Silence Among Many Ears


I strolled up the driveway to the mailbox. No mail. I looked over the neighbor’s cornfield across the road.  I decided to explore. Zigzagging between the thigh-high corn plants, I went in a dozen rows. Then I lay down.

I gazed up through the swaying corn leaves where soft clouds dallied eastward on the faintest of breezes. With a good rain the day before and full-on sun today, the corn should be climbing. An old farmer’s adage optimistically declares, “On a quiet night you can hear corn grow!” 

It turns out that with highly sensitive recording equipment you really can hear it. The noise is the tearing and pulling of corn stalk fibers. The process is similar to an athlete building muscle mass. Strengthening the muscle requires a multitude of micro rips of tissue. As they repair themselves the muscle becomes stronger. 

I rolled close to a stout stalk of corn. All around me was eerie silence; no insects, no birds. Staring into the sky, I spotted a high-flying dragonfly hurrying directly overhead. Why should it stop when this sea of sameness harbors no insect sustenance? 

From my prone position I peered far down the orderly row of corn stalks. There was absolutely nothing else growing there. I was lying in a desert made through the intentional poisoning of the ground.

This firmament of sand holds little organic matter. In order to grow corn it is augmented with a swill of herbicides, fertilizer, nitrogen and who knows what else.   

Looking through the genetically altered crop, I recalled a visit to a long-time farmer near Ames, Iowa. He was over 80 years old and was farming the land the same way his father had in the early 20th century, with no pesticides or herbicides. He really didn’t intend to farm “organically,” it was just the way his father taught him.

He spoke of his corn and its yields compared to his neighbor’s fields where they grow genetically modified corn using conventional methods that include applications of pesticides and herbicides.   Even when his fields didn’t produce as many bushels per acre, many years his profit margin was better than farmers who grow corn using chemical inputs. 

I asked if any of his neighbors ever consider growing organically to cut input costs. He looked at me and said, “Well they can’t.  Their ground is addicted to chemicals. All the microscopic life in the soil is dead. My neighbors have to keep the chemicals going if they want to make any money at all.”

He paused and looked out over his summer field. “They’re are in a tough spot. In order to build up the life in the soil they would have to let the field sit idle for a few years. And how are you going to pay the bills then?” 

He turned his head and looked at me, concluding, “It’s sad. I doubt any of them ever really intended to kill their soil.”

Across the dirt road from where I lay is our patch of restored prairie, a wild tangle of stem and deep roots. The explosion of bloom buzzes with thousands of pollinating insects. It hosts pheasant and vesper sparrow nests. The soil beneath teems with microbial life. 

Up to forty years ago this piece of ground grew corn and soybeans. Then I said “No more.” Instead I gathered native prairie seed from nearby wild patches and scattered and poked them into the ground. I let the remnant prairie in the roadside ditch slowly claim the cropland. Over time the ground has begun to wear the face it had prior to my ancestors farming it. 

After a half hour of corn cogitation, I could stand the sterility no more. I got to my feet and retraced my path out of the geometrically perfect rows. 

Returning home through the patch of prairie, I noticed a dragonfly zigzagging over the clumps of big bluestem and between the slalom gates of the blue-flowered spiderwort. 

A nap in the prairie would not be easy with the racket of biological diversity. 

The Riches of an Unkempt Lawn

Nobody on their death bed is going to wish they had mowed the lawn more frequently.

The neighbors were buzzing with excitement over our beautiful lawn until I commenced the seasonal atrocity of mowing.  The neighbors I am referring to are the fat bumblebees and other assorted members of the insect tribe that bobbed and crawled from purple blossom to purple blossom on the ground ivy that carpets much of our yard. It’s a thing of beauty. 

The gang of the genus Bombus, our plump buzzing bumblebee friends, are part of the insect clan that pollinates approximately 1/3 of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Our society’s lawn maintenance practices threaten their livelihood. 

Most folks refer to the fragrant ground ivy as Creeping Charlie. European immigrants intentionally brought the beloved plant to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Britain and other Old World countries this short herb was also known as runaway robin, ground ivy, or Lizzie-running-up-the-hedge.

For more than 5,000 years this little relative of the mint family has been an important medicinal plant. It is high in Vitamin C and is valued for soothing coughs, colds and headaches. 

So how is it that this plant slid from sainthood to lawn villain? 

Can you say “money?” 

You can never fail to make money if you can convince the public of a lurking monster, something to be very afraid of, and then hail yourself as savior for having the product to defeat the real or perceived fiend. So it is no surprise that big chemical companies like Monsanto, Scotts, or Dow declare this innocent ivy and other lawn companions such as dandelions as “bad.”

Clever marketing convinced lawn owners to buy the chemical panacea needed for a lawn of sameness. A monoculture is not nature’s way. rather than follow nature’s blueprint for the strength in diversity.

When you create a single-species lawn you have to work really hard and spend money to keep it that way. Roughly 80 million Americans have lawns.  According to a national Time Use Survey, American lawn owners spend roughly 40 hours of care on their lawns each summer. That is a full workweek! 

Then there are those who fertilize their lawns so they have to mow even more. Go figure!

If you really want to be the same as everyone else, then be my guest. I’m going to keep company with the mesmerizing buzz of the Bombus clan and gather up some nutritious plants like Creeping Charlie, sheep sorrel, and dandelions from the yard for a salad. That way my lawn pays me.

Cups Men!

Brian Gnauck and the author contemplating a very old inukshuk above the Kuujua River in the High Arctic.

“Tom, how did you ever pick up your love of canoeing rivers in the far north?”

That question was posed to me about a month ago by my wife Nancy. 

“Well,” I answered, “there were two influencers: Glen and Brian.”

In the first months of 1974, Glen Sorenson, a dear friend I had met in college, asked if I was interested in paddling the Churchill River. We would paddle east from the Saskatchewan border, across northern Manitoba to Hudson Bay. He was recruiting me as a crew for a trip that his previous White Bear Lake neighbor and veteran wild river paddler, Brian Gnauck was putting together. 

It took little time for me to jump at the chance to go on a month long 500- mile paddling adventure. (Since we paddled the Churchill River, a large diversion dam was completed making it a very different flow.)

Nancy’s query released a trove of memories and she sat politely listening as I began sharing. This was a time before there was such a thing as a GPS or satellite phones. With maps and compasses and Brian’s knowledge of the land combined with his skills in paddling whitewater and wilderness tripping, the trip proved to be the catalyst that would ultimately send me on numerous remote, northern Canada trips.

After my shared stories, I wondered aloud how Brian was doing. So the next day I tried calling his Marquette, Michigan home. A recorded message told me his phone was disconnected. No big surprise because he likely had cancelled his landline to go with only his cell phone.

I tried emailing him at the only email address I had from his University of Northern Michigan site.  It bounced back. 

Four years ago Brian retired after serving as a dean and professor at the University of Northern Michigan Business College in Marquette for more than forty years.

I decided to write him a good old- fashioned letter. In the letter I wondered how he was doing with retirement. Given the shackling of the pandemic, I asked if he had any summer adventures planned.  Mostly I told him how much I owed him for sparking my interest and teaching me river skills.

About ten days after I sent the letter, my cell phone rang while I was putting up some firewood. I answered and a woman asked, “Tom Anderson?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Brian Gnauck’s daughter. “(At this point, I felt a surge of dread.) 

Jumping in, I blurted, “Shefali.”

Then I heard crying. In fits and starts as she told me her father had experienced a massive heart attack out in his firewood yard next to his beautiful Lake Superior log home. Brian was 80 years old.

Sniffling she said, “At least he was outside, doing something he loved.” 

After a short chat I hung up and went for a slow walk in our woods.  

I cannot think of a single person who has paddled more Canadian rivers than Brian. By 1987, Brian had paddled more than 9,000 miles of Canadian rivers. And he kept paddling remote rivers well into his seventies.

After getting his doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota in the mid-1960s, he began teaching college courses. This gave him the summers off to travel north to paddle remote rivers. Many years he undertake TWO such paddling trips over a summer. 

He loved maps. He owned all the topo maps of northern Canada and over the winter he would pour over them to study potential river trips. 

As an economist, he had a thing for numbers and he could easily tell you the rate of travel, the drop in a river’s elevation and then tell you how many calories we had to carry. 

He was an excellent trip leader. His skills at organizing and preparing for a trip were second to none. He studied situations and always was calm. He invited discussion when key trip decisions had to be made. 

Brian was always tinkering, sewing, experimenting and making improvements on his gear. Back in the early 1970s, Brian fabricated the first nylon canoe cover or spray skirt I had ever seen. Such a cover made it possible to remain comfortable while paddling in rain and more importantly it helped keep out splashing waves in bad weather or while running whitewater. Now they are considered essential among tripping canoeists.

I learned my skills in whitewater paddling from Brian. He was an excellent whitewater paddler and instructor. Before paddling with Brian I had never heard of a draw stroke, pry stroke, cross-draw stroke, backpaddling, bracing or doing an upstream or downstream ferry. Nor had I ever heard of lining or tracking a canoe.

Of medium build, Brian was an animal on the portages. I once offered to carry his 17-foot Mohawk canoe across a portage but he quickly said he would take it. Beefed up for rugged trips, it turns out his boat weighed in at just over 100 pounds. Brian hoisted the canoe on his shoulders and headed up the hill on the faint portage trail marked by old blaze marks on trees. 

On one northern Ontario trip, he wrapped his canoe around a boulder on a nasty piece of whitewater during flood stage. The gunwales of the canoe were made of ash and both had snapped. Given the remote setting and that it was in the early days of the trip Brian didn’t waste no time removing the splintered rails. Then he took his saw and axe and found the two properly sized alder trees.  He cut and split each of them lengthwise and with the help of his Leatherman knife he fabricated a “new” pair of gunwales that served well to finish the canoe trip.

At the end of each day, after camp was set up and supper was cooking, Brian would always call out, “Cups men!” This was the signal to grab your mug and gather for your ration of gin spiked with a tablespoon of Wylers lemonade mix for a version of “bush gin and tonic.” There was also a toast to the river.

So it seems fitting that tonight, I will enthusiastically call out, “Cups Nancy!” And we will toast Brian and his life of canoe exploration.

I Take Thee, Art, for my Wedded Wife

“The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.” 
― Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

My wife Nancy and I have taken this period of viral siege as a gift. The quiet solitude moves us towards the meditative, focusing on the now, and impermanence. And it has nudged creativity. 

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been shooting photos of some of Nancy’s art. She thrives on creativity and directs herself to new outer limits. She has coached and led workshops on the subject. I have grown used to her occasional need to rise from the bed at 2 a.m. and carry an idea down to her work area. 

Her creativity has given us the most artsy mailbox on our dead end road. And I have never seen a steering wheel and dashboard of a car that was artistically painted until shortly after I married Nancy and she went at our Honda Civic like an unleashed Salvador Dali.

She has written and performed three one-woman shows. Each of them, The Truth about Women and Horses, When God was Fun, and Instruments of Bliss were very well received by audiences that numbered in the thousands.

And she has played major roles in several Festival Theater productions, including Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Linda Lohman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

After writing the book, Sensuous Living, she was flown to New York City for a guest appearance on the Sally Jesse Rapheal show. And last summer she wrote an illustrated a one-of-a-kind book for our granddaughter called Eleanor Visits the Yukon.

She has written music that she can sing and accompany herself on her guitar, mandolin, ukulele or fiddle. As I write this she is in the adjacent room plucking and strumming clear-noted, old tunes on her mandolin. 

Her creative courage even had her once give a solo original dance performance at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, MN.

So it should come as no surprise that when an appeal came to sew masks for medical personnel Nancy would turn a humane endeavor into an art project. 

As a person who loves to make art, she can never have too much art material. I sometimes accuse her of hoarding but I need to be careful because I have my own secret stashes of potential. 

It was easy for her to come up with the necessary mask material and the accompanying ties and elastic loops.

Before donating the masks, she merged all of them into a timely skirt and top, a wearable artwork entitled “Mask Skirt.”


Nancy is an organized thinker. Every day I can find a scrap of envelope or a piece of blank paper with a list of chores she plans on tending that day. Success comes in the elation of crossing off tasks from such a list. 

Rather than tossing the list into the fire or the recycle box, she saves it. I had no idea that she was secreting hundreds of these archival scraps of her history into a file. From this art material was born “Busy Skirt.”

The pleated skirt is made of accordion-folded to-do lists. The brilliance in the outfit was the faux blouse and collar made from lists. For the photo she stood in front of a wall of lists that spilled out under her feet. 

She is currently working on her third skirt and top, entitled “Handsy.” It is made up of an old leather bag fringed in our worn out work gloves supplemented with orphaned ones found during bike rides along the shoulder of roads. 

Women continue to be treated like objects and subjected to wolf whistles, calls and worse. The gloves symbolize men’s claiming of women’s bodies.

Like all art, her skirts are not for use but rather to provoke. One of the functions of art is to move the viewer to change for a safer and more sustainable society. 

So the creative spirit has been haunting our Basecamp. In turn, our seemingly cluttered home easily morphs into a center of creativity where we find ourselves wedded to wonder.   

Eternal Goods

Early last month we made a final deposit at our local bank of firewood. The woodshed is our own version of Fort Knox and each piece of wood is a bar of gold. 

Over the winter, every other day, we pulled a sled filled with firewood from the shed to the back stoop. The cargo was carried into the porch and arranged in the old wood box that had been my great grandparents’. Over the snowy months we slowly excavated a cavern out of the woodshed.

In the annual task of refilling the firewood shelter, a piece is hefted from the pile or wheelbarrow. We quickly assess its shape, weight and length.  Then like fitting a puzzle piece, we turn to the stack and basically fit it where it will help lock the rising stack together. A row is filled only when it reaches the woodshed lean-to ceiling, roughly seven feet off the ground. 

When finished, we scribble the date, tack it up on a post. That way we can manage which sections of the sheds have the driest oak for woodburning. 

As I stacked the split oak chunks I celebrated the conclusion of that seasonal chore of “putting up wood.” I found my mind drifting to the writings of the late author, E. F. Schumacher.  He was a British advisor in economics and statistics but he is best known for his international best-selling book, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973). The book has been ranked as one of the top 100 influential books since WWII.

 In the book, Schumacher challenges the idea of Western materialism and economic exploitations. He was a pioneer in integrating the idea of sustainable development; that we must not whittle away the natural capital (clean air, water, healthy natural systems, etc.). To do so deprives future generations the benefits of those diverse and healthy systems. 

In a later book, This I Believe, he speaks of ephemeral and eternal goods. Ephemeral, or short-lived goods are “depreciating assets. ” These would include most of what we buy; household appliances, phones, computers, televisions and a gallon of gas. 

Eternal, or long-lasting goods are “never depreciated but are to be maintained.” These would include major art or natural history treasures. Eternal goods tend to enrich our lives physically, culturally and spiritually. Examples are the Statue of Liberty, and the biological integrity of Lake Superior.  

The actions of cutting, splitting, hauling ,stacking and heating with wood are part of my physical well-being and spiritual program. Each of these tasks honors my eternal goods program. 

And I can feel good that the carbon emitted from my wood fuel is carbon already in the carbon loop of the  biosphere and not pulled up from fossil fuels.

This early May morning was unseasonably nippy so we laid a fire in the kitchen stove. I sit, with coffee in hand, before the gilded warmth and am reminded of true riches.

Marine Poetry Crawl Event

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”

-William Wordsworth

A couple of months ago I was asked if I would participate in this year’s Poetry Crawl in Marine on St. Croix, MN on Saturday, April 18th.  Obviously this popular event had to be reframed will be Zoomed at 7PM (central time).  This is the very local, and likely less hilarious, version of SNL. I’ve been asked to spread the word. If you are interested you can access the event via  the attached link. 

This could be a perfect way to chill on a Saturday night.  Hope all is well with each of you and your family.

“We Ain’t Such a Somebody.”

Human activity has stalled while we deal with the coronavirus. Many U.S. citizens are locked down to hinder the viral spread. 

We, the most innovative and likely most expressive species in the world, are equipped with 725,000 kilobytes of genetic code. Yet we are immobilized by a tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometers in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code.

(Perspective note: The entire human genetic code could be stored on a standard DVD, and is the equivalent to around 6,709 books containing 300 pages with 360,000 letters and punctuation characters.)

I love this exchange from the novel Big Sky by Pulitzer Prize winner A. B. Guthrie. The setting is 1830, at an evening campsite along the Missouri River. Three adventuring men sit around a campfire. The mosquitoes, called gnats, are particularly bothersome. One of the young men is frustrated by the pesky bugs and spits out, “What’s the good of a gnat, anyways?” His more thoughtful friend ponders a moment and then answers, “They don’t serve no purpose, unless to remind a man he ain’t such a somebody.”

The coronavirus is doing the same thing as the mosquitoes. The mosquito and the virus give us 

a needed dose of humility. At the end of the day our survival as a species is subjected to natural laws and dependent on healthy natural systems.   

Viruses are only taking advantage of a good thing. There are lots and lots of interacting human hosts on the globe to help with the transmission of viruses. And even when this one is subdued, others are mutating as I write this because change is the only constant. And change we must. 

Dr. Dennis Carroll is the former USAID director for pandemic influenza and emerging threats. He currently is working on the Global Virome Project. Dr. Carroll feels strongly that the outbreak of viruses is driven by the huge increase in human population and expansion into wildlife areas. As land is converted to agriculture, particularly livestock production, there is a greater chance for viruses to jump from animals to humans. 

Eventually we will come out of this viral grasp. In the meantime we can reflect on what is really important in our lives and to consider the fact that we “ain’t such a somebody.” 

The Nature of Clutter

“Dad, you should start cleaning stuff out of the garage and the basement.” 

“Ooh that hurts!!” I wailed. “So in essence, I’m being put out to pasture. You don’t want the joys of discovery after I pass on?”

For living on the West Coast, my daughter’s “No!” came too quickly.

De-cluttering is the rage. There are dozens of books, YouTube posts, and Community Education classes on how to tidy up and simplify our lives and the lives of next of kin. 

But clutter and messy diversity is part of a healthy natural ecosystem. It is the way of the divine. The more diverse a forest or wetland, the greater the species richness. My desk, workshop, bookcase and basement clutter are wonderful patches of diversity, giving me a sense of greater richness. 

Nonetheless, this self-professed packrat recently trudged down into the basement to initiate an excavation. 

With only the drone of the radio keeping me company, I pulled out some old cardboard boxes and began ruthless culling. Well “ruthless” is a bit of an exaggeration. Seated comfortably on an old maple chair I began to read. I smiled at the rediscovery of days gone by. The radio drowned out my nostalgic chuckling from down in the chilly catacombs. 

The job felt less a task than a reunion. Initially I had planned to use the “piles” approach: One pile for the thrift store, one for recycling, and another for friends and acquaintances. One last pile would remain secure with our family. It should be the smallest, but it soon turned into a heap.

 It was clear that I needed to be more brutal in my selections. How could I possibly be rid of a coffee can of century old steel cut square nails? These are the very nails I removed when I gutted this 1896 house more than 30 years ago. 

I successfully argued with myself that I might find a use for the old nails as I build my log cabin. Yes, that’s it. Save them. 

I should really keep the basement and the garage workshop coffee cans all together. It’s an admirable collection. Their cargo of screws, bolts, nails, washers, nuts, toggles, hooks, turnbuckles and more could outfit a small store.

I was sidelined by a National Museum of Canada scientific bulletin #135, The Vascular Plants of the Western Canadian Arctic Archipelago by the infamous A. E. Porsild (1955) (I’ve carried his plant book on several far north canoe trips in Canada.) And then I really wasted de-cluttering time when I uncovered a booklet by mid-20th century biologist/naturalist, Francis Harper. I had the opportunity to travel some of the same waters he explored at the edge of subarctic treeline. So you can understand how I was riveted with the discovery of his booklet, Plant and Animal Associations in the Interior of the Ungava Peninsula

I decided to let them go and two days later I mailed them to an ecologist friend who lives in northern Canada. 

I unfolded another dry cardboard box. Ahh, college notebooks. How could my kids not want these? I took a needed break with them. I headed up to the kitchen wood burning stove, sat in my little rocker, and took a stroll down memory lane. It was difficult to pull myself away from “avian respiration” in my biochemistry notes.

I found treasures tucked throughout the pages of metabolic reactions: botanical specimens. I must have collected these specimens in the field without a plant press and tucked them in the notebook pages with only their scientific name printed next to the plant.  Shame on me for not scribbling the date and location of my plant collecting. 

Where did I collect the Bebb’s willow, the speckled alder or the small white lady-slipper? Was the orchid protected in the early 1970s?

Gently I removed the fragile flattened flora and set them on the bed of wood stove coals for an honorary cremation.

That’s enough work for a morning. I raised my mug and toasted the beauty of diversity and clutter. 

http://www.aligningwithnature.com/wordpress/wp-admin/post.php?post=4185&action=edit

Good and Cold is Good

snowsh tip 2

 I stepped outdoors to feel the bite of the cold. The peach-stained full moon was moving ever so slowly through the filigree of oak limbs. Looking up over my right shoulder at the roof of the house, I realized it was a three-smoke night.

Using the word “smoke” as a unit of measure is not new.

Over a hundred years ago, before the canoe country in North America was surveyed, there was no real measurement of a portage’s length. Like a string of jewels on a necklace, the lakes were connected by primitive portage trails, used by the first people living there.

European explorers often measured a portage by the number of “pipe smokes” required to carry all the packs and canoes overland to the next lake. When pausing to rest along the narrow, meandering path, it was common to smoke a bowl of tobacco in their pipes.

On this moonlit night the three smokes were geysers of heat. Two of them came from the brick chimneys on the ridges of our house. One vented smoke from the kitchen wood-fired stove. A second emitted an equally healthy plume from the basement wood burner. We fire up the basement stove only when temps drop to zero or below. The third gush was steam lifting off my naked body. I had stepped outside after a welcome sauna; a fine reward after a couple hours of cutting and splitting firewood.

In the quiet of the moonrise I challenged myself to see how long I could stand here awash in the frigid air. It took only a few minutes to feel the bite of the cold and I hurried indoors. I was satisfied with the self-inflicted, healthy dose of cold.

After all, this is deemed to be good for me.

My mother is a practitioner of getting doses of fresh air any time of the year. Recently I caught her bundled up, perched in a folding chair out in her driveway with a book in her mittened hands.

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I came across some interesting research that backs up my mother’s non-academic frigid exercise.

Dr. David Sinclair, a Harvard genetics professor, was designated in 2014 as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Persons. His specialty is researching human aging. While I have not read his recent book Lifespan, the reviews are compelling. Not surprisingly he argues vehemently for getting adequate exercise and eating a lighter and more-plant based diet with the occasional day of fasting.

Additionally Sinclair contends that by intentionally subjecting our body to “healthy stressors” we can increase levels of molecular proteins called sirtuins. These are critical for cellular health and strengthening our immune systems.

When my mom sits outside with her novel or I consider the winter full moon in my birthday suit, we engage what Sinclair calls our body’s survival circuit. Sirtuins send signals to cells to augment their defenses in order to stay alive. Those defenses make cells stronger.

So now I have to rethink my attire when out cutting wood in the winter.  Maybe twenty minutes of working in a t-shirt and a pair of old jean cut-offs will stress me enough.

 

 

Toilet Paper or Silk?

 

With the birth of a new year, my wife Nancy and I feel rich. We have two nearly full woodsheds, a shoveled driveway, a ski path through the woods, good health and silk toilet paper. Life doesn’t get much better.

It’s true, silk wipes. And I am here to say that Charmin doesn’t hold a candle to them.

Both Nancy and I enjoy using our outhouse rather than the indoor toilet. And given that most of the planet’s human population does not have access to a flushing toilet this makes us more aligned with normal.

I can thank Nancy for the gift of silk. Normally we use worn out t-shirts and other aged clothing made from natural materials for our wiping chores. This time, Nancy offered the gift of an old silk shirt. Unlike toilet paper, the cloth wipes require no chemical bleaching, no cutting of trees, and no surprise rips.

Most packaged toilet paper is processed from old growth Canadian boreal forests. These vast woodlands sequester more carbon than the South American rainforests. Planting a young tree is a good thing but it will take decades before it can really absorb significant carbon. We don’t have that kind of time. If you are going to buy toilet paper, read the label and choose only those made from at least 50% post consumer recycled paper.

So instead, Nancy cuts fabric into five-inch squares and puts them into a plastic pickled herring bucket that sits next to the single hole in our outhouse. Before leaving the outhouse, we sprinkle a scoop of sawdust over our leavings. The oaky covering cuts down on odors and provides carbon to balance the nitrogen of our human waste.

Our outhouse composts our deposits, creating a continual source of free rich fertilizer, called humanure, for use in the nearby garden and orchard. During warm weather months microbes break down the collected blend of wipes, sawdust and poop into crumbly rich soil. The process generates its own heat, and combined with time it ensures the elimination of harmful pathogens.

I built the outhouse walls from five old doors that I had been hoarding for some future “project.” I especially loved the old ones with antique white and brown porcelain doorknobs. We pilfered a glass-fronted storm door from a dumpster in Duluth for the entrance. That and another windowed door facing the garden provide pastoral, uncluttered views and ample light for comfortable reading.

It’s ironic that we treat feces as waste and something to, at most, whisper about. Historically it was called “night soil” and used to augment soil fertility. We as a society need a perspective shift regarding the wealth of manure. One of the keys to sustainable agriculture is to wean ourselves off the massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers. These are made from fossil fuels, which are major contributors to the current climate crisis.

I am reminded of the time when Nancy gave a Sunday morning presentation at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Richfield, MN. Her program, Everything is Holy, highlighted aspects of our lives that most people don’t consider sacred. When she brought up the subject of the blessedness of our everyday release to the toilet, there were chuckles, a couple bursts of laughter and certainly the nervous rustlings of seated parishioners. She asked folks to consider the miracle of a well-running body and the transformation of food to energy and finally the act of a blissful bowel movement.

Manure is gold, whether derived from human, poultry, livestock, or fish. Human manure, managed correctly, is safe for raising produce, fruit and vegetables. We really need to give a shit about shit.

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