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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How It Works: Composting Toilet

System Purpose.  Receive and recycle humanure.

How It Works Summary.  Sawdust covered humanure hauled in buckets to outdoor bin and composted for two years before applying to garden.   All details can be found in Joseph Jenkin’s Humanure Handbook.

System Cost.  $1,000 including installation.  Our less elegant first model, used in the shed before the house was built, cost $100.  No major replacement costs.

System Components
Toilet like any other toilet, except ours is elegantly constructed of cherry and deploys a bucket rather than a watery bowl to receive humanure. 

Sawdust, the “water” of the composting toilet, minimizes odor and unsightliness, while adding valuable compostable material.   With a couple scoops, we “flush” with sawdust rather than clean water.  “Cover Your Stuff” says the butterfly adorning the attached sawdust bin.   This bin holds 15 gallons of sawdust which we obtain from an artist friend who turns beautiful wooden bowls and didn’t know what to do with all his sawdust until we came along.  Since running out of sawdust is the only failure mode (and a very serious one at that), we try to keep a 30 gallon barrel full at all times.    If the sawdust is too dry it generates dust when scooped.  To avoid dust we mix in a little water before filling the sawdust bin.  In theory, any scoop-able and compostable material could be used. 

5 gallon buckets for collecting, storing and transporting the sawdust-covered humanure.   The bucket replaces the toilet bowl , drain pipes and miles of sewer pipe of the conventional toilet system.  One bucket fits snugly beneath the toilet seat and is replaced with a clean bucket when full.    To replace the full bucket, simply lift the hinged top of the toilet, remove full bucket, replace with empty bucket and close.  Our black buckets hide the “skid” marks.    When four full buckets accumulate in the garage, we carry to compost bin where they are dumped, scrubbed, rinsed and dried.  Thus the sawdust toilet system does require two gallons of water per week for cleaning buckets.  We collect this water off the shed roof.  A standard toilet brush works well for scrubbing buckets followed by a spray bottle rinse.   Rinsed buckets hang upside down in the sun to dry.  The now clean buckets are lined with dried grass (to reduce splatter and ease dumping) then returned to the garage to await use in the toilet.

Compost Bin capable of processing two years worth of humanure.    The compost bin, which we call the "hacienda", replaces the sewage treatment facility of the conventional toilet system.  Our two-bin system requires no turning.   Bin size depends on number of people generating humanure and length of non-composting season (cold winter).  Our bins measures 5’ x 5’, easily large enough to process and store one year’s worth of humanure for our family of two in cold climate Minnesota.     The center bin stores straw and hay for covering the compost.   The cover minimizes odor and flies, while permitting vital oxygen to enter the composting process.   A bin is used for a year, then allowed to rest  for a year before emptying onto garden and used again.  The amount of garden compost produced is always less than hoped, perhaps only 10 cubic feet per year per humanure generator.   

System Maintenance.  Replace full bucket with empty bucket (1 bucket per person every 4 days).   Clean full buckets (Every four buckets seems about right).   Fill sawdust bin (every 3 weeks or so).   Obtain sawdust (as needed).   Empty compost onto garden (once per year). 

Report Card.   A / B+   (See blog post for details).

Biggest Challenge.  Big parties.  We rented a portable toilet for our Grand Opening Celebration to service 120. 

Biggest success factor.  Courage.  The composting toilet system is, by far, our most controversial alternative system.   The other systems ask little of a visitor.  Everyone gets used to it.  Eventually they may even appreciate the only toilet that never plugs, never leaks, is much less odiferous than a two year old’s diaper, keeps pharmaceuticals out of our lakes and streams, and feeds raspberries.

The Connection.    How better to “see” the cycle of life, death and life-renewed?  From food to you to food again.    

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Bee-Attitudes

Off the prairie's spine, the four of us just stood there, staring at the symptom.    Our terrible conclusion---the unthinkable cause---so obvious and unanimous.  There could be only one explanation.  I couldn't tell if Anne’s pained expression was sadness or anger.    And now as I write, I still feel that pain.   Then my head begins peeling away the layers, searching for the cause beneath the cause.  “Don’t go down there!"  But like the blonde confronting the haunted basement door, I can’t help myself.    Like watching the blonde, I've a pretty good notion of what horror I’ll find:  my role in this catastrophe.    There’s really only two mysteries.  Will I dare actually look?  And, if I do, what happens next?   But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Who besides myself just stood there staring?  My sweetie Linda and our guests Carole and Anne.  After Carole and Anne heard us speak at Midwest Mountaineering, Carole (the blog’s shy yet determined woman) asked to visit Home the Land Built.  “Yes, please and always yes!”  Now, after their visit, after our bonding experiences, I’d like to count them among my friends.

What were we staring at?
This is white wild indigo. 

What’s wrong with this picture?  If you shout, “I know”, then you’re way ahead of where I was two years ago.  If not, I invite you to take another creaking step down the stairs. 

What did the four of us notice?   Only one seed pod on the entire plant.   And as we gazed about, each plant held but a few pods.   In bloom, our prairie’s white wild indigo, in their thousands upon thousands, look breathtakingly like this.   

The flowers then form seeds pods---one for each flower, dozens on each plant---which rattle in the winter winds.

What was our terrible conclusion, the unthinkable cause of the missing seed pods?   There could be only one cause.  Lack of pollinators.    Lack of foraging bees. 

Now comes the lonely part of writing.  I wish I was at your side.  I wish I could perceive your feelings as you contemplate “lack of foraging bees?”   I’m wondering if you feel like Anne, Linda, Carole and myself? 

I know how my dear sustainable veggie farmer neighbor Sandy Dietz felt a week ago.  “…more than a little scary,” she confessed in her Whitewater Gardens newsletter.  “…the lack of bees that we have this year.  I really noticed it when I was picking zucchini the other day, and was finding that most the baby fruit was shriveling up and dying.  Not getting pollinated by the way it looked.  That’s when I noticed that there were absolutely no bees around.  Zucchini flowers wide open and not a single buzz.  Very strange.”   Having just walked the 300 foot zucchini row I confirm.  Many pollen-hungry flowers.  Not the buzz of a single bee.

My next step isn’t scary at all:  list the possible causes for the crashing bees.  Loss of habitat.  Pesticides.  Human-engineered disease.  Our historically cold and wet spring (global warming?).    Blah.  Blah.  Blah.    I don’t’ mean blah, blah, blah who cares?  I mean blah, blah, blah we've heard things like this before AND we know nothing will really change.   And nothing will change because this list isn't viscerally scary.  Because suddenly I’m not descending the stairway to my own culpability.  Instead I switched channels  to some kind of public television documentary.    I switched channels…

Suddenly I tumble to the bottom of the stairs.   Choking on the dust, I lift my head, tremble at what I see.  And when I shake off the horror, I want to beg forgiveness. 

I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for all the times I've said  I don’t want to know.   I’m sorry that even when I did want to know, I let public TV connect the dots for me.  I mistook being informed with seeing for myself.    I’m sorry I didn't really engage my right to look, not in the Michael Pollan sense.   And mostly I’m sorry I separated myself from the world.   I’m sorry I diminished myself.   I’m sorry that each time I turned my head away from the world, or turned the channel, I turned away from my life.   

What then is my lesson?  What of the seedless indigo?  The fruitless zucchini?  The crashing bees?    What bee-attitude needs composing?   I’m beginning to wonder if life isn't really a whole lot simpler than I ever imagined.  I’m beginning to wonder if the real problem is that I've accepted a myth about a world that is separate from me (and can by and large be ignored). 

What if my vitality---the wholeness of my life--- is inexplicably and inextricably linked to the wholeness of the world?    What if each time I looked at a white flower or a pollen-laden bee, I was really looking at my life?    What if the healing of the world and the healing of myself were one and the same?  Perhaps all I need do is fully live my life---I mean really encounter the world as it is.  See the bee.  Be the bee.  Then hang my head and cry.  Or drop my jaw in ecstatic awe. 

Then, perhaps, I will finally do all I can really do.  Perhaps help create a new world---wholly unlike our opaque grid-tied world---where I don't need an expert to connect the dots, where I can always see if my values are at play.  Can you imagine such a transparent world?   Actually I can.  Every day for the past nine years  I experienced the wonder of such a world as I wrote The Corridor.

I've watched public TV (___ fill in your own favorite "news" here) my whole life, gaining awareness yet changing nothing.   Then, with one look at a single seed pod,  I devote 6 hours to writing this blog.    It’s the difference between reading about Haiti and going to Haiti.  And if Haiti is too far, then come on down to Home the Land Built.  Together we’ll snap off a single seed pod and rattle what remains as we descend the stairs into our own richer lives. 

My Bee-Attitudes will either get me jailed or ignite a cultural revolution or both.  If followed, nobody would buy anything in America.  Not until every American can shout out "I'm free to see!".

My Bee-Attitudes
1.  Say "I want to know it."
2.  Go see it for myself.
3.  If I can't see it, change my life so I can.

Note:  I know the above bears fruit for any valued relationship with "it", be "it" brother or bee.  Question is, what more can I gain by valuing more relationships?


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Choose Hope

First came my next door neighbor of 15 years.  Inoperable Stage 3b lung cancer.   Then came one of my dearest friends.  Stage 3a ovarian cancer.  Then came my mother.   Surgery to remove a dead section of colon.  She woke to a bag.   With all this in the last 3 weeks, the weight of it sank me into my darkest, most lifeless self.   When Linda asked how I was doing---would I like to talk about it?--- I just shrugged and stared into…well…that’s the question isn’t it?  Where does the best of me go when hope fades?

No place good.  That I can tell you for sure.  At times, hopelessness is a regular buddy of mine, like the  empty stool next to me in a lonely bar.   And if following my beer’s sinking suds isn’t bad enough for me, what does it do for those I love,  for those I’ve lost hope for?

Less than nothing.   I recall my first phone conversation with my mom after her surgery.    I’m embarrassed to admit that part of me couldn’t wait to end the call.  Sure she sounded terrible.  Who wouldn’t?  But  looking back I wonder how much I contributed to her smoke-filled mood.  Did my hopeless attitude transfer over the phone line?  And if so, did any of her healing angels hide in the gloom?  And if I can’t pull my head out of my beer, what am going to say to my old neighbor?  My dear friend?  My dear friend’s troubled partner?

Nothing.  That’s why yesterday, for the first time ever, I made a seemingly simple decision. 

I decided to choose hope.

What a head-slapper that was:  to realize I could choose hope as surely as I could chose a better stool,  the one next to all my friends.   Long ago I learned that forgiveness is a choice---a choice I might have to remake every day---but a choice nonetheless.  So too I suddenly realized with hope.   

How silly of me to take so long to realize hope is a choice.  I mean, you’re reading the blog of one the biggest Lord of the Rings fans in the observable universe.  “There’s always hope,” says Aragorn.  And Tolkien was clear: not only is despair a sin of sorts, buts it’s also a simple mistake.  Since no one---not even the all-seeing me---knows for sure what is going to happen, then my iron-clad belief in the inevitable tragedy is just plain wrong.   As such, there always is hope.

Who can say what inspired me?  No doubt my daily walks on the ever-emerging prairie touched my heart.  Perhaps my turning point came a few months back, when I tried to write the author blurb for the back cover of my novel.   Struggling to summarize, I finally wondered what drove me to devote 9 years to this endeavor anyway.    What is it I believed so strongly?   After writing and scratching out dozens of entries, I finally penned the following.  “Michael Larsen believes that a MUCH better world is coming.”  And if that weren’t enough I surprised myself by adding one more word:  “SOON”. 

Hmmm…I thought, I guess I am a person of some hope.  Inexplicably wild hope!  Coming out of my closet of despair, I typed those words of hope for all the world to see.  Or at least all the world that reads the author blurb of my novel.

Glowing in the light of my newfound hope, I called my mom yesterday.  For 15 minutes, we talked like normal human beings.   Even laughing.  And what could be more healing---for both of us---than a good, heartfelt laugh?

I’m looking forward to talking to my dear friend’s troubled partner.  To sharing the light, the light when all other lights go out.  The Light of Hope.   

And the first sparks of hope are no more than a decision away.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Secret Weapon

The sheer magnitude of our victory overwhelms.  Our victory, in this case, is over the wildparsnip, that once dominant invasive capable of inflicting a week’s long painful rash.  And the medal for our success can be hung upon one amazingly effective tool.  And thinking back, the same tool has an unbeatable track record of success.

Its not really fair to say I discovered the tool.  I mean, it was right there, just waiting to be picked up and used.   And I certainly knew about it.  Everyone did.  And strangely, I think everyone including myself, knew it would work.   Not only did we know it would work, but it would be by far the least expensive solution.   But the cultural taboo against this tool is so strong, that folk wrinkle their nose in disgust at its mere mention.

And I’m not talking about humanure or composting toilets or drinking rainwater or any those unusual, yet societally skeptical tools, we’ve deployed.  I’m talking about a tool that everyone, myself included, is offered ever day.  In all fairness to the skeptics, I must say this tool has a big drawback:  this tool takes time.

In fact, the tool IS time.

To defeat the parsnip---or I should say to reduce it from a rolling sea of yellow to a few golden flashes upon the green---took seven years.   But truly the deed is done.  Last night, as Linda and I walked the well-mowed prairie perimeter, we laughed in disbelief at our success.  “There’s one.  And oh look, another one over there.”  While I’d still be whacking my way across the prairie with a machete in each hand, I’d never be surrounded.   And this morning, that’s exactly what I did.  I’d whack one down.  Walk.  Whack another.  And that was in a “bad” spot.  The parsnip will never be eliminated.  They’ll constantly fling their seeds into the prairie from the surrounding fields.   We’ve knocked it way down the invasive species list, never to return to the top.  And all thanks to time.

For seven years we’ve cut them down after flowering and before setting seed.  The John Deere took the thick accessible patches.  The machete took the rest.  And what seeds did manage to germinate found themselves competing against prairie plants, whose great roots penetrate down 10 feet, deeper than the tallest parsnip rises.   Only on the edge, where the prairie plants are thin, do the parsnip get a toe hold and there the John Deere will find them as Linda makes her rounds.

And time, the same heroic tool that so dominated the parsnip, also turned a pasture into a prairie.   Sure, we could have sprayed the pasture with Roundup three times, then planted the prairie seeds.  But instead, we just drilled the prairie seed right into the pasture sod.   They say our prairie might have taken a year or two longer to emerge.  We'll never know for sure.   What we do know is its now incredibly diverse, breathtakingly beautiful and rated “Excellent” by the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District.    All thanks to time.

I marvel now---when my remaining time on this world is surely less than it once was--- that I learned the value of time as tool.   Before, though I never had enough time in the day to get everything done, I seemed to have even less time for results.  And I guess that’s really the problem:   how long am I willing to wait for results?  How long until a prairie emerges?  How long until parsnip is well-managed?    How long until my novel is written?  How long until Linda and I feel “fully at home” here on the Land? 

You know, when I think back to all the really good things in my life---my lasting friendships, my journey to the Home the Land Built, the endless dance that is my partnership with Linda---all required the same tool.  Time.  

So now when I feel it’s taking a long time to get make my book a publishing success.  Or  the next time I give “the tour” of our house, and someone says, as they always do, “that’s really cool all but it all just takes too much time”.   I imagine I’ll just sigh and say, “Yes.  Thank you creator.  Yes.”