Our excrement is a natural, renewable and sustainable resource – if only we can overcome our visceral disgust of it
Lina Zeldovich is a journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American and Undark, among others. She is the author of The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth and Health (2021). She lives in New York City.
Every fall when the grey sky over Kazan swelled with dark heavy clouds so full of water that the rain never stopped until it turned to snow, my grandfather prepped our small family farm for the long Soviet winter. He donned his sturdy overalls, heavy gloves and big boots – and headed over to our septic tank that held the sewage produced by our household for the entire year. He lifted its heavy lid, tied two old buckets to sturdy ropes, and spent hours transferring the tank’s content onto our land. Coming home from school, I could tell grandpa was doing our annual plumbing maintenance from a mile away. The smell travelled far and wide, mixing with other autumnal aromas – decaying leaves, wet dogs, and charred pig fat that people smoked for winter.
Despite its intensity, I was never disgusted by the smell. On the contrary, I was fascinated by the whole operation. It was a very special occasion that happened only once a season – like New Year’s Eve, my favourite holiday. You only got to open the pit once a year, like a big birthday present. And grandpa was the one and only special person who could touch it. I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the pit because my grandma was afraid of me falling in. The moment I’d start making my way to the tank, weaving through thorny bushes and stinging nettles, she’d materialise on the porch like a genie out of a bottle, screaming at me to ‘come back now!’ Oh, what wouldn’t I give to see the mysterious innards of our septic system. I’d kill to see its brick-lined guts full of brown goo. But I could only watch grandpa’s magic from afar.
Grandpa had a system of sludge distribution. He never filled the buckets fully so that, when he carried them, the sloshing goop wouldn’t spill over onto his boots. Sometimes he carried the buckets by hand, sometimes he balanced them on a koromyslo – an arched wooden pole placed over the shoulders to distribute weight evenly. He poked small holes in the tomato patches where the dried-up plants carried no fruit that sewage could contaminate – and poured the goo into them, covering the holes with soil. He splashed some around the roots of the apple and cherry trees and raked some leaves over so that, when we walked around, we wouldn’t get any on the soles of our feet. And he also dumped a bunch into one of the compost pits, adding it to the heap of other organic refuse. The compost pits were where Mother Nature forged its black gold. And there was a system to it, too.
The three composting pits operated on a rotating schedule. Throughout the growing season, the current pit would accumulate all the organic refuse we had – wilted flowers, pulled weeds, shrivelled stems of cucumber vines. In went our kitchen scraps too, like potato peels and mouldy bread. At the end of the season, he’d mix in the sludge and close the pit for a couple of years, leaving it to decompose and degrade. When he opened it two years later in the spring, all the dead and stinky stuff was gone. The pit was full of soft, rich and fertile dirt that smelled of nature, spring and the promise of the next harvest. That freshly made soil was fluffy and weightless like sugar powder, except it was black. The plants’ roots loved it and so did I. It felt so good to hold that soft soil in my palms – and transfer the tiny green tomato shoots into it. I could already smell their faint fragrance that would soon fully blossom into the crimson red fruit bursting with sweetness.
‘You have to feed the earth the way you feed people,’ my grandfather used to say. To me, it was such a beautiful statement, full of nature’s wisdom. We took from the earth, so we had to give back to it. Summers here were short and often cool and rainy, but in his orchard strawberries started turning red in June and tomatoes ripened all the way into September…