Pee Ess

In my post on greywater, I forgot to mention that I included a urinal directly into the greywater system. So the men (and acrobatic ladies) can do what nature intended, and apply their nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, slightly diluted, directly to the ecosystem. It works great. Julie Williams chimes in on this topic here. When I plumbed the urinal, I put a simple shutoff valve into the line, rather than a flush system. That way, we’re only typically washing a cup or two of water down the drain with the deposit of liquid gold. Urine is sterile except in the rare cases when folks have urinary tract infections. Diluted 1:1 it is almost perfectly balanced like say, Miracle Grow.

Joel Salatin, my favorite sustainable farming expert, likes to say “when you smell manure you’re smelling bad management”. He is so right. In fact, I would say the number one ecological problem we face today is the fact that we have created an artificial break in all the natural waste cycles that we impact. It’s like we think the circles MUST be broken … to prove we’re in charge or something. In the case of manure, all you need to do is introduce a little carbon (wood chips, grass clippings, spent hay); the odor disappears, and compost happens. Instead, we have these huge eyesores of industrial agriculture, that can be smelled for miles around. Cesspools of hog manure; piles of raw chicken manure.

Some of the ways we break the cycle

Some of the ways we break the cycle

In the case of manure, good management involves a recognition that for nature to digest feces and urine, the optimal ratio of carbon to nitrogen is 30 to 1. Urine has no carbon, but it can be useful applied directly to plants. Feces has both carbon and nitrogen, but tends to have more nitrogen than can be digested by nature. The bacteria start working on it, but quickly run out of carbon … the excess nitrogen then gets made into ammonia gas (NH3) or nitrates (NO3). Methane gas is also produced by mismatched chemical balances … it is a combination of CN4 and CO2.

We extend our hatred of natural waste processes through the distribution nightmare of our food supply: We ship grain and animals to feedlots, where blood and manure overtax the land’s ability to handle it. We ship unnatural, destructive fertilizers to where the grain is grown and the young animals are raised, wearing out the land and creating wasteful energy usage patterns.

Allan Nation, who writes my favorite magazine, Stockman Grass Farmer, (as much about economics and marketing and philosophy as it is about farming) often has joked about the average beef cow traveling 3000 miles before it reaches our table. The result of all that shipping of animals, their feed, and their manure — and our failure to use the natural fertilizer they give us in a way that completes the circle of life — is that we have economically disastrous conditions festering across our heartland. And South America, which we’ve pressed into this awful symbiotic relationship of beef cattle production, is also facing a meltdown of the whole system. In the feedlots of the Midwest, liquified manure has become a disposal nightmare, because huge quantities of animals are assembled for the final fattening on grain in factory conditions.

Manure lagoons near factory farms

Manure lagoons near factory farms

When you go to Salatin’s farm, you see a barn where in the wintertime cattle are fed hay grown right on the ground where they live; as they eat the hay, the spent and wasted hay mixes with their manure to build 3 or 4 feet of trampled biological matter with just the right ratio for composting… 30:1. Joel keeps a few large hogs around each winter, who are sent into the barn periodically to root through the hay and manure, inverting the pile and aerating it in the process. By spring, the whole pile is composted, and Joel sends in his one old tractor with a frontloader to distribute the compost onto the fields.

No, he doesn’t use wet raw manure on the fields. That smells, and that’s bad management, producing flies and leaching nitrogen out of the soil to feed the bacteria who want to break it down. Instead he composts it during the winter when there are no flies, and spreads it after the bacteria have done their work. He showed us where he had to put it new fenceposts because he’s added over 18 inches of topsoil to those old Shenandoah Valley hills that had eroded since the Civil War.

But I digress. Our society’s bad management isn’t confined to manure. We waste our drinking water, by using it to drown our feces. We also recklessly overpump our groundwater, and prevent it from being replenished by rainfall and natural watershed management.

We use chemical fertilizers on land, which wastes energy and petroleum products. It also damages good soil bacteria while over-stimulating undesirable algae growth in our ponds and rivers… overtaxing the ability of the ecosystem to manage it.

As a culture we throw away huge quantities of goods, much of it just wrapping and packing material — and most of which cannot be biodegraded… and at the same time we fail to compost massive amounts of biological matter that could be returned to the environment to keep the natural circle of life going. And it seems like when we do return stuff to the environment, we have often added a devilish little potion to that poisons the critters and people who come in contact with it. For example, cities are creating huge quantities of “composted” sewage that contains brominated flame retardants and all sorts of toxic compounds, poisoning the soils around our cities.

So on my little spot of land, I take a little pleasure in at least breaking that cycle. I pee into the grey water. I let milkweeds grow because I like monarch butterflies to come. I let thistles grow because I like flocks of chickadees and goldfinches. I let trees die without hauling them away immediately so that woodpeckers can enjoy a year’s worth of termite meals on me. I compost our food waste, and the 2 cubic yards of algae that we pulled off our pond this summer because the farmer across the road puts too much fertilizer on his field. It’s hard to justify economically, but it’s one small thing we can do to try and stop our human habit of breaking cycles of life wherever we turn.


My greywater story

Ten years ago I created a compost toilet and grey water system so that we could have large numbers of guests without taxing our existing septic and spring-fed water systems. We were planning a wedding and my daughter was willing to have it on our picturesque front lawn IF we didn’t have those awful blue plastic outhouses for the guests. Soooo… a project was born. (We just had another wedding a couple of weeks ago… some shots are in recent posts).

I’ll talk about the compost toilet in another post… but with California under water restriction according to one of the Tweeters I follow, I thought I’d quickly mention what I did and what I learned from it.

My personal greywater wetland

My personal greywater wetland

I ran all the sinks and washing machine for the building into a simple 2 inch pipe… Made sure it had at least an inch drop in ten feet, and ran it about 150 feet to a suitable spot. I rented a backhoe and dug the trenches myself, and scraped away the topsoil down to clay for the wetland… about 10 feet wide and 50 feet long. I lined the area with 7mil Milar, and then laid the termination of the pipe about 5 feet past the edge of the area. I split the end of the pipe into 3, and drilled holes along the way, capping it at the ends. Then I brought in a load of 4-inch river rocks, followed by gravel and sand, and replace soil around the edges. My thought was that the water would flow out into the gravel, etc.

For 9 years, it worked flawlessly. By the end of the first year, cattails had established themselves, with frogs and flowering lily pads not far behind. My mom, who lived in the garage we converted into that house, enjoyed it and followed our rule of not using chlorine bleach, detergents, etc. Just ivory soap… which the cattails converted into clean water.

A year ago, the system backed up. We excavated the end of the pipe and found that the three prongs were filled solid with black sludge.

All 3 prongs were completely plugged

All 3 prongs were completely plugged

It had then backed up all the way up the 150 feet to the house.

Closeup of the sludge

Closeup of the sludge

This time, I used a new kind of termination … expanding the pipe to 4 inches, into a wye, and then putting both sides of the wye into two 10-foot lengths of “Quick4 Leaching Chambers”.

Quick4 Leaching Chambers

Quick4 Leaching Chambers

They’re very cheap, available at plumbing supply stores. They come in 4-foot lengths, and snap together with a pivot like sausages. You lay them on the gravel, cover them with a filter cloth, and then backfill the sand and dirt over them.

Here’s the main takeaway: many plumbers consider kitchen waste “black water” along with the obviously black toilet effluent. The reason is that the grease and food fibers of kitchen sink drainage quickly turn black, and to keep it from clogging, a settling area is advisable. This is a pain… it involves a tank, a cleanout, a baffle to keep the solids from spilling over into the exit… practically a septic system. In the end, I decided that my simple leach system would survive for 40 years or more without adjustment simply by using the Quick4 leaching chambers. So I didn’t replumb my kitchen sink. But if you live in the suburbs, already have a standard sewage pipe exiting your house (or a full-scale septic or aeration system in place) and just want to create a small grey water system for your back yard garden, I’d advise avoiding the kitchen sink drain… let that go into the sewage system, and just divert your showers and hand sinks into the greywater system. You’ll feel good knowing that the water you’re washing in ends up in your garden.

If you want it to go into a decorative pond, be sure to let the natural cleaning power of cattails and bulrushes clean it first.

Disclaimer: for reasons that escape me, none of this is considered “code” as far as I know. Perhaps in California some greywater systems have been approved. But in my part of the country, the authorities are at least 30 years behind the times. We’re all going to hit a wall when the water shortages hit.

Whole Foods on sustainable fishing

Here’s what Whole Foods says about sustainable fishing, in contrast to Trader Joe’s:

Dark Knight. Why so serious?

As announced by Aden Hepburn, here’s a very interesting documentary about the Cannes Grand Prix viral winner: a promotional campaign for the rollout of the Dark Knight movie which got 10 million people around the world involved in not just internet observation and virtual participation, but games, scavenger hunts, cell phone interchanges, and massive public demonstrations.

As a demonstration of the organizing power of a digital agency, it’s really, really impressive. As a display of human ingenuity and cooperation, it’s truly inspiring.

As an index of what kinds of activities are able to get 10 million people motivated enough to shout, cheer, travel, and work together … well, it’s a little scary.

“Why so serious?” you ask me?

Well, here’s the documentary… you decide.

It does prove that people love what 42 Entertainment calls “immersive”. They love to participate, solve mysteries, be surprised, be the first, make an impact, do stuff in groups.

Now, if we can only make water, energy, or the environment our great authentic, immersive quest! I was thinking more in terms of compost toilets to reduce water use, electric cars to reduce oil consumption … you know, stuff that really makes a difference in our lives and our world.

I don’t believe in Harvey Dent. And I’m still sad about the authentic story that played out as a backdrop to this imaginary promo escapade.

My stories 3: Fear the faux friend

One of my more humorous experiences with authenticity came when I was at the Disney studios in Burbank to interview Michael Eisner for Denison University. I had a couple of hours before the interview to kill so naturally I joined Michael’s entourage, as they ponderously moved from setup to setup to film “Voice of Disney” spots with Michael. It was a gorgeous sunny day but of course the 20-man crew wasn’t using sunlight; several grips held 60-foot rolls of silk overhead while giant HMI fresnels were focused on the subject. After several spots were in the can they began working on an intro for the movie Bambi. To introduce the film, the script called for a real Bambi (captive fawn), a real Thumper (bunny rabbit) and a real Flower (deflowered skunk). Eisner was to ask humans dressed up in the standard Disneyland Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy costumes who their favorite Bambi characters were. Mickey was to pet and say “Bambi!”, Minnie was to hold and say “Thumper!”, and Goofy was to hold and say “Flower!” … at which time everyone was to scatter at the sight of a skunk… with Michael delivering his final welcome line as he left the frame, leaving Goofy holding the skunk.

The rehearsals went fine, but when it was time to roll, the cartoon characters put on their heads, and then the fireworks began. Authentic Bambi took one look at Goofy, and went ballistic. I never imagined a juvenile deer could make a sound like that. We’re talking a high-pitched roar, half bellow and half shriek, while it kicked and butted and jumped like a wild horse at the rodeo. The trainer huddled with the assistant director, and produced a vial that I suppose was veterinary Vallium, from which he gave Bambi a shot in the hindquarters.

After a few minutes Bambi seemed calm … almost woozy it seemed to me. So the cameras got set, the grips at attention, the slate clapped … and again Goofy put on his head. This time Bambi went freakishly insane, screaming louder than before and opening up a 4-inch gash in the handler’s arm. The medical staff rushed over to administer first aid, and now the director and script supervisor huddled with Michael Eisner to find another approach. While Bambi was hustled away in what felt for all the world like a paddy wagon, the creative minds found a way to tell the story that did not require a live deer to coexist with Goofy.

For me, it was great fun. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the mediated part of media work. Here we have humans who can control all the elements: create their own sun, manufacture their own rain and wind. They might even be able to “guide” (?) the sensibilities of human beings. But they couldn’t overcome the hard-wired perceptions of a wild animal, no matter how many narcotics they used. The deer knew what it saw, and it knew to fear a plastic “friend” with a wolf’s jaw and two-inch teeth. The authentic nature of Goofy — his frightful appearance, not his hidden human motives — was the only visual language this natural critter understood.

And you know what? It seems to me that the more we learn about nature, and the more we get in touch with wildness in our world, the more we, too, might do well to fear our faux friends: the plastic face of progress; the factory farms, the poisoned yards, the symptom-masking meds and all the other mediated “realities” of our artificial environment. Like Goofy, they’re all scarier than they want us to think.

Sierra's Big Ten of Cool Schools

Sierra magazine, (yes, it’s printed on trees*) lists the top 10 “cool schools” — that teach ecological sustainability by precept AND example. #1 is Oberlin just up the road from me, which offers locally grown foods for 1/3 of its menu, a pioneering car-sharing program, subsidizing public transportation with student activity fees, half its electricity from green sources, and real-time data collection on dorm electrical usage… setting the stage for future conservation measures. Even commencement at Oberlin is now eco-friendly, with biodegradable utensils and programs on 100% recycled paper. It’s a start, eh? The rest of the Big 10 are Harvard, Warren Wilson College (Swannanoa, NC), U of California system, Duke, Middlebury (VT), Berea College (KY), Penn State, Tufts, and Carnegie Mellon.

I think it’s important to feature authentic, integral-to-campus-life elements of green coolness in all admissions marketing efforts. But if its not authentic and integral, wait for your campus to walk it before talking it.

*Nov/Dec 2007, p. 34