and, to anticipate more climate change, Pecan).

 

It was a long day of backbreaking labor, but at the end, it was a day well spent.  Rather than engaging in activities that took from the land (through the manufacture of consumer goods, the spending of fossil fuels to visit stores, etc), I used only my own human energy to move trees, move compost, plant the trees, and more. After that day, each day, I walk out on the land and see the many blue tree tubes and smile with joy.  And since then, I’ve also done ritual to support their growth and health.  The spirits of the land are happy that this kind of work is happening here, and that brings me into a closer relationship with them.

 

Waste as a Resource: Humanure Composting

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Last year, I wrote about Humanure composting and shared my design for a humanure toilet (modeled after the “Lovable Loo” design from the Humanure Handbook).  In that post, I described why people compost their waste and how to do it.  I have continued to engage in this practice and I believe it is a wonderful way of engaging in repair work.  I have decided to compost down and then return all of my own waste to the wild areas on my land since so much had been taken from them with regards to logging.  I find that this brings me back into cycle with the land and honors the land by putting resources back (rather than sending them “away” to mix with municipal septic systems). One of the things I’m doing now that I’m on my new land is to take this a step further by switching my cats from a clay-based litter to a wood based litter (made of recycled waste wood).  Once this proves successful, I will also compost all of their waste in their own compost bin, and again, after two years of composting, return those resources to the land. The point here is simple: what my household eats (my household being myself and my two cats) is taken from the land and therefore, in any form, should be returned to it.  That’s the work of care and nurturing, and that brings balance.

 

Sheet Mulch, Lawn Liberation, and Web Soil Repair

A final way that I’ve long engaged in the work of repair is cultivating a healthy soil web and replacing lawns with gardens of all kinds.  As I’ve discussed before, the lawn is a site of consumption: it does not offer a healthy ecosystem, it does not offer food or forage to wildlife, and it certainly is not healthy from the perspective of nature.  Developing gardens (for wildlife and humans) and converting lawns into other things is inherently repair work.  It repairs not only the relationship between the spirits of the land and the human, but also helps repair the human’s spirit.

 

There are lots of ways to do this: a common one is through sheet mulching (which I wrote about here and here).  You simply add a weeds suppression layer (cardboard most often) and then layer on organic matter (fall leaves, manure, finished compost, wood chips–many things that other people see as “waste” and leave on the side of the road for you to pick up).  This takes away the grass and immediately gives you a good growing media. This isn’t the only technique to do this (I’ll be talking about another–hugelkultur–in an upcoming blog post) but it is certainly a great one to get started!

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

 

Supporting Native Peoples

I also want to talk about people care here before I conclude today’s post. There are no longer tribes of native peoples where I live; all that is left of them are the place names that once represented them. However, in other parts of the US, primarily out west, we certainly do have many native peoples still actively fighting for the rights of the land, the water, and their sovereignty and dignity as people.   Further, we have indigenous people all over the world who also are fighting similar battles.  And if we care about the work of repair, we also have to care about–and fight for–them. I think part of the work of repair can also be supporting native peoples: writing letters to representatives, offering monetary donations to causes, and being informed on what the issues are and how you can help.

 

Closing

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought in terms of how we might continue to shape a distinctly American Druidry through the work of repair. The work in this post, I believe, is necessary if we are to deepen our own connection to the land and her spirits, but also work to get beyond the guilt of the past and work to actively remedy, as much as we are able, the wrongs that have been done.   It is through this deep work that I believe we can cultivate deep–rather than surface–relationships with the land and especially with the spirits of the land, those who have been here for millennia.

 

I also want to conclude by saying that I am under no illusion that the work I’ve outlined here is enough to repair all of these old wounds. I believe that that the full work of repair will take generations of people.  But what I do believe is that someone has to pick up that work and start doing it, and that someone can be me–and perhaps you as well!

 

Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures April 2, 2017

Planting seeds and seeing what grows--part of our own response to the predicament

Planting seeds and seeing what grows–part of our own response to the predicament

On Problems, Predicaments, and Responses

To say that the present post-industrial age has its share of problems is perhaps, at best, an understatement. I think the urgency of the challenges we face been exasperated here in the US by a radically shifting political climate where even basic human decency, access to clean environment, and former structures are breaking down around us at an alarming rate. When looking at these challenges, particularly large-scale environmental ones, we begin to ask “What can we do?” What should we do? How do we solve this problem?” And while some of the issues facing us may well be problems, the larger issue is a much more complex predicament, and that changes the nature of how we respond and what we do. A problem, as John Michael Greer has so cautioned us over a decade ago, has a clear solution. With the threats to human survival and the survival of many other species on this planet, the term “problem” doesn’t quite do it justice. A problem is something like a flat tire: there are a few solutions to fix it (patch it, put on a spare, buy a new tire) and they are fairly limited. Predicaments, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Predicaments, unlike problems, don’t have clear solutions. They are issues so multifaceted, so interconnected, so complex, that any “solution” fails to address the scope and enormity of it and instead require a large range of responses. John Michael argues that the issues we face in our current age–of the limits of a finite planet, of climate change, of environmental turmoil are predicaments. To respond, we must find our own ways forward, ways of responding, and that a plurality of ways is often necessary. But how do we even begin to respond to that?

 

This is the question that many open-eyed, connected, nature-honoring folks are asking at present: what the heck are we going to do about what is going on? What exactly is going on? What can we do? How can we do it while still providing for our basic needs? How can we thrive in a world that seems to be socially, politically, environmentally and emotionally crumbling?  In fact, almost everyone out there who has any connection at all to the living earth struggles with the disconnection between what it takes to survive in this current world and where their value systems lie and leveraging a response. It is a fact that stares each of us squarely in the face often and powerfully. As I’ve worked my way deeper into my to the problem we face as a species and civilization over the better part of my adult life, I’ve certainly tried my own range of responses.

 

While I believe the most important thing in the end is to respond (rather than ignore the issue) it takes nearly all of us a while to get to the point of having a response we feel good about. I meet druids all the time who are distraught about what is happening and want to do something but don’t have the skills or tools to actually do it, or aren’t sure what to do, or are working through their emotions about it–and feeling guilty all the less for not doing anything. And to them I say, we are not trying to climb Mount Davis (the tallest mountain here in the Laurel Highlands of PA) in one day.  But we can make steps there with each thought and action, and that’s an important part of responding, and working through those steps, and addressing the time that they take, is a big part of what we’ll explore in the remainder of this post today.

 

Polycultures and a Multitude of Responses

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Any healthy ecosystem is not made up of a single species of plant (monoculture), but a multitude of plants (a polyculture).  We see this in any forest or wild area–you can see thousands of species interacting within a single space and thriving together, often working together to benefit the larger system. Polycultures outperform monocultures in every way: they outproduce them, they offer many different kinds of yields, they offer resiliency, they offer redundancy in the case of a single plant or plant species failing.  Nature loves, and creates, polycultures (and gardeners practicing permaculture do as well!)

 

I think the polyculture metaphor is a great one to help us understand the multitude of responses we need for the predicament we face. My response, my life choices, aren’t yours, and shouldn’t be. Each of us, given our unique circumstances, our sets of skills, or commitments to others, our work lives, and so on, must work to find our own response to add to the larger polyculture of responses.  For some people, their response is retiring to a little piece of land in the country and “pulling out” of broader affairs to live a more simple life. For others, it is activism on the front lines, marching, meeting, demonstrating. For some of us, it is coming together to build something anew. The thing is–there is no right or wrong way to respond.  There are responses.  Some may be more effective than others in the long run. It is with a polyculture of responses that we have a chance at success–for even if one or multiple responses fail, some will succeed and thrive, as we see in an ecosystem.

 

Towards Responding through Thought and Action: Composting and Soil Preparation

In druidry, we understand that the inner realms reflect the outer, and that the outer realms reflect inward.  I believe responses begin within, in the realm of thought, contemplation, and meditation. My first piece of hard-earned advice is this: recognize that this larger predicament is a tremendous amount for a human to process and many of us need a good amount of processing time before finding our own response. This is an important step: our responses will take years, decades, a lifetime to engage with and understand. Part of this thinking process is just working on acceptance of what is happening so that you can respond.  It takes a lot to pull our heads out of this culture, look at the evidence, emotionally and intellectually process it, and decide what to do.  That is critically important work and we need to be kind to ourselves while we are doing it. Sometimes, it is also ok to pause and regroup before barreling forward with what we feel is a correct response. Otherwise, we end up in a place where we’ve thought we’ve made good choices–radically so–and then they turn out to be not as good (or as sustainable or sustaining) as we thought!  Of course, the nature of the predicament and the continued speed at which things are declining makes it hard to give us the time to process and to allow the seed to incubate, leading to guilt, frustration, and more.

 

Like many living in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring months, I have been (physically) planting my seeds for the coming year. Small seeds of St. John’s wort, sacred tobacco, catnip, many veggies, and so many other herbs.  Seeds are so magical: they have so much potential stored up in a little hard shell. As I carefully prepare the soil and push each one in, I am struck by the cycle of life within a seed. I see our own responses to this predicament just like a seed I plant: it needs time for incubation, dormancy, sprouting, and growth–growing seeds are a process, and I think growing responses are too.

 

And so, before we begin to plant the seeds of a response, we must tend to our soil, compost the old, and prepare the ground for new beginnings. I have been in this exact situation for the last two years, and it has at points been very frustrating. Long term blog readers know that I’ve struggled tremendously with my own response to the predicament, and that response has changed over time.  Since I became a druid over a decade ago, it was really important that I *do something* but I wasn’t always sure what that something was. My first “doing something” altered permanently my major long-term relationship at the time (as we were going in different directions with different worldviews).  It led me to owning a homestead in the country and doing everything myself (and eventually burning out, leaving to regroup).  It has taken me down the road of exploring a host of issues surrounding “everyday life”: work-life balance, waste, consumerism, food, family, friendships, and more.  It led me to temporarily “regroup” and explore urban homesteading options and a walkable lifestyle in a small town where I had to reflect, regroup, and work on my next response.

 

And as hard as it has been to feel like I’m doing less than living my full truth as I’ve been in this composting and preparation phase,  I now realize that it has been time well spent. I haven’t done anything radical or big with my life (or finances) that would be hard to undo, but rather, found niches and small things I could do while I was in this “dormant” period with my larger life goals. I’ve lived simply, walked to work, did a lot of wildtending, weed walking, spent a ton of time studying and building my oak knowledge and reskilling, reconnected with my ancestral land, engaged my community in plant walks, herbalism, worked on a lot of my own writing and artistic projects, did a lot of small-scale urban homesteading that I could do…all while really contemplating my choices. I learned a lot, a grew a lot, but I also felt very “unsettled” as I was focused only on the small things and on not doing the things I felt I really needed to do. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.  Now, I realize that A) I was doing a lot more good work than I thought I was and B) this time to regroup and contemplate was necessary.  Making a choice too soon would have actually hampered my long-term goals (although I couldn’t have possibly known that a year ago!)

 

Time to do some composting!

Time to do some composting!

I think a lot of us find ourselves in this place, and it can be a frustrating place to be.  Its a mix of things: wanting to do something, but not being sure what we can or should do, and feeling increasing pressure to do something quickly given all that is happening in the broader world.  It kind of makes you feel like you want to explode! If you find yourself here, waiting and dormant, remember that this is part of your response, part of your work, and it is a very important part.

 

I think this “incubation” time has been a very difficult time for me in many ways: not being on land, and being rooted in a specific piece of property where I could explore has left me feeling really disconnected, unsure of my path forward, and yet, it has also allowed me to be in a space of new possibilities. And that’s what’s so powerful about these transitory times: they are unsettling, and net, incredibly powerful. Anything can happen, anything that you can dream up might occur. You don’t have a clear path forward, but you have an ample amount of hope and possibility.  In the Tarot, the “tower” is an incredibly difficult place to be: the structures we have aren’t working (societally and personally) and given that, they must come down, and the dust must settle before we are to see the way forward.

 

Planting the Seeds of a Response

The next phase in the journey of a seed and the journey of our own responses to the larger predicament is that period of planting. This is a huge transition: the period between thinking about responding and beginning to respond (even if the efforts themselves haven’t yet been seen).  The move towards some action, however, small, is incredible. We have already tended the soil and done our composting work–and now, we plant the seeds and wait for them to sprout. Incubation can also be a difficult period of time. I know after I’ve planted seeds, the hardest thing is waiting–seeing if they will germinate. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have to plant again, or plant different seeds, or change something about the conditions under which we plant them (heat mat, light exposure, cold stratification, scarification, etc.).  Sometimes seeds require fire to sprout–burning away the old and creating fertile soil.  Some seeds are simply harder to start than others–but well worth the extra effort and cultivation.

 

Planting the seeds is the critical difference between thought and action.  In the end, as I’ve argued on this blog, it is our actions that count–it is our actions that help us enact change, live in harmony, and come up with an effective range of responses.

 

Germination, Growth and Change

And then, the magic happens.  After an indefinate period of incubation, the seed we have planted comes out of dormancy and the spark of life, nwyfre, flows. The seed sprouts, and life is born. The beautiful, tender sprout emerges from the soil and you can continue the careful work of cultivating this seed into an incredible healing and nourishing plant. And yet, seeds are so fragile–once that sprout emerges, it can so quickly dry up, or rot, or not have enough life.  Part of what we must do is ensure that we tend the seed as carefully as possible during the early stages of any response.

 

Today, as this post is scheduled to be released at my normal Sunday morning posting time, the seed is sprouting for what could possibly be my greatest life’s work. After my two year period of composting and dormancy while I regrouped, I have made some very powerful and empowering decisions and had a series of things occur to set me on the path towards intentional community. I’ve decided to transition away from solo living and trying to do things on my own and move towards living in community, with the larger goal of co-ownership of a large piece of land where we build an intentional community based on regeneration, nature spirituality, and permaculture principles. This is a big vision, and yet, the first seed of that vision is sprouting today. Today, I am moving to a new place to live in our small town, and in that move, the seeds of this very community are being planted and sprouting. The first phase of our larger project is a three-pronged effort (because druids always do it in threes) to establish a community, permaculture center, and farm a small piece of land together while we work on acquiring our larger piece of land and figuring out what the nature of our larger community will be.

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

 

And so, we’ll be working in three directions.  We will be:

  • Reducing our ecological footprint and pursuing earth-honoring practices: this includes downsizing our own stuff and space requirements to live in a community of people in a smaller space, practicing various kinds of earth-honoring living, thus reducing consumption in many ways
  • Expanding community outreach and education through establishing a permaculture center in downtown Indiana, PA, that hosts classes, activities, and community events (like our first permaculture meetup that happened two weeks ago!)
  • Learning to live and grow together, both in our space in the downtown area, but also through a collaborative project growing a food forest on a small plot of land outside of town (we see this like our “sandbox” before we acquire the larger piece of land).

It is in this move today that we can start to explore things like consensus decision making, governance structures, co-ownership, and learn how to live in a smaller space with less stuff and more joy. For me, in the coming months and years, we’ll see if the seeds sprouted today is the one that will grow into an incredible food forest or if they will be learning experiences that will continue to guide my path. In between posts on all things permaculture and druidry, I’ll be sharing the story of our own growth of this community and some of the things we are doing.

 

Seeing those first seeds spring forth is a joyous occasion–but also a terrifying one.  As I have worked to see this come about, I have had to counter my own fear and rethink my own assumptions along every step of the way.   Of course, there is a part of me that is afraid, that fears change, that just wants to keep things the same as they are.  But ethical, sacred responses require us to set aside our fears and let the awen flow from within.  Remember, the problem is the solution!  I wish you each well upon your journeys of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the sprouts, and eventually, tending those wild food forests!

 

Embracing the Bucket: A Colorful Compost Toilet for Small Space Living January 1, 2017

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

My beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

A few months ago, I posted on humanure and liquid gold as ecological resources. Many are once again realizing that our own waste is a precious resource, not something deserving of a flush. As a quick review, humanure refers to human feces that has been composted down (usually over a two-year period). Liquid gold refers to human urine which can be used immediately (diluted to 10%) as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  This waste-cycling practice allows us to reconnect our own elimination cycle with the cycles of nature and bring nutrients back into our landscape rather into toxic municipal septic systems.  Working with our own waste is a very powerful practice for rejoining the cycles of nutrients and flows in the living landscape.

 

And so, as a follow-up to that post, I’d like to share the creation of a compost toilet for my small rental house (as part of my own experiments in rental house permaculture practice).  This post will cover overcoming challenges, basic plans for construction, decoration, and use. I also think this is a wonderful post for the civil new year, and the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” very much comes to mind!

 

Overcoming Mental, Collecting, and Composting Challenges

The idea of collecting and composting humanure includes several challenges we have to overcome: mental challenge and the physical challenge of collecting and composting your waste. I’ll explore each of these first before getting to the specific compost toilet construction and design.

 

When I mentioned that I was thinking about building a compost toilet to my family and certain friends, a number of them expressed a great deal skepticism and doubt, refusing to use it even before it was in place. Elimination is a very taboo topic. The idea of handling a bucket of your own waste, and doing anything with it, beyond flushing it “away” is mentally challenging.  For one, we have to overcome years and years of social conditioning about what “appropriate bathroom behavior” is–and that social conditioning suggests that the best thing we can do is to quietly do our business, to flush it, and move about your day.  There’s also the assumption that it will smell bad or be gross to do anything else.

 

Even if we can wrap our intellectual minds around embracing the bucket (as it makes a lot of sense, as I detailed in my earlier post), we still have to emotionally accept it and overcome that conditioning. After visiting various ecovillages, homesteads, and sustainable living centers, I had already had first-hand experience in using composting toilets, and with that experience, I decided they were pretty cool and worth pursuing.  But more than that, I knew that getting a handle on my own waste streams would allow me to deepen my own nature-based spiritual practice and directly work to regenerate the land by returning nutrients rather than discarding them. So the compost toilet was in line not only with my desire to honor and regenerate the land, but in line with my spiritual ethics.  So these things, along with some positive direct experience helped me to overcome some of the mental barriers, especially emotional ones.

 

Yep, that's a bit hard to avoid....

Yep, that’s a bit hard to avoid….

But what about the emotional and intellectual barriers folks coming to my house who have never used one before?  How could I get them to embrace the bucket? The truth is, based on where I was putting it, even if they didn’t use it, they were going to come face to face with it in my bathroom (see photo). Perhaps pooping in a “fun” toilet would make the difference. I decided that I would create the most beautiful, inviting, whimsical and incredible toilet they had ever seen.  I wanted to create something that people would be excited and overjoyed to poop in.  Heck, I wanted to create something that I wanted to be excited and overjoyed to use! In other words, I would create an artful toilet that was inviting and fun to use, not a plain old seat with a bucket!

 

With the mental challenges considered, there is, of course, the physical reality. Most of us hopefully don’t have a problem with the elimination of waste, but rather the collection of waste and the composting of the waste. The collection is, for a renter, the much more simple of the two. Simple compost toilet boxes, which are a wooden box, lid, and bucket with cover material, are really quite elegant to use. In fact, in my bathroom,  I had a tiny bit of room for a simple compost toilet collection bucket (inspired by the “lovable loo” and the Humanure Handbook).

 

My friend's composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

My friend’s composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

The composting itself was my final main hurdle. I live in a small house with a tiny yard that is rented; I can’t be composting my own humanure on land I don’t own (especially less than 10 feet from my neighbors). And so, I don’t have the option of storing it outside.  And I certainly don’t want to store it in my scary and often-flooded basement.  I seemed stuck–how to proceed? Then, a friend of mine told me she was building a humanure composting system just outside of town on a small piece of land she is working. She invited me to make contributions, both because more nutrients is a good thing and because she was having difficulty getting her pile up to the desired temperature. This is community building and teamwork at its best. Since her location is only a few miles outside of town and I got that way often to visit the woods or my family, I realized that it was time to embrace the bucket!

 

Constructing the Toilet (Collection)

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

My very first attempt at a composting toilet was going to be very simple: a bucket with an attachable lid designed for 5 gallon buckets. The fact that I had a tiny bathroom contributed to this early choice–there wasn’t really anywhere for the compost toilet to go if it were bulky (as the photo above shows). Some time ago, I had ordered a small lid/seat that would fit a five gallon bucket and was excited to try it out. My excitement immediately dwindled upon attaching it to the bucket.  Sitting on it reinforced my dread: it was small, uncomfortable, and not user-friendly.  Nobody would want to poop on that little seat; heck, even I didn’t want to poop using that little seat. So with this plan scrapped, it became obvious that building a more functional composting toilet was in order.

 

It turns out, building a more functional and comfortable basic compost toilet is a really simple thing: it usually has some kind of outer box that holds the bucket in place, offers a lid, and has a regular toilet seat that is reasonable to sit on to use.  Witnessing my concerns about the bucket seat I had purchased, the  friend offered to build the compost toilet.  The following few paragraphs include his instructions and measurements (although note that this toilet was built specifically for my small bathroom, so you might want to change the measurements).

 

Here is a list of the supplies:

  • 1/2 sheet of plywood (if you are painting it, you can get a sheet that is finished nicely on one side and not as nice on the other); if you are staining it and you want the grain all the same you’ll need more than 1/2 a sheet.
  • 3 five-gallon buckets (assuming off-site storage).  Two of these are collection buckets (so you have a spare) and one is for storing your cover material. Sometimes, Asian restaurants may have these available for free as they often purchase soy sauce in 5 gallon buckets.
  • Toilet seat (the one pictured was less than $10; you can also get this used)
  • Two hinges, wood screws, wood glue, clamps, and basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, table saw)

The following is the cut sheet for the compost toilet based on the height of the bucket and the space I had available in the bathroom.  This assumes one standard half-sheet of plywood.

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

The box was constructed by having the four sides rest on the floor and adding the bottom of the box inside the four sides. This is to prevent screws from digging into the floor.  The top of the seat, since it has to lift off and bear weight, sits on all four sides.

Box and bucket before painting

Box and bucket before painting

To get the hole for the bucket, my friend simply traced the outside of the bucket onto the lid and cut it open with a jigsaw. He assembled it all and brought it back to my house for cat inspection. The felines approved.

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of painting process

Cat inspection of painting process

Painting the Toilet

After the basic construction of the toilet was complete, it was time to paint–I knew these artistic skills would come in handy! Part of it was that I wanted it fun, colorful and inviting. The second part of it was that I wanted the toilet to be educational–so when you used it, you understood the nature of what your contributions.  After working on some sketches, I was ready to begin.

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

The toilet seat I decorated was a wooden one the Philosopher purchased at the hardware store for less than $10. It had a seal coating on it that I had to sand off (do this work outside with good ventilation and use a mask). Once I had the toilet seat sanded, I began painting the seat, the box, and the rest!  I wanted messages that were inspirational but not overtly intense, so I wove them into the box throughout, making it fun, whimsical, and inviting.

Painting Process

Painting Process

I used regular acrylic paints to paint the seat. I knew that a good seal was critically important for protection and cleaning, so I used three coats of clear acrylic sealer (which also needs to be done outside). This would allow me to clean the seat and protect my paint.

 

I wanted whimsical designs and messaging, things that allowed people to understand more the cycle of waste and nutrients as well as invite them to try it out.

Finished lid and seat!

Finished lid and seat!

After painting and sealing, we put the toilet together and admired our work. What began as a simple idea in our minds turned into a masterpiece both of us could be proud of!

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Close up of lid and seat!

Close up of lid and seat!

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Top of toilet inviting you inside....

Top of toilet inviting you inside….

 

The toilet was now ready to use–but first, I’m going to cover a few considerations for compost toilets as I generally understand them.

 

Preparing to Use the Toilet: Some Considerations

You’ll need to gather a few materials and make a few considerations for your compost toilet, specifically, how much of your business you are going to be doing in the compost toilet and what your cover material will be.  These are two related considerations: cover materials vary in absorbancy, and that will determine how much urine you can add to your toilet.

 

The first is finding a carbon-based cover material. Currently, I am using sawdust from the a friend’s woodshop (free resource, and he doesn’t use treated wood, but it is very fine and creates dust) as well as partially composted wood chips from my parents’ house (free resource from local tree work).  In the future I’d also like to experiment with shredded fall leaves.

 

Now, absorbency is also important.  From a good friend who was living in a camper and moving around the country, and using her compost toilet full time, I learned the following: sawdust, woodchips, and the like aren’t very absorbent.  If you are going to be doing all of your business in your compost toilet, something more absorbent is necessary.  Peat moss or sphagnum moss was her choice, although she acknowledged that that’s the best she could get on the road consistently, and she didn’t prefer it for environmental reasons but didn’t always have access to anything better.  She said if you only use sawdust, you are likely to end up with a bucket of soup, especially if you aren’t able to dump it very often.  (I’m interested in hearing from other readers if they have experiences using other more sustainable-yet-absorbent possibilities–I’m also going to try shredded newspapers/office paper combined with some other available materials and see what that does).

 

Cover material for the toilet

Cover material for the toilet

I am currently solving this absorbancy problem but collecting urine separately and using it for plants and offerings back to the land (as I described earlier in my first post on the subject).  I have also seen this design: a separate urinal (for liquid gold) and toilet (for humanure) in many of the more elaborate compost toilet setups (like at Sirius Ecolvillage where I did my Permaculture Design Certificate). These two human wastes have very different uses and necessary treatments.

 

Further, if you are changing your bucket out at least once a week, the solid droppings don’t stink once covered up at all–its really quite amazing. However, urine will go to ammonia the longer it sits, exposed to air, if its not properly absorbed.  So I have found that using my compost toilet with the sawdust mainly for solid deposits (allowing for some liquid during making a solid deposit) doesn’t’ lead to any smell and the sawdust works well.

 

Another consideration is what happens to the toilet paper.  From a report from friends, toilet paper takes a lot longer to break down than humanure and you are sometimes left with only bits of TP with otherwise well composted material. Given this, many people don’t include theirs in the bucket.  But to me, this makes more waste, and helps with the absorbancy issue. Also, its possible to get recycled and undyed toilet paper, and that makes even little bit better. Volume here also matters: I am living alone with occasional visitors, and having a family of four would require much more buckets and volume (but also faster turnaround time as the buckets fill up).

 

In the end, a number of factors will impact how you use your compost toilet.  I’m in some ways making it out to be rather complicated, and it really isn’t.  What it ultimately comes down to is this: have some cover material, do your business, cover it up, and go about your day!

 

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

Using the Compost Toilet

Using the toilet is really easy.  You’ll need to do the following:

  1. Start with a layer of cover material on the very bottom of the bucket. I add about 1″ of sawdust to mine when starting a new bucket.
  2. Do your business. 
  3. Add a layer of cover material, covering your deposit. Fully covering the deposit ensures that you can reduce odor. But not all the TP needs covered; people often use way too much cover material, so keep this in mind.
  4. When the bucket is full, transport to the compost facility (backyard, friend’s land, wherever). Make your deposit at the compost pile (see below) and then clean your bucket.
  5. Repeat the above steps!

Composting and Storage

Here are some good instructions for how to build a composting facility for your humanure (this comes from the Humanure Handbook folks, which I would highly recommend for more details and information).

 

For my friend’s facility, the process is really simple. She built two potential piles that are both enclosed (to avoid having vermin or her pet goats in the pile). One pile is “active” meaning we are adding to it, and one pile is “composting” meaning that we are waiting while it composts down. She is using a piece of wire square of fencing (rigid) to keep critters out that covers the pile, then a thick one foot layer of hay to help keep the pile insulated during the cold winter months.  She also is using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the pile.

 

To add deposits, we simply remove the wire square of fencing and then remove hay/insulating material from the pile, add the bucket to the pile, cover the pile back up with hay. Then we rinse the bucket with Castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s works well) and use a small toilet brush–adding all the liquid back into the pile. In the summer months, she has a water barrel there for that purpose, but in the winter months, we bring a gallon of warm water with us from home to rinse.  Then, the bucket simply goes back to your compost toilet to collect another 5 gallons of resources!  The Humanure will be very occasionally turned, and then added to perennial trees, bushes, and shrubs after composting down for two years.

 

I hope this post was inspirational and informative, and I believe it is a great way to start this new civil year. I know that 2016 was a hard year for many people, but I think its important to focus on what we are able to do, here and now, and find our way forward in harmony with the land. The problems we face ask us to creatively engage with our world, to embrace it with consideration and care, and I know that all of us, in our own ways, will continue to do that into the future.

 

Sustainable Living in a Rental House: Options, Ideas, and More July 3, 2016

As a follow-up post to last week’s discussion of how anyone, anywhere can live a sustainable life , I wanted to share some of the sustainable living things that I am doing here while I’m renting a small house (with terrible solar gain, lol) in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. Through this, I hope to demonstrate that even if you aren’t living the free range fantasy, there is a lot you can do, both in your own life, and for the greater good in your community. I hope that this post inspires you to share your own ideas!

 

1.  The Walking Lifestyle.

Some friends along the streets of my town :)

Some friends along the streets of my town 🙂

One of the primary lifestyle shifts I made was moving to a place where I could walk to work (hopefully permanently, but we’ll see where life takes me). I think this one shift is so huge, for so many reasons, that it probably offsets everything I’m not able to do in my rental that I was doing at my homestead.

 

I decided to see how much carbon emissions I saved by walking to campus rather than driving the 36 miles round trip in Michigan. Assuming I go to campus four days a week, 48 weeks of the year, that comes to just under 7000 miles driven per year to get to and fro from work. And there is also my walking to the post office, bank, to pick up food, and more–and the need to drive much less because everything is located conveniently in town. Assuming the lowest estimate, just the work miles, I have saved 2.87 metric tons of carbon this first year in walking rather than driving (you can get your own carbon estimates from Carbon Footprint Calculator). Now maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider that there are severe costs not just to the carbon going in the atmosphere, but also extraction, refining, and transport of fuel that are harder to use an online calculator to figure out, that’s quite a bit. We’ll add to this that I get daily exercise, I no longer have the horrible stress of Detroit Metro area traffic, and I can get a lot more out of my car by not using it as much (reducing the demand for new automobiles!).

 

And from a spiritual perspective, the walking is amazing.  I have tree friends that I visit every day; I use it as a time to do some walking meditation, speak with the spirits, even a bit of energetic work.  I am observing the changing of te seasons in the cracks of the sidewalks and the edges of people’s lawns, each day in the trees.  I would be flying by these in a car; and instead, I am slowing down, building in extra time on my walk to take it all in fully, to smell the flowers.  It has become something that I look forward to each day rather than dread, and it is now interwoven with my inner spiritual life.

 

2.  Growing Things: Container Gardening, Community Gardening, and Sprouting.

I have been exploring a number of ways to still grow things, which was one of my primary focuses at my old homestead.

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Solar gain and container gardening.  Each rental or apartment is different, and the main issue to contend with is light. How much full sun do you have? How much space in the sun do you have? This really determines to a large extent what you can grow, especially, what will thrive.

 

That is my big challenge here, certainly. The rental house I am living in has real challenges with solar gain; no place in the yard gets full sun.  I have no south facing windows! So I have had some challenges with growing things. And yet, I have really embraced container gardening this year. Last year, I discovered that the light is simply not enough to grow most veggies I like (like Kale) so I rented a community garden plot in addition to the containers and am growing veggies I really want to eat there. But, as a permaculture designer, I am focusing instead on how to turn this lack of light into a productive thing. Herbs are doing fine in their pots with morning sun, so I have rosemary, scented geranium, dill,  and a few other herbs in pots; I’ve tucked some herbs also into the “landscaping” on the front of the property (mint, chamomile, new England aster).  I have also grown several successive rounds of lettuce and spinach in pots, and am going for a 3rd round now–the part sun is a benefit to the spring/fall crops and keeps them from bolting.

 

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden. The community garden has been a great place to go when I’m feeling the need to get my hands in the dirt.  The way ours is setup here is that in addition to individual plots that anyone can rent for the season (for $25, I believe), there are also many community plots that are shared and that anyone can harvest from. So there is always gardening work to do for people like me who enjoy it! Also, I don’t think you how much you know till you start gardening around other people, lol! I have been having a lot of fun out in the community garden and have a lot of chances to learn and to share. I would recommend it to any renters!

 

Indoor Growing and Sprouting.  I’ve tried a few kinds of indoor growing, but they all required light (for example, growing microgreens over the winter).  Since I want to use less, I’m not sure that kind of growing is worth it right now for me.  But one carbon-free/energy free kind of growing I am really enjoying is sprouting.  Sprouting doesn’t require much light; it can be done on a counter.  It doesn’t take long, and the sprouts are highly nutritious and delightful!  I like the alfalfa sprouts the best. You can source seeds that are organic and GMO free, and support good companies while doing so :).

 

I'm proud of these sprouts!

I’m proud of these sprouts!

3.  Curbing Consumption and “Stuff ” Creep

I’ve written pretty extensively on this topic before, in my disposing of the disposable mindset posts, vermicomposting post, and more. But I want to say a few words here today, especially about consumption and waste, especially in terms of renting and small space living.

 

Stuff. Knowing that I gave away so much stuff in my life prior to moving has motivated me to keep “stuff creep” (the acquisition of useless stuff you don’t need and clutter) from happening.  This is really important in small spaces where you don’t have a lot of spare room! There are a few strategies to do this: One of the ways that I’m managing that is by keeping a box in my living room that is the “give away” box. When it is full, I take it to a local thrift store. The second is that I am never, ever buying anything on impulse. If I am interested in something, I wait a full week before making a decision, and that gives me time to decide if my decision was the correct one. Only then will I purchase it, and only then if I can use it.

 

Waste. I’ve been, as ever, monitoring plastics and packaging, working to recycle waste, recycle materials, and so on. People know about that and so I don’t have to spell it out here :).

 

4. Verimcomposting, Outdoor Composting, and Liquid Gold

For renting and small space living, there are actually several good options for composting and reycling of certain kinds of waste.

 

Vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is something that anyone, regardless of their living circumstances can do. Since I have limited space here, I opted for a smaller model vermicomposter consisting of a few old food grade buckets that had seen better days. You can read all about how to build a verimcomposter on my blog post.

 

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost Tumbling.  I brought my compost tumbler from my homestead with me to my rental, and boy am I glad that I did!  It has really allowed me to make a lot of great compost without any kinds of rodents or large compost piles in the yard that might upset neighbors.  The compost tumbler that I have (and that I really like) has two chambers for composting.  It claims to be insulated, which I don’t really think matters, lol, but the two chambers of large capacity are super helpful.  I switch chambers about every six months, so I just emptied the first chamber and am getting ready to refill it.

 

Liquid Gold. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the effectiveness of liquid gold for watering my plants, which I covered in more detail in this post.  My plants are happy and so am I!

 

5.  Life by Candlelight.

I wrote about this a bit in my Winter Solstice post (and you can read that for more depth); I have decided to forgo electric lighting at night and instead live by candlelight. This has profoundly changed my own rhythms, encouraging me to slow down, breathe deeply, and reconnect with the quietude of the dark.  I’ve been experimenting with a number of different kinds of lighting and candles to get the most efficiency possible.  I gave a lot of clear instructions for sourcing candles, lighting, etc, in my linked post, so I’ll encourage you to read.

 

One thing I’ll add is that I’ve now been doing this lifestyle about 8 months. It is truly amazing. I love living by candlelight at night; I sleep better, I feel less stressed and frantic, and I just feel more stable overall. It is amazing how such a small shift makes such a big difference, but it really does.

 

6. Haybox Cooking

Good friends of mine (two different sets) taught me about the haybox.  It is a very simple contraption–you heat something up, and then rather than continuing to use heat (like the oven or stovetop) to cook it, you instead pull it out of the oven and put it in a well-insulated box. This saves on fuel.  Here’s a nice introduction to how to build one. A few weeks ago, after finally getting my new dutch oven (!!!!) I started experimenting with the haybox and I really like it!  I have a very rudimentary one that is not nearly as nice as the one in the article I linked above, lol, and it is made of cardboard box with an old blanket as insulation (the hay would obviously be messy).  I have found that for cooking simple things, like a vegetable soup, works well.  My first attempt didn’t have everything cooked the whole way through cause I started it in the afternoon (and I should have started it in the morning). I’m still very much experimenting!

 

7.  Thermostat Changes and Air Conditioning

This is a pretty standard thing, but its important to mention.  Even when renting, you have control over your thermostat and your decisions about whether or not to crank up the AC in the summer or heat in the winter.  I have spent a lot of time figuring out how to move air through the house effectively to avoid the AC using fans in windows–this has been great!  I also invested in some great wool socks and sweaters  and can keep my house a much lower temperature in the winter.  Simple things add up :).

 

8.  Supporting Local Farmers with Chemical-Free Growing Practices

So obviously while renting in my solar-gain challenged circumstances, I’m not growing much of my own food these days.  However, this has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know my farmers at the farmer’s market and support them!  I have found several organic growers that I really like; additionally, I found several offering local pasture-raised meats, cheeses, dairy, and more.  Even in a quiet town in the mountains, there are good options available.  They aren’t as bountiful or divere as the Detroit Metro Area by any means (which is really like a local food Mecca!) but they are there if you know where to look.

 

9.  Plant Education in the Community

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk :)

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk 🙂

So this is one of the things I am most excited to share.  When I got here, I found some people doing some good work with conservation and standard gardening, but not too much else.  I decided to go for it, offering my knowledge as a permaculture designer, herbalist, and wild food forager to the community.  The response has been really great!  I’ll share one story: I began offering plant walks this summer to people who wanted to learn more about the edible and medicinal uses of plants.  I see this as part of my work in the world as a druid–helping reconnect people and nature.  I decided I didn’t want to earn money for them (it is sacred work, part of my spiritual path) so instead I took a donation for a good cause (and each walk is for a different cause). My first walk was a few weeks ago  (my second one is this week) and I had 25 people show up and raised $350 for charity!  They were a great bunch and since then, many are posting about their garlic mustard pesto and dandelion greens!  I opened the walk with a discussion of dandelion, and closed the walk with some tasty treats and a delicious bottle of dandelion wine. It was super exciting!

 

10. Land Healing, Scattering Seeds, Wildtending

Long-term readers of my blog will have noticed my shift in energy and focus: In moving, since I didn’t have land of my own, I shifted my focus instead on tending the broader land around me. This has been really productive for my own thinking, as well as for the land here, I believe. I have written a lot of posts on this subject in more depth: my post on healing hands, my series on wildtending and refugia and seed balls,  my extended series on land healing. Its interesting because I never realized how intently focused my gaze was on that one piece of land till I no longer had it, and it was almost like waking up, looking around, and saying, “ok, now what?!?” I think good things have come of it!

 

11. The Disposables Problem

I have also worked to tackle the disposables problem by starting to carry with me my own take out containers, buying in bulk when possible, and eliminating plastics from my life as much as possible. One of the small, yet important, shifts I made was investing in some stainless steel silverware (a spork and pair of chopsticks) that I keep in my purse.  Now, if I’m at the Chinese buffet, I don’t need to consume another pair of chopsticks. If I’m at tge campus function and there is disposable silverware, I get my spork out instead. This has equal value as an educational tool as it does to reduce waste :). I have a acquaintance who sells them.

 

12.  Slowing Down

A few of these (walking, candlelight, haybox cooking, local foods) have a united theme: the theme of slowing down.  I have been reading a lot more about the slow movements–slow food, slow money, etc.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that these things are “slow” in the sense that nothing ever gets accomplished.  But they are slowing down to the right speed so that we can more fully and meaningfully live!  And that’s good by me!

 

Other Stuff I’m Excited to Try: I have been looking diligently for a large, used fish tank with the hopes of getting an indoor aquaponics system setup.  The fish tank hasn’t yet manifested itself, but I suspect it will when the time is right. I’m quite excited to try this approach!  I’m also working on building a solar cooker and experimenting with a lot of different kinds of gas-free cooking, like dutch oven cooking.  I’m also, obviously, in search of my next property so the real fun can begin again!

 

What are you doing in your spaces, great or small! I would love to hear from you :).

 

Holy Shit! Humanure and Liquid Gold as Ecological Resources May 7, 2016

An outdoor compost toilet

An outdoor compost toilet

When I spent two weeks living in an ecovillage last summer, I proudly talked to friends and family about the fact that I hadn’t flushed a toilet in two weeks. This led to a wide assortment of responses, including “gross, ew” and others who were intrigued. My experience in living at the ecovillage helped better align me with my own waste streams. Each time I made any kind of deposit in the composting system at the ecovillage, I knew the waste my body no longer needed wasn’t going into some toxic sewage plant, but rather, back into the living landscape. And for that, I was grateful—I felt realigned with the land in a new and exciting way. And so, I worked to take that lesson back home with me in a few different ways since that time.  For one, I’ve been doing experiments with small applications of urine as a fertilizer for my seedlings that I’m growing for my Refugia garden this year.  After the application of “Liquid Gold” my seedlings are twice as big as they would otherwise typically be!  So today, in the spirit of “spring cleaning” and for those looking to start new projects with spring energy swirling around us, I wanted to tackle this crappy topic!  That topic is our own waste–and what to do with it. So today, we’ll explore humanure and liquid gold as useful resources for growing things.

 

Waste Not!

Humanity is literally drowning in its own waste, a topic not new to anyone who is paying attention. Even if we work to eliminate waste in other ways of our lives (as some of my earlier posts on disposing of the disposable mindset and dealing with materialism suggest), any “resources” our bodies produce is rarely discussed.  The underlying problem is, modern industrialized society treats human waste like a toxic substance–but they are not.  They are resources. I use the word bodily resources, rather than bodily waste, because even thew way that we frame these things in our speech matters.  Our bodily resources are flushed into septic systems that are full of poison and require heavy amounts of fossil fuels and chemicals to process and address.   But with a little rethinking and openness, we can get past the “gross” factor and start to see our own waste as a resource.  And to help in that rethinking, I’ll point to two key permaculture principles: the problem is the solution and produce no waste.

 

So let’s follow the path that one flush takes to see the problem with human bodily resources–and where we might intervene and divert those waste streams to more productive uses. First, obviously, you begin by doing your business.  If you are in the Western world or other industrialized places, you are doing your business often into gallons of perfectly acceptable drinking water (which is obviously also wasted).

 

After flushing, your waste can take two routes: a typical city or town dweller sends their flush directly into a municipal sewer system. If you live in a more rural area, it likely enters your private septic system, a type of holding tank, where it can partially break down, but eventually, the tank fills us.  Then you call someone with a big truck that pumps it, and it ends up in the municipal septic system.  So in both cases, let’s take a look at that municipal septic system.

 

Municipal septic systems are not just carrying human bodily resources.  They take human” waste” and combine it with many other kinds of liquid (and sometimes solid) material “wastes” including: stormwater runoff (more of that perfectly good and clean water running into the septic system, often mixed with oil from roadways, etc); industrial waste from various factories and processing plants (much of which can contain poisons, heavy metals, chemicals, etc), hospital waste (which can contain disease, toxins, caustic cleaning agents, etc).  Often present in this combined waste, from the many non-human waste streams, is something called “dioxins”, which are one of the most toxic chemicals on the earth.  Dioxins are currently not regulated or tested by the EPA for sewage sludge that is applied to farmlands–and that’s a typical end result of these combined wastes after heavy processing.  In fact, the information I linked above is the EPA’s argument for non-regulation of dioxins.  And radiation somehow ends up in there as well. Regulatory issues with dioxin and radiation aside, on the basic level, we take perfectly good material (human, stormwater, water from flushing) and mix it with really toxic waste, and then process the heck out of it (with more waste, chemicals, etc) to try to salvage something that is really not good at all that we spread on the fields that grow our food.  Ew, ick.  And you thought human poo was bad?

 

Urinal at Sirius Ecovillage

Urinal at Sirius Ecovillage, where I lived for two weeks

A Closed Loop System Humanure and Liquid Gold

We can work to keep our human bodily resources out of the municipal septic system, and cycle it back into the ecosystem in careful and mindful ways–and now we’ll explore ways of doing so. In fact, the idea that human waste is a resource is not a new concept.  For millennia, humans collected and used their own feces and urine effectively.

 

The underlying principle here is simple: if at all possible, we want to create a closed loop system in our living. This means that rather than nutrients and resources being in a line, like this: natural resource–> factory/farm–>store–>consumer–>garbage; we want to have  system that instead functions like a circle, cycling nutrients, like this:  garden plot –> you–> feces/urine –> compost –> garden plot.  This closed loop system is infinitely recycling and sustaining if all resources are harnessed. The truth is that human bodily resources are actually quite good for fertilizer, when treated properly.  The nutrients that your body doesn’t need, and the waste your body produces, can be cycled back into the nutrient cycle of life–meaning, its not waste at all, but a resource!  Human pee is the same–it is liquid gold for good reason!  So let’s explore these resources and how they can be harnessed and used.

 

Liquid Gold

Happy seedlings get fertilized often!

Happy seedlings get fertilized once every week to two weeks with human urine – look at them growing!

Liquid gold is the much easier of the two to collect and use for the direct benefit of green, growing things, and so we’ll start with that process (and this is the one I have the most experience with).  Urine had (and in some places, has) a whole industry built up around it in many parts of the world: from being used as a fertilizer, to a medicine, to a teeth whitener, to an ingredient in gunpowder! I’m not going to go into such detail here with the many uses of urine, but I do think it is worth exploring some options for recycling our nutrients.

 

Human urine has incredible amounts of nitrogen–so much that if you pee directly on plants (or pour urine on them) it will burn them due to the high nitrogen content. It also has potassium, phosphorous, sulfur, magnesium, and calcium (see the Permaculture News article here for more info). Nitrogen is one of the key elements of plant growth; and I’ll take a moment here to again point out how humans and plants co-exist in such a complex web of interactions. We pee the plants’ most important nutrient–nitrogen; and we exhale carbon dioxide–both of these they take in and transform back for us.  This incredible cycle only works when we let it.

 

Our urine is sterile, and it is therefore safe to use as a direct foliar spray on plants and trees with a 10% dilution (10% urine, 90% water). If you have a vegetable garden, you can add liquid gold, at the 10%/90% water ratio, in a backpack sprayer and simply spray your plants every few weeks. The alternative, that seems to work just as well for seedlings, is to use it just like any fertilizer you add to the water for watering the plants (again, 10% dilution, and I kind of eyeball this and don’t measure it exactly.)  Add this in your garden how  you would other compost teas–usually as a side dressing.

 

You can collect urine in any way you like–in an elaborate system, like at the ecovillage, every guest’s urine is diverted and used on extensive gardening systems each time they visit the urinal. But you can also collect urine in the most simple system, like a wide-mouth canning jar.  It doesn’t necessarily take a long time to collect enough to be used for plants (indoor, outdoor, or seedlings)–think a few hours of collection for weekly watering of indoor plants.  And you don’t need to use the liquid gold every week–I usually use it every 2 weeks and my plants are very happy.  You do want to use the liquid gold fairly quickly, as it starts to turn to ammonia and develops a stronger smell.

 

After returning home from the Ecovillage, and especially with my seed starting this year, I started using liquid gold even with my small potted plants and house plants. It was incredible to see the difference—urine is almost pure nitrogen, and that is a resource indeed!  My bay plant, which was suffering some aphid damage, quickly sprouted a ton of new growth.  My baby tomato and pepper plants for my garden plot and assortment of herbs are twice as big as they should be at this point in their growth!  Its really amazing stuff (and I am going to do some scientific experimentation on it in my community garden plot this summer and report back).  You can read more about urine and how to use it as fertilizer in a book called Liquid Gold.

 

Humanure and Composting Toilets

Composting Toilet System

Composting Toilet System that Produces Humanure – just do your business and turn the system every week or so!

The modern term for human feces that is properly composted is called “humanure” (coined by Jenkins in the Humanure Hanbook).  Humanure, once finished, is a lot like other kinds of organic compost–it contains microorganisms, a lot of dark, rich, organic matter, and a lot of carbon for the use of plants.  It can be created and used no differently than other fertilizers if composted properly (two years, minimum).  Most people who make humaure that I know only use it on perennial trees and/or simply return it to the forest since people would get weird about eating veggies grown in humanure.  I think as long as you are taking it back into the ecosystem, sharing it with any plants is a good idea, and your comfort level determines the rest.  The process of composting is really simple, and not much different than other forms of composting.  Compost piles really stink when human pee and poop are added together, so most of the advanced systems separate the two (such as the photo of the urinal above).

 

Most systems begin with a composting toilet. There are many models of composting toilet—and seeing which kind you can use depends a great deal on the codes and regulations where you live. Sometimes, the easiest way to do this is to keep the regular toilet and septic tank there in your house (legally required), but to have a simple alternative system. Most alternative systems are not complicated or expensive – a 5 gallon bucket with a lid (you can get both for about $25) and a second bucket full of wood chips or other absorbent woody/carbon rich material (some people use peat moss, but I don’t recommend it due to its unsustainable harvest; find a local resource instead if possible).  And then, the management is simple enough. You use the bucket, and each time you do, you add 1 scoop for yellow and two scoops for brown. This is composted outside or in an enclosed place that is turned occasionally.  It is generally composted for a minimum of two years before being added to fruit trees or other woody perennials.

 

Composting Toilet System

Composting Toilet System

Much more elaborate, permanent systems can be built or purchased—the most expensive I saw during my PDC was a self-contained unit that was put in a basement right above the toilet (photos in this section)—this system was about $8000; it was self contained, odor free, and literally had a spot where you came in and shoveled out rich compost (see the photos). It was that simple!

 

A more elaborate self-built system, like what was at Sirius Ecovillage, diverts urine and feces into separate places. Feces is composted as usual, often in large pits beneath the bathrooms that are dug out very occasionally; a solar powered fan moves any odor out and away.  Their system was great because it used mostly time to do the work.  They had double toilets in each stall, and one would be “composting” and be closed to new deposits, and one would be active.  The active one would eventually fill up, and then they would switch to the other side.  The one that is full was given a year or so to break down, and then it was scooped out and the process began again.  It was very elegant, not at all smelly, and really effective.

 

The Humanure Handbook, in its full form, can be downloaded in PDF format. It gives many more options for you if you are interested in pursuing this path!

 

Humanure and Liquid Gold as Offerings

I’m going to propose an even more radical idea here—our human bodily resources can be seen as an offering and resource to the land. Humans in ages past knew our waste wasn’t waste at all, but was a valuable resource. Think about it—when we make an offering as part of ritual, say, a shiny penny as some traditions may use, what good does that offering do? It’s symbolic, yes, but our lands are in such duress.  Around here, logging abounds, and resources are always being taken away, never added to our forests and wild areas.  So, wouldn’t a direct offering of nitrogen be a better choice? Given this, I have begun making offerings when I go into the forest. For solid offerings, I bring a small trowel and make a hole six inches down, working hard not to disrupt the soil web more than necessary (See the book How to Take a Shit in the Woods for detailed instructions). For liquid offerings, I make sure not to pee directly on any plants, but I do pee near the base of trees or directly on the ground, as they can take a direct application of rich nitrogen. I know this seems radical, but from a plant’s perspective, its just more nutrients to be gained!  And since I do wild food foraging, I do think that “giving back” a little is an important part of this.  I want to give back more than I take, in all things.  And this approach allows me to continue to cultivate that balance.

 

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this week’s post–its certainly something to consider, moving forward, into paths of deeper sustainability and awareness. Using “liquid gold” instead of regular plant fertilizer can, certainly, reduce your dependence on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizer, and bring you in closer connection with your own plants.  I would encourage you, if nothing else, to try using liquid gold for a month or two on plants and see how it goes! (As a fun note, I’ll link here to my very first blog post ever, which had a similar title, and talked about how I was using local horse manure for my garden and how sacred that substance was!)