Knowing Your Shit

permaculture flow chart

Last Saturday and Sunday, I was a student in the Milkwood Intro to Permaculture Course, run by the excellent Kirsten and Nick (aka Cicada). The above picture is of a flow chart a few of us knocked up during the course, as part of an exercise to hammer home how inter-connected everything is.

Since the course, I haven’t been able to stop talking shit. Literally. My girlfriend is bored shitless. Etc etc. What I mean is, the thing from the course which made the deepest impression on me, is the idea of shit as a resource.


The crazy thing is, that we take one of our most precious resources – our own shit – and we mix it with another of our most precious resources – clean drinking water, and we flush them both away into the ocean.

Shit as a precious resource? Yeah man, human shit. You can compost it and put it back in the garden to grow next year’s vegies.

Ignorantly, I had thought this was a sort of taboo in human societies. We dump chook poo, horse poo, cow poo etc (not really dog and cat poo though?) on our vegie gardens, and they really help things grow better. But up to now, I believed human poo was a bit too close to home – doesn’t that shit cause diseases?

Not so, according to Nick and Kirsten, who described the process of composting their own for one year, before putting it around their fruit trees.

The whole concept of permaculture (at least, the bit that made a strong impression on me) is about “energy cycling”. Energy tends to move from a useful to a non-useful state. If we harness the energy released from one process, and use it again, we can keep it cycling round a bit longer before it leaves us for good.

When you think about vegie gardens as a “sustainable” thing, you gotta consider “inputs” and “outputs”. (Or “imports” and “exports”, as Nick put it). Ideally, you want to keep both imports and exports to a minimum. The sun, luckily, and rain when it comes, are “free” imports!

So you might be harnessing the energy of the sun – the plants transform it through photosynthesis, and draw nutrients from the soil, the air, and water. But as soon as you eat those vegies, and subsequently shit down the loo, you are exporting a whole lot of valuable nutrients from your system, which could have been kept local and re-used next time around.

This thought has been haunting me all week, with grim regularity…

Now, this is all very well when you live out near Mudgee. But how could you harvest human poo (and wee) in the city? Especially when you’re living in a rental place, and the landlord won’t even install a double-flush, let alone a composting shitter?

8 thoughts on “Knowing Your Shit

  1. kath

    maybe you’d have to have a communal area somewhere else or at the community garden. though then there’d be transport issues

    this course sounds good – I saw an ad for it but I’m o/s again. actually maybe they should come here (india) and teach the class because in some areas the streets are flowing with the stuff and there’s not a garden taking advantage of it. there are gardens here in the city, but it doesn’t appear that anyone’s made the connection. it could be one solution to a problem here..

  2. teddlesruss

    Dog and cat poo in compost – I know there’s a reason, mainly because people use the compost too early. There’s some bacterial risk or something. But if you don’t use it around carrots and spuds, nor get it on your tomatoes or whatever is above ground, it’s apparently fine to use.

    Small composting tip: If you don’t have a compost heap but want to use your food scraps etc – bury them around trees etc. It’s not a great solution but it does serve as a stop-gap.

  3. Lucas Post author

    Kath, I read an article about the dearth of toilets in India and thousands of people dying of diarrhoea. Crazy stuff. What are you doing over there?

    Teddlesruss, I noticed on your site you have a book about dietary management of cancer. It sounds a bit permaculture-related, to this one-track minded blogger (you know, integrated systems, inputs and exports etc…) Tell us more?

  4. Mel Curtiss

    Your post Lucas, the article: “The Experiment” by Allen Kaprow and a comment: “i’m having boundary issues about the art thing…..(as one should)” by Mayhem have been composting along with a whole lot of much less recent crap inside my head. These free (minus internet costs) imports have given me an export, or exports, in the form of an idea/s….or will – if I act.

    I wonder if I could build a tree bog in my backyard, from what I can tell, in the case of a tree bog, which idea came from this guide: How to build a tree bog, one doesn’t use the poo again, as it’s nutrients feed the willow surrounding the bog – but it would at least save a lot of water. I live in a co-op and most, if not all, the other members would be none too pleased about this idea….could I do it without asking them?

    Even people who have never been particularly interested in environmental issues now get the need to conserve energy, especially water, and my co-op is finally contemplating installing rain tanks on all our properties (about 23) – new builds will all have rain water tanks. The issue of plumbing the rain water tanks to the toilets has been raised, and amazingly, has sort of been agreed upon, although a reidiculously small amount of monies have been allocated to the potentially expensive project.

    I’ve several times said that we could, provided everything meets the necessary building standards and approvals, look at reducing costs by employing a make-do-it-yourself approach. Such as, in the case of solar, this $1000 solar water heating system. I haven’t researched this thoroughly. Perhaps, as my next art project I could remedy that. I know that, in order to even get such a thing considered by my co-op, I would need to have researched everything, especially the building standards approvals.

    (not really dog and cat poo though?)
    doesn’t that shit cause diseases?

    Dog and cat poo in compost – I know there’s a reason, mainly because people use the compost too early. There’s some bacterial risk or something.

    I do bury my dog’s poo around the drip line of my fruit tress (peach, apricot, apple and plum) – but don’t know enough about it – I thought dog & cat dung was low in fertilising properties?

    I also thought that human poo was risky in terms of disease (this would alarm the hell out of my co-op!)- but I did once share a house with a guy who was using it to grow the household’s veges – I wasn’t involved in the gardening at the time and he kept it low-key – probably for fear of our reactions.

    I wonder if I could get the people in my street interested in looking at the land our homes are built upon as a whole, rather than separate, isolated blocks? I wonder if I could get the people in my street interested in growing and exchanging food? More art projects to consider.

    I wonder, – as people become less and less inclined to walk and more and more ‘present’ within virtual space – if material space, the built environment in particular, will be reclaimed, as if in secret by those who still walk there? (a science-fiction novel perhaps!!!)

  5. Lucas Post author

    that is fertile food for thought, mel!

    another strand to chuck in the ring:

    “How to Imagine” by Baruchello.

    Baruchello, in this extremely entertaining little book, rambles on like a farmer leaning over a fence to his neighbour about art and agriculture. Can running a farm be art?

    It seems to me that these questions are really coming to fruition now. Permaculture – the multiple uses of many things, border crossing, shifting understandings of utility and beauty, art and agriculture coalesce here. I really love this book.

  6. raquel

    I read Tim low’s New Nature recently and his chapter on The Ecology of Sewage is fantastic. As an affulent country our effulent is a huge resource for the natural world- as any birder knows- the best birds are to be found in the poo farms near cities. Port Headland sewage works is rated the best in the country, next is Cairns. Canberra’s comes in around number 8 in the top ten.


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