Istockphoto.com/Hallwood
Istockphoto.com/Hallwood

IT BEGAN AS A FINE PLAN: replace the primitive outdoor toilets at our rural, monastic-style Zen Center. The head monk at the time was an idealistic German, and he made the final call to install composting toilets. CTs are based on a beautiful principle. It’s a principle with great metaphorical as well as practical value. The way the toilets work is, you crap down a long, narrow chute, and it accumulates in a large, plastic box. Once a week you shovel a bag of wood chips into the box. Eventually heaps of rich, earthy soil appear. This manure, or “humanure,” makes primo fertilizer for your gardens. What you took from the earth in food, you return to it as food. Beautiful, right?

The problem is, the lease we have on our land from the forestry service strictly prohibits us from planting anything—fruits, vegetables, flowers, trees. We probably can’t even legally grow sea monkeys up here. So here we are, twice a year, stuck with a thousand pounds of human-based fertilizer, and nothing to fertilize.

As a solution, the Board of Health makes us periodically jar up a pint or two of the compost-in-progress and bring it to them so they can test it. When they deem it fit for burial, we have to stuff all one thousand pounds in special plastic boxes, bake it in the sun for a week to kill the pathogens, carve out mass graves six feet deep in the mountainside, and put every last, useless morsel to rest. The German head monk has recently returned to his homeland, where he is no doubt enjoying precision-engineered flush toilets. Our new head monk hails from the streets of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and harbors none of his predecessor’s romanticism when it comes to completing the circle of life via our waste. The CTs are again packed to capacity, and his solution is decidedly American: “Let’s just get these friggin’ things pumped.”

The task falls to me and Rose, the gruff, grandmotherly sewage sorceress we’ve hired from town to make this mess disappear. Rose is exactly the kind of woman you’d expect to find on a job like this. She looks like Andre the Giant in drag. You can look for her breasts, but you won’t find any, unless you’re looking somewhere near her navel, where she’s got them tucked into her tool belt. She sports a flattop haircut, her neck is as thick as her shoulders are wide, and she’s got the mouth of a trucker with Tourette syndrome. She muscles the side hatch off one of the compost tanks and leans forward, pensively stroking her chin and screwing up her chiseled face. Several moments pass in silence. Then she turns to me, problem diagnosed, solution at the ready: “We’re gonna hafta make poop soup.”

Crammed into each of the three bins are dense, towering shit-bergs. The plan is to soak them into a thin gruel of sewage, which Rose will pump into her truck tanker. I spray the manure masses with a garden hose while Rose—Slayer of Fecal Dragons—hacks them apart with her shovel. Two grueling hours pass. Finally she spins around, sweat clinging to the hairs haloing her mouth.

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