Category Archives: Humanure

What’s For Dinner? (Leviticus 11)

Lev 10:10-11 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.

Leviticus 11 details the dietary laws given to the Israelites. When someone says “food in the Bible” this is probably what first comes to mind for most people, rules about what to eat and what not to eat. This is really answering the question “What Would Jesus Eat?” concretely, because as a Jew he would have observed these dietary laws. The question most people have is…Why? We’ll get there, but the first thing is to understand what exactly the rules are, then how they functioned.

What’s On The Menu?
Leviticus 3-8 explains that among land animals the rule is: split hoof + chews cud = OK. That means ruminants are in (cows, sheep and goats), but rabbits camels, pigs and rock badgers are out. Verses 9-12 concern seafood where the formula is: fins + scales = OK. So, trout, perch, etc. are a go, while eels, dolphins and catfish are off limits. Among birds (13-19) they were mainly concerned with what not to eat: eagles, vultures, owls, kites, osprey, hawks, storks, herons, hoopoes, and bats. Everything else is just fine. The section on insects (20-23) starts off strong, “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you”, and then sighs and says if they have jointed legs for hopping and fly you can eat them. This includes locusts, katydids, crickets and grasshoppers. Finally, verses 29-30 and 41-42 make sure all of our bases are covered and declare unclean “Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground” (42). This includes snakes, weasels, rats, great lizards, geckos, monitor lizards, wall lizards, skinks or chameleons.

Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?
For most North Americans, after pigs, we haven’t even thought about eating any of the animals that are forbidden here. So, what is going on? I don’t have access to a stack of commentaries here, but even John Wesley understands that these rules functioned “To keep up the wall of partition between the Jews and other nations, which was very necessary for many great and wise purposes” (quoted from free version available for MacSword). Clearly other nations, tribes and peoples around them did not keep these dietary laws and therefore clearly set the Israelites apart as a different people. Verse 45 gives a typical formula in the Torah for why these commands must be followed, “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

Others have also pointed out the wisdom in many of these laws, which may have something to do with their origin. Pork easily transmits diseases like trichinosis and it was probably safer given conditions for slaughter, cooking, storage, etc. to avoid unnecessary risks. Most of the forbidden birds are scavengers (including the beloved symbol of the United States) which would primarily feed on the carcasses of other animals, creating another possibly dangerous vector for disease (not to mention that carcasses were unclean in general thus tainting those who feed on them). Likewise some of the fish that are forbidden would have been bottom-feeders and considered less sanitary, another way of saying “unclean”. Perhaps in some ways blanket rules are easier to follow. So, eels and dolphins get swept up with bottom-feeders to make things easy (Wesley points out there isn’t a lot of water and fish where the Israelites lived anyway). It’s certainly not because the Israelites pioneered their own “Dolphin-Safe Tuna” brand. So, there may be some biological and epidemiological basis for these laws as well.

Bugs…They’re What’s For Dinner
When it comes to insects it seems obvious to North Americans that you shouldn’t eat them. Yet most of the world includes insects as part of their diet in some way. We have friends working with MCC in Zambia where their 18 month-old son loved to stuff his cheeks full of fried termites. I listened to a TED talk recently by a guy who was a big proponent of eating insects. He pointed out that they are extremely efficient at converting their food into protein, especially when compared with the large animals that we eat for protein, primarily chickens, cows and pigs. I think they produce almost one pound of protein for maybe one to three pounds of food compared with something like 100 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef (my stats may be off, but the true numbers make the same point). They are also very abundant and easy to grow. Another interview on Treehugger described ways to use insects by making a powder and substituting it in recipes. I haven’t tried adopting this practice into my own diet yet, but the logic makes a lot of sense and could go a long way toward a healthier planet.

One last interesting tidbit I found was in verses 37-38 “if a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.” The rule here seems to be “keep dead things out of your garden” which makes a lot of sense. Carcasses in your garden, on the crops you’re trying to grow are going to do damage to those plants. If it happens to fall on seed that hasn’t been planted or germinated, then no big deal. As an avid humanure composter it is important for things to decompose properly. There are microbes, bugs and fungi that do that job in an ecosystem. We do not occupy that space in the ecosystem and neither do our food, plant or animal. So, you don’t want something going through the process of decomposition on or near your food source. Pretty basic stuff, but explains a lot about why dead things were such a no-no.

So, clearly these dietary laws held some embedded wisdom about what foods were safe. They also functioned to distinguish the Israelites from the people surrounding them. Is there anything more that we can glean from these laws about our relationship to our food, the earth and our fellow humans? Anyone who has had dietary restrictions, whether vegetarian or vegan by choice, or kosher or hallal by religious practice, knows that it makes you much more aware of what you are eating. You have to ask questions of your food. My journey with food started 11 years ago when I decided to try a vegetarian diet. As a Texan this meant turning my back on my people. I was very aware of all the things I could no longer eat and my food choices began to take on more importance. So, dietary restrictions at least force us to think about what we are eating.

Holy, Holy, Holy
I began this post with the verse from the previous chapter of Leviticus, because I think it holds something helpful. It says, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” What does this pairing of “holy and common” and “unclean and clean” mean? First, I think the translation “holy and common” as opposed to “holy and unholy” is helpful. It’s not just holy and something that is the opposite of holy. “Common” is something shared among the people; something to which everyone has access and knowledge. “Holy” is not simply the opposite. It is not something to which we don’t have access or knowledge (though that is partially true). Instead it is something Other. It is something not shared among everyone.

The division between sacred and secular serves to divide the church from the state and create a privatized faith impotent to speak to the Powers. This is not the distinction made here between holy and common. So this idea of distinguishing between the holy and the common is put along side the distinction between things and food that are clean and unclean. These are also not the same distinctions, but apparently they are related. Perhaps it has to do with how we relate to the world around us. The distinction between clean and unclean relates to all that we can know and experience in the world around us (the modern day realm of science), yet all of creation is considered good. The holy gives us some anchor in another reality that in some way reads, interprets, judges and ultimately redeems the common, which is what is divided into clean and unclean. (I’m immediately skeptical that I have just created a hierarchy where there is none, but I’ll go with it.)

In other words, there is something Other that judges and interprets the material world and our relationships within it. There is a Reality underlying what we see, hear, smell, taste and experience that is not separate from it, but Other, transcendent perhaps. Maybe Tillich’s idea of the Ground of Being or the idea that God is the eternal observer that keeps reality from disappearing by constantly perceiving it are shadows of what I’m grasping at like the blind men and the elephant.

I think of the Eucharist. It is a meal of simple elements, bread and wine. These were among the most common foods of the time and shared among people every day. Yet they constitute the most important ritual in the Christian tradition. So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live? What role does the idea of clean and unclean continue to have in our world today? Even though the Jesus movement clearly chose to do away with these restrictions (particularly because of the experience of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, a favorite passage of mine), we still use caution, discernment and cultural cues to decide what to eat and what not to eat. In many ways the question of the ethics of eating is our modern day version of clean (organic, local, sustainable, fair trade, etc.) and unclean (processed, underpaid migrant labor, subsidized, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified, etc.). These lines are not as clearly drawn as those in Leviticus, but what the followers of Jesus seek is, not a new law to replace the old one, but the ability to be led by the Spirit. May we feel that breath and follow the wind into all truth.

Isn’t It Ironic…Don’t You Think?

Unlike the Alanis Morisette hit, “Ironic”, which was in fact not at all ironic, I have come across some ironies in my work that strike me as worth mentioning and perhaps exploring more in depth. The world we live in seems full of these strange paradoxes, but they come in to stark relief in development work where all of my “developed” cultural assumptions, privileges and background come into contact with those of the “developing” world.

Compost vs. Flush Toilet
The first one relates to the beautiful wicker throne of which I am so proud. I’m very happy to no longer be flushing and instead turning my own excrement into an agricultural resource. It takes hands-on management to empty buckets and manage the compost pile, but for me the trade off is well worth it in my mind. When I built this system, my co-worker had to laugh when he imagined what the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) would say if they ever saw my toilet. “We left that way of life back in Russia. What are you thinking?” People in Guarani villages like Caipepe have not had flushing toilets in their homes or villages. Their vision of development, similar to the LGMs, is one that brings many of the modern infrastructure to their homes. Why would I choose to go backward by pooping in a bucket and piling it up in the backyard? (For the answer you can read Humanure: Waste or Resource?)

Off vs. On the Grid
We have friends back home who have lived or aspire to live “off the grid”, meaning not connected to the electricity infrastructure. For some this might mean using renewable forms of energy instead, but continuing to consume electricity. For others this means getting rid of the need to use electricity as much as possible. For most it’s a combination of the two. We also aspire to this kind of lifestyle and have started a Sabbath practice with no electricity Sundays, which is easier there is only one breaker for the entire house.
In contrast our friends in Caipepe just got electricity in their village within the last year. Their experience of the world has been one without electricity in their home for most of their lives. What would they say to my friends, or me, about wanting to live without electricity or at least “off the grid”?

Sustainable vs. Industrial Agriculture
The irony I find most disturbing is that I, the white, North American, male development worker am the one advocating sustainable agriculture to indigenous people (LGMs are another story). The Guarani lived on the land as hunter-gatherers and perhaps farmers long before the chemical and seed companies that now dominate the market and dictate the type of agriculture practiced. They have a long history of knowledge of local flora and fauna. There are still lots of people that know about what plants are edible or useful for medicinal purposes, but this kind of knowledge and intimacy with the landscape has been marginalized in favor of the cash crop system of industrial agriculture. So, the farmers we talk to use chemicals to manage weeds, insects and fertility. They lack the knowledge of the ancestors about better ways to live on the land, which may be because they were hunter-gatherers who were forced to settle in to sedentary villages.
Other people, like the Quechua and Aymaras, who practiced agriculture before even the Incan Empire have probably retained more of their traditional knowledge than those who remained hunter-gatherers right up to the colonization by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century.

These are the ironies of development work, particularly with an emphasis on sustainability. It’s important to remember that the North American obsession with a “green” lifestyle is a privileged position. Some of it may be the right thing to do, but any attempt to simply import it to “developing” countries and/or indigenous peoples would simply be another form of colonization. Part of the reason those of us in the privileged “developed” world are able to choose lifestyles that contradict and challenge the status quo of industrial agriculture, consumerism and the growth economy is because our lives have been so saturated by these realities. Those in the “developing” world have experienced these realities from a completely different perspective and advertising continues to sell them a dream that is beyond their reach. So, once again we must find a way to bring these worlds together and find better solutions over a guampa of yerba maté.

The Ego and the Eco

The Humanure Handbook has a short-ish chapter entitled “Deep Shit” that touches on the convergence of humanure and spirituality. The author begins with a story about an invitation to speak at a convent. He was surprised that more than just composting the nuns were interested in humanure. “Somehow, I couldn’t imagine standing in a room full of holy nuns, speaking about turds” (69). Their response is worth quoting at length.

“We are the Sisters of Humility,” they responded. “The words humble and humus come from the same semantic root, which means ‘earth.’ We also think these words are related to the word ‘human.’ Therefore, as part of our vow of humility, we work with the earth. We make compost, as you’ve seen. And now we want to learn to make compost from our toilet material…” This was deep shit. Profound… Some people go to church on Sunday, others make compost. Still others do both (69-70).

The connection between ourselves and the earth is profound. I feel like I’m repeating myself and perhaps not getting anywhere, because I come back to this theme over and over. The truth is that this connection of human to humus is so utterly profound and largely lacking in our modern consciousness that we must come back to it again and again. Jenkins puts it like this,

In essence, the soil, air, sun and water combine within our mother’s womb to mold another living creature. Nine months later, another human being is born.That person is a separate entity, with an awareness of an individual self, an ego. That person is also totally a part of, and completely dependent upon, the surrounding natural world, the eco (70).

As we are enculturated to modern society our awareness of this connection diminishes. Our own ego is deeply tied up in our relationship with the earth. It is an act of great hubris to declare ourselves no longer bound by the limitations of nature and therefore apart from it. Likewise, it is an act of great humility to recognize our place in the ecosystem.

When the ego and the eco are balanced, the person lives in harmony with the planet. Such a balance can be considered to be the true meaning of spirituality, because the individual is a conscious part of, attuned to, and in harmony with a greater level of actual Being. When too much emphasis is placed on the self, the ego, an imbalance occurs and problems result, especially when that imbalance is collectively demonstrated by entire cultures. To suggest that these problems are only environmental and therefore not of great concern, is incorrect. Environmental problems (damage to the eco) ultimately affect all living things, as all living things derive their existence, livelihood and well-being from the planet. We cannot damage a thread in the web of life without the risk of fraying the entire tapestry. (74)

There is a tradition within Christianity of understanding creation as intimately related to our understanding of God and consequently our relationship to God and the world. I think because some conservative Christians are often reactionary against anything that smacks of New Age, earth worship, or even environmentalism, they have jettisoned this part of the tradition. Nevertheless it is right there in Scripture. Many of the Psalms use language about creation to describe God, God’s presence and character. Paul declares, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Ro 1:20). Perhaps a post tackling the nature of this triangle between God, humanity and creation is stirring. Jenkins goes on to explore further the implications on religion in particular.

When the ego gets blown out of proportion, we get thrown off balance in a variety of ways. Our educational institutions teach us to idolize the intellect, often at the expense of our moral, ethical, and spiritual development. Our economic institutions urge us to be consumers, and those who have gained the most material wealth are glorified. Our religious institutions often amount to little more than systems of human-worship where divinity is personified in human form and only human constructs (e.g., books and buildings) are considered sacred. (74)

On this last point, I probably agree with Jenkins about the nature of sacred texts, objects and places too much for my more religious friends and not enough for my more secular, scientific, skeptical friends. For me it is helpful to recognize that sacred rituals, texts and objects have come to exclude other things from the sacred. It becomes a zero sum game of the holy. If an object or text is sacred that necessarily excludes other objects from this realm. This way of thinking about the sacred and profane makes it possible to objectify nature and abuse it as we have done. Wendell Berry puts it this way in his poem “How to Be a Poet”, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Jenkins continues,

Today, new perspectives are emerging regarding the nature of human existence. The Earth itself is becoming recognized as a living entity, a level of Being immensely greater than the human level. The galaxy and universe are seen as even higher levels of Being, with multiverses (multiple universes) theorized as existing at a higher level yet. All of these levels of Being are imbued with the energy of life, as well as with a form of consciousness which we cannot even begin to comprehend. As we humans expand our knowledge of ourselves and recognize our true place in the vast scheme of things, our egos must defer to reality. We must admit our absolute dependence on the ecosystem we call Earth, and try to balance our egotistical feelings of elf-importance with our need to live in harmony with the greater world around us (72).

John Horgan in his book The End of Science explores some of the theories that Jenkins points to about the earth as a living organism and the idea that there are multiple universes. While ideas about multiverses (and superstrings and other dimensions) have at least a beginning in science, they are in fact really just speculations which, as Horgan points out, cannot and may never be able to be tested using the scientific method. Horgan is a little skeptical of the Gaia hypothesis put forward by some scientists that conceives of the earth as a living organism.

While I understand that some of these scientists veer into some mystical language that is more religious than scientific, I think it is clear from what we do know that the earth is more like an organism than it is a machine. The planetary ecosystem is certainly more than the sum of its parts in the same way that my body is more than just an amalgamation of bones, parts and systems. Again, while some people might be uncomfortable with some of the language about “levels of Being”, the point is to include our expanding knowledge of the universe (or perhaps multiverse, which is in no way a proven reality) in our theology and recognize that we are included as part of and dependent on these systems. When we recognize the humus in our humanity, we will find true humility.

Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.