Industrial Worker Book Reveiw: 8 Hours to Work, 8 Hours to Sleep, 8 Hours to Read

Gene Logsdon,
"Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind"

204 pages
Chelsea Green Publishing
August 30, 2010
Paperback $17.50

Review by John MacLean

"Sooner or later, we must learn to live in the same world as our colons" -Gene Logsdon

The animating idea behind Gene Logdon's book Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind is that we are taking from soil much more than we are putting back, and it must stop. This destructive error is as old as the Gilgamesh tale, coming down to us from the Cradle of Civilization; and now that the trees are gone, and the land made desert, conquerors are back for the last remaining ancient forests, crushed and heated, deep under the ground.

Gene Logsdon claims that we have "lost touch" with shit, become obsessed with sex, and "the consolidation of wealth and power." In the last century, our increasingly urbanized society, ran down the amount of organic material in soil to dangerous levels, and this era, of man-made and mined fertilizer is coming to a close. Logsdon calls shit a divine commodity, a "precious gem", even "a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow", and contends that only small dispersed garden farms can likely use it economically. The contrary farmer insists that we break with this era of "wanton wastefulness", and not remain "helpless before the dragons of a self-destructing economy."

Urine is far richer in "plant nutrients" than shit, contains significant amounts of nitrogen and potassium, and is readily available to plants. Feces, writes Logsdon, are overflowing with "goodies"; including "starch, cellulose, lignin, fat, proteins, carbohydrates of various kinds, minerals, and vestiges of digestive juices that begin the process of decomposition in the animal's intestines." Unnumbered millions of bacteria help this all along as well. The richest shit is that of chickens, goats and sheep; the author later mentions guano as being equally rich. The use of "bedding" can stall the lose of this richness, through exposure to the elements, and together they turn to humus. Manure that is piled up outside a barn can lose as much as half of its value as fertilizer, and "manure pack" bedding, in covered accessible sheds, is by far a better management solution. Composting with a manure pack ages slowly, is anaerobic, and follows a very different dynamic than a garden compost.  

Logsdon hails the manure spreader as a "more momentous " invention than the plow or the automobile, and he claims that older wisdom held that manure should be spread, on pasture and hay fields, as soon as possible. He also found, contrary to his early teaching, that plowing fresh spread manure into fields was not optimal; it's best to let the sequestered nitrogen, in an aged manure pack, leach into the surface soil after haying. He writes, in regard to "manuring" and "mulching" that most of the "feverish microbiological activity" in soil occurs at the surface were there is plenty of oxygen. Logsdon writes: "Our most important livestock, in fact, are invisible to the naked eye."   

At about the halfway point of his book Logsdon shares a lovely little essay called "Meditations on a Meadow Muffin." He writes that cow pies are "magnets" drawing to themselves "a wondrous array of microorganisms, insects, birds, animals, and even humans, all interacting in a marvelous web of life that results ultimately in the enrichment of the earth." Birds swoop in after bugs, skunks, raccoons and opossums practice "the cow-flop flip" in search of worms, and dung beetles, when let to do their work, are capable of depositing tons of shit and piss in the ground yearly. (These incredible insects, which are capable of breaking many parasite cycles themselves, have been virtually "disappeared" do to a reliance on "systemic wormers" fed to livestock to counter the same parasites.) These shit tumbling bugs save nitrogen, aerate, and increase the amount of organic matter in soil. Earthworms also "dine" on elements in the manure and turn it all into readily available "plant nutrients." Working with nature is a much easier road to travel.   

Logsdon writes of the horrified reaction he got, from a friend, when he mentioned mulching his garden with manure. Properly aged and dried barn manure is "safe and beneficial" as mulch, and contains most of "the nutrients that garden plants need." It also can "blot out weeds..." Using too much can keep soil from warming, in the next season, though, and under no circumstances "should you use fresh manure drippy with urine close to any plants." This kind of mulching also acts as a "moisture preserver" equal to many irrigations during a dry spell. Logsdon describes his composting with layers of grass, leaves, soil, worms, and sheep shit pack, and how the resulting heat is enough to limit pathogens, and kill parasite eggs. The heat can be used to carefully warm starter plants, early in the Spring, and the "finished compost" can be put into the ground with seeds. Fresher manure can be used when mulching around trees, in an orchard, as the ammonia is not as damaging to them as it is to plants. 

When you look at "a speck of muck soil" under a microscope, it's almost as if you are seeing "a scene from a rain forest." When you look at "woods soil" it contains a greater amount of microorganisms and larger living things in it, "all in symbiotic or combative relationships to each other", than soil long cultivated. The roots of "woodland trees" take in nutrients through "mycorrhizal fungi (mycelia)" attached to them, and trees without this fungi grow poorly. The sad fact that Logsdon began to realize is that farming "is by its nature not..sustainable", and at its worst it invites "ecological collapse." There is a long history of agricultural mistakes leading this way. Logsdon recalls the terra preta (black earth) experiment, from the area of the Amazon, in which indigenous people long ago made their own soil, but sadly most past civilizations  "never learned to return their wastes to the soil like those who utilized terra preta." In most cases, the "divine materials" were just piled up in "midden pits" as people distanced themselves "from the daily task of food-getting." There is hope, for us, in the work of Harry Hoitink, who discovered that the impact of many plant diseases can be lessened by using composts, but there are great industrial concerns arrayed against even this.   

If we "continue to cram more and more animals and more and more humans into less and less space" we have no chance of dealing sustainably, or affordably, with our waste. Logsdon writes that humans produce more than 50 million tons of usable nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium each year, and we are not only throwing much of it away, we are "spending incalculable amounts of money to do the throwing." (Flushing it away, into lagoons, doesn't even work on large dairy farms, as manure loses as much as seventy percent of its values as fertilizer in this process. Also, the almost ten million pet horses, in the US, which produce enough manure to fertilize millions of acres of farmland, are used mostly as tax shelters.) Properly treated human biosolids are "approved for use on farmland" but "organic certification rules prohibit or greatly restrict" this use. Logsdon recommends, on occasion, shitting and pissing on livestock manure pack, and also extols the virtues of dry or composting toilets. This would require people becoming expert at "thermophilic decomposition" as aging and heat are needed to deal with the pathogens in human feces. The many experts that landed us in our current bigger-is -better plight, the spinners of "rosey-hued yakety yak" to Logsdon, are at present lying low, not unlike the cast of characters who recently looted and wrecked our economy, who are busy rewriting history. Logsdon writes: "We should all be working together to find a way to use our shit-- this plentiful, natural, local, and renewable source of fertility-- rather than continuing to rely on expensive, synthetic products in bags that do nothing to improve the soil."

This grotesque scandalous book is worth a read. The author's great sense of humor is on display throughout; particularly when he claims to be exhausted by all the world's endless social movements, while at the same time remaining very much down with the one centered within the divine bowel. Logsdon seems to take for granted access to land, and as recent events in Paraguay demonstrate violent conflicts over access are common, and even governments can be overthrown in the process. It would be helpful also to mention that soil fertility can be maintained short of composting and spreading manure, through the use of cover plants, and other design aspects of natural farming. But in an increasingly arid United States where as much as half the land is desert, or becoming such, and wildfires burn through the summer, shit, composting, and natural farming must all be part of a future solution.

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