“The idea is to have a sort of trench system that would serve both as a latrine, and as a means of permanently improving the soil.”
I’ve been knocking this idea around in my head for a while. Actually, maybe it’s been knocking me around it just want’s me to think that I’m knocking it around. It started when I was thinking about ways to use the pit after pit burning charcoal in a long trench. The obvious use was to bury the biochar in it instead of digging another hole for that. After all, it’s one thing to make all that char, but then you have to dig it into the soil, which is a butt load of work. In this climate, outside of irrigated garden beds, I think getting the char pretty deep is probably a good idea. After june, soil moisture is scant near the surface. If the char was buried lets say only 12 to 18 inches deep, that puts it in the zone where roots are mostly on idle for the summer. No moisture= no root activity to speak of. Charcoal is a great retainer of moisture, but it’s not that great. I’m talking about unirrigated areas for orchards and perrenials, or maybe for dry farming crops. If the char was more like 3 feet or 1 meter deep, it would be of more benefit to plants in the summer season.
Once I thought about it for a bit, I realized it doesn’t make a ton of sense to keep digging new pits just to burn the charcoal in. it’s not like I’m probably doing the soil any favors by cooking it anyway. A central permanent burn area, with a more permanent pit arrangement would probably make more sense, or just burning by any number of methods wherever the wood is. Charcoal is light, so moving it is not an issue. Moving brush and wood is a whole lot more work. In most situations, it’s probably not relevant how the wood is charred, the idea of using the burning pit was just a path into this latrine idea.
So let me just hit you with the basic idea and then we can bat the details around a little. The idea is to have a sort of trench system that would serve both as a latrine, and as a means of permanently improving the soil. Once the pit is dug, there are limitless possibilities for amendment with all sorts of substances, and for changing the soil’s physical composition. That’s pretty neat! Also, normally, it would be a fair amount of labor to mix in all of that stuff all at once. As a latrine though, you’d be mixing it in gradually day by day while doing something you have to do everyday anyway. Lets say you wanted to end up with about 20% charcoal in the soil. One poop, one scoop of charcoal, four scoops of dirt and small amounts of whatever other substances you might want to toss in there like lime, wood ashes, sand, phosphate fertilizers, trace mineral fertilizers, organic matter, etc. I’m already digging holes for the current pit latrine used here on the land, but this system would utilize part of that labor to a more useful end.
This system makes sense to me for soil improvement with biochar under my type of conditions. It seems likely that the terra preta soils of the amazon might have been made with some similar approach… like pits into which compostables, broken pots and excrement might be disposed of and covered gradually with dirt and charcoal. I’m not experienced enough with using biochar here to be totally convinced this method will be worth the effort, but I think there is a very high probability that the results will be awesome, easily high enough to jump right in and make the investment to try it.
I’ve never really gotten the latrine scene together here. We’ve always used a pit toilet- dig a pit, drop in a little dirt or organic matter here and there till it’s full, and move on. I’ve tried to put them where I want to plant a tree, but it doesn’t always work out. The one site I have actually planted directly on, the tree died, twice even! That might just be due to drought, but suffice to say, it hasn’t worked out very well for me as a system. Also, I’m not convinced that even a pit full of manure is really a very permanent soil improvement, and it will have a limited window of fertility. I’ve thought to eventually build something like the Ecosan drying pit toilet system, but that could be some time away in the future. Thinking back now, 8 years of being here most of the time day in and day out, I could have improved a lot of soil using my new proposed system. The pits would fill up quickly, because so much dirt would be added back daily. It’s a lot of digging, but it’s easier to dig a wide trench than to dig a single deep and narrow pit. Also, it is assumed that soil improvement is an important goal, so the digging is not superfluous work. It is also spread out over much time. Consider digging char into a 40 foot long x 5 foot wide x 3 foot area all at once versus over the course of a year or so. The trench could be dug in sections as needed, or when convenient.
In the days before plumbed toilets, public latrines were a major issue in population centers. I’ve smelled enough latrines to know how horrid the stench must have been. It was proposed to use charcoal as a deodorant and the resulting sludge sold as fertilizer. I think this method was probably successful where implemented, but it wasn’t too long before they started washing it all away into rivers and off to the ocean, which of course we mostly still do today, just in a somewhat more refined, but also much more resource intensive way. Point being, charcoal is the ultimate deodorizer. Imagine an outdoor latrine with no odor.
Having been called on that day to attend a meeting of the Board of Health, held at the workhouse, I was at once struck with the intolerable and sickening effluvinm which, arising from the sewers, cesspools, and privies, pervaded every part of the establishment; and which, with the chlorine, which was being evolved in every direction for the purpose of correcting it, formed a compound of villanous smells, which no stomach but one accustomed to it could for a moment tolerate. Your very active and efficient inspector, Captain Hanley, told me that he had done everything that could be thought of, and had spared no expense to try and have the nuisance abated, but that all his exertions were useless. I then begged him to send down and purchase a few loads of peat charcoal, which were selling at the market; and having told the master how to employ it, the suggestion was at once adopted, and though the material was not of the best description, nor “ recently prepared,” in a very few hours the most delicate and practiced nose could not have detected the slightest offensive odour.
Since then the master, with very praiseworthy attention, has had a large pit of the charcoal prepared every week, and by its occasional use through the grating of the sewers, and by sprinkling it over the nightsoil in the privies, the workhouse is, as far as entire freedom from every noxious and offensive effluvinm, a model to every other in the kingdom.
In every respect the results have been most satisfactory. Instead of paying from five to ten pounds, every half year, for having the privies cleansed; and having itself and the whole surrounding neighbourhood at the same time poisoned for weeks by the intolerable stench ; the establishment has that task now performed by the paupers, without the slightest reluctance on their part;—and the contents of the sewers, cess-pools, and privies are now collected into inodorous and innoxious heaps, or mixed with the other refuse of the workhouse until removed by the contractor; which, before, he absolutely refused doing, but which he now considers the most valuable portion of what he contracted for.
Also, adding significant amounts of dirt on top of the daily deposits would completely cover them, so flies would not likely be an issue either. Ov course you could tweak the amount of soil added in order to either improve more soil in a shorter time, or to make the latrine last longer to the end of digging less. I’m seeing this more as a way to improve a lot of soil at this point, so thinking of finding the minimum amount of poo to maximum amount of dirt and charcoal added back, while still ensuring good results.
So, one issue with burying charcoal in the soil is that it is a nutrient magnet. The first time I did it, the lettuce I planted afterward failed to thrive. It was pretty bad, I mean it barely grew and produced nothing really edible. The most recent garden bed I amended with charcoal, I added a lot of chicken manure and compost teas to as it was being dug in, in order to charge the charcoal up so it wouldn’t just suck everything up leaving nothing for the plants. That bed is doing well in it’s first year. Once it’s charged up, this property of charcoal to catch and hold nutrients becomes a benefit rather than a liability, possibly the most important property of biochar, but it must be charged somehow. The latrine system should provide a nutrient rich environment to charge the charcoal up as it’s added. I would probably add stuff in this order:
organic matter (if added at all, probably a little forest duff at least, if just for innoculation with diverse soil organisms).
The current outhouse structure can be carried by 4 people or rolled on logs by two, but it is far too heavy and awkward to be moved frequently by one person. I’m thinking that a more tent like arrangement would be better suited to my trench latrine plan. I though originally of some rails that the covering slid on, but I think that a more simple and elegant solution is needed. I’m thinking for my style a couple of planks with a space in the middle to use as a squatting toilet and a light frame covered with a section of plastic billboard tarp could be plenty cozy enough. The tent covering would need good anchorage from winds… maybe sand bags or cinder blocks which bungee to the frame? We’ll see. No need for a door most of the time, depending on the site I guess, but an old sheet should work okay.
My latrine pit is almost full, but my health is so lame right now that I seriously can’t keep up with washing my dishes, watering the garden and doing a little laundry occassionally, let alone digging holes for anything. Aside from operating at probably <10% of normal energy and feeling crappy, I have arthritis of some kind in my foot and can’t step on a shovel with it, nor support my weight with it while stepping on a shovel with the other foot. And that’s been going on for a month or more now, with no end in sight. I’m also not crazy about the idea of using energy I don’t have laboring away in the dirt while I have almost non-stop heart palpitations. Too bad, I love digging in the dirt, but it’s just not happening anytime soon. This is a typical situation for me of a plan that seems very promising, and that I’m excited about, but which I can’t actually physically implement. So, while I’d rather test it out myself first, I thought I’d best just toss the idea out there and maybe someone else can try it. I sincerely hope that by the time my current pit latrine is threatening to overflow it’s hole, that I can get the new system going at least in some crude form, even if it’s a small pit with no covering.
The great majority of us are wasting the nutrients we excrete. This state of affairs makes not a bit of sense at all. For homesteaders, finding some way to utilize the nutrients that are leaving our bodies seems like it should be something of a priority. We can’t afford to hemorrhage nutrients out of our living systems and we shouldn’t even if we can re-import them from somewhere else. While saving urine to use as a fertilizer will catch the vast majority of the useful plant nutrients leaving your bodies, and is a great first start, doodie also has a lot of good stuff that can be turned to advantage. This system seems very promising to me. It’s going to be too much work for some people, but for tough and scrappy homesteader types and less “developed” cultures and areas, it is probably fine. The prospect of the opportunity to create super soil zones by utilizing immediately available resources and a trickle of labor from already daily activity, gets me all hot and bothered and would light a fire under my ass to go start digging if said ass wasn’t glued to a chair most of the time. I mean that shit is exciting people!
My proposal is really for a system which modifies the soil to quite a depth, but I suppose it could be used in a shallower form too. For a system that required more upfront investment, but less labor over all, the ecosan system with charcoal added to the ash might be a good way to go. Briefly, the Ecosan system uses two pits. Urine is diverted out of the system and collected in containers for direct use. Each time a solid deposit is made, a handful of ash is added to cover it, help dry it out, and alkalize it, all of which kills off microorganisms. The collection chambers are ventilated to encourage drying. Once one pit is “full” it is closed off to dry completely, and the other side is used. By the time pit two is full, six months or more later, pit one is completely dry and innocuous. If charcoal was added, it would pre-charge the char as well and the whole lot could be pulverized as a very rich, fertilizer for use primarily on annual crops.
Here at Turkeysong I could see running both systems eventually. I’m pretty tough, and am used to inconvenience from years of re-training my entitlement set points. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, I have gotten through the worst of times with the most inconvenient toilet and living situations, like no toilets at all and extremely ill, rain or shine, day and night. But, um, honestly, tough or not, I’d rather sometimes have a close outhouse to visit! Inconvenience isn’t the goal or noble in and of itself, but convenience is often unnecessarily a casualty to crude, poorly thought out systems. Sometimes simple solutions are still the most elegant ones, and if I was more healthy, I’d be even more tough and lack even more incentive to do anything more than my biochar, trench, tent latrine with plank “floor”, allowing time for projects that I perceive as more important than a convenient place to take a dump. But if we’re going to actually build a structure, it might as well function well and smell nice.
I’m pretty opposed to the idea of indoor bathrooms. Digging little holes in the forest or crapping in a trench might seem crude, but pooping in your house just seems plain uncivilized to me. I could see both the Ecosan and trench systems eventually operating simultaneously in a place like this. The cozy, luxurious Ecosan, (maybe with a door, or a light and some reading material even! How about a stereo, wide screen t.v… wifi…) close to sleeping quarters for late nights and rainy days, and the biochar trench latrine for the rest of the time, or for special soil improvement projects.
I hope this idea will appeal to someone enough to try it out and we can see what the profits and pitfalls might be. Obviously, making a bunch of charcoal is in order, quite a lot actually. The good thing is that once it’s made, it keeps forever. I managed this past winter and spring to experiment a little with the top down burn pile and pit methods of charcoal production. Both are easy and accessible and can be used with random scrappy brush. I’ll leave you with the super condensed version of both, but stay tuned for more on those in future posts or videos.
Top down piles: Pile brush in a tall narrow pile. A tall narrow pile is more work, but it burns better than a mound shaped pile. Light from the top which produces way less smoke. Throw unburned pieces from the outside into the center as burning progresses. When most of the wood is charred and no longer flaming, douse with water.
Pit: dig a pit with sloping sides. For long wood, dig a long pit so you don’t have to cut the wood. start a long narrow fire in the bottom. Add wood in layers. When burned down and not producing much flame, add a layer. try to cover the layer below well, but each layer should be only about one stick thick, not piled up. this system doesn’t work very well with very tangly torturous type brush. Conifer limbs with the needles on are fine, but oak brush with branches pointing in every direction and taking up a lot of space in every direction needs to be broken down a bit. This system works by smothering the previous layers with new fuel. Just remember to try to have the new layer close down on the top of the old one to smother the coals below so they don’t continue to burn. When very little flame is left and the pit is full, douse with water.
I think the pit is probably more efficient in the wood used to charcoal produced ratio than the top down pile style— but it seems to require a little more work and attention too. I’m not really sure yet. In both cases, don’t wait for every single piece of wood to be charred before extinguishing. You will end up with some un-charred wood, but you can always re-burn it. If you wait for every single piece to be charred before extinguishing it, the wood that is already burned down to coals is rapidly turning to ash, effectively reducing the total charcoal yield.
I’m somewhat annoyed with myself for not “having my shit together” already. But, when we have to always be pioneering new ideas and systems, it’s not always easy to get it together, and I have a lot of challenges to face so I’m cutting myself some slack. I’m convinced that urine diversion is the first step and anyone who has hung around this blog much knows I just won’t shut up about that. Next, something like the ecosan system and/or a system like I’ve just proposed that amends soil as it goes along, should make maximum use of our leavings. And that should be the goal. We are so fixated on disposal, and the idea of excrement being a valuable resource is so totally foreign, that it is often difficult to find language that can really get across the way we should truly be thinking about the issue. Like I said, it makes no goddamn sense to extract the very essence of the soil, that which plants make their bodies with, and then throw it away. Not only should homies like us be building our infrastructure around a new paradigm, but as a society, we should be thinking toward decommissioning our old systems and implementing new ones that honor our daily discharges as the very valuable resources they are. My trench latrine will certainly not appeal to the timid, but it can’t be that hard to come up with a design that tops the current practice of pissing and shitting in a ceramic bowl of water in the house! Like omg, that shit is nasty. And said bowl has to be cleaned by some unfortunate person, like ewwwwww…. If we can put people on the moon as they say…
*Dig a trench or pit, up to a meter deep.
*Use a light moveable cover.
*I’ll probably use planks for a floor with a space left open to squat over. An elegant solution and highly flexible.
*Add charcoal, dirt and/or other nutrients and amendments with each deposit. shoot for 15% and up of charcoal if possible.
*Find a poo to dirt and charcoal ratio that makes maximum use of droppings and fills the hole quickly.
*If a trench is used, expand the trench as the previous section is filled up.
*Be stoked that you’ve done something agricultural that may actually last for a really long time, unlike standard impermanent soil improvements.
At some point a year or two ago, I had to come up with a folded packet/envelope design so I could give away the seeds that I save at farmer’s markets, scion exchanges and places like that. I like giving away seeds. I often give away too many and end up kicking myself, but it is so compelling for some reason! The first thing that came to mind was those little paper packets called bindles that cocaine used to come in back in the 80’s. Learning to fold bindles was about the only real good I ever got out the stuff. Cocaine was around a lot back then, but I had little use for it. I think I was more interested in the bindles than the coke. I did so little of it that I couldn’t remember how to make those little folded paper bindles almost 30 years later. So, anyway, no bindles. I had to improvise. I’m not sure why I didn’t just look for instructions on the internet, but I’m glad I didn’t.
I had recently come up with an origami container for roasted baynuts that was pretty nifty, so I was emboldened to the task and began folding away fearlessly. I already knew I wanted it to be a quarter sheet or smaller. The result after a few minor adjustments is this origami dubbed “seed pocket” for obvious reasons. It came out with some neat unexpected features. The back tabs lock together in a really neat way to keep the packet closed. If stuffed super full it may open at the back (though it’s still unlikely to spill seeds) but then you can just make a larger one out of a full sheet instead of a quarter sheet. I prefer to tear the paper after creasing, because the torn edges appear under the title, which looks cool and more handcrafted-like. there are also a lot of squares and half square triangles formed, so the proportions are pleasing to an OCDish person fixated on symmetry, like me. These are very seed tight and unlikely to leak even small seeds like poppy. In fact, I just packed up some tiny shirlie poppy seeds last night. I’m not so sure about super teeny weeny tiny seeds like tobacco and lobelia, but otherwise, they’re pretty dang tight!
I’ve got one laid out in adobe illustrator for each of the seed varieties that I save regularly, with names, short descriptions and a nudge in the direction of my blog to pick up web traffic. They serve a little like business cards and are very popular. It’s a lot of folding, but I actually like folding them while watching a movie or just thinking about stuff. It’s sort of addictive. I’ve probably folded thousands by now.
I’m making the Adobe Illustrator template available as a downloadable file, so if you have access to adobe illustrator, you can leave the layout (which took a helluva long time to get right, so be careful messing with it!) and just change the text and fonts to suit your own farm name, variety names, descriptions and such. You may need to download the fonts I used if you want to keep them (Copperplate gothic light, Century old style standard, Cambria and Chalkduster). Putting some text on the inside of the packet is a possibility too, and I may add seed saving instructions for each vegetable eventually if I can get my stupid printer to stop eating so much paper. I kept it pretty simple, but one could add all kinds of things- colors, pictures, gardening quotes, fold lines…
This template is for four small seed pockets per 8.5 x 11 inch sheet. I haven’t made a full sheet template, but I do use the same origami design for making an occasional large seed packet. If you use the template, I’d appreciate the small favor of leaving the blip on the underside of the flap so people can find the template and this post and my blog. Thanks!
So, save some seeds this year! If you haven’t saved seed before, tomatoes are an easy place to start. They rarely cross with each other. Just take a non-hybrid tomato that you like, squish the seeds into a bowl, let it ferment for a day or two to dissolve the pulp, wash and drain several times to clean the seeds, and dry on a piece of paper in the shade until thoroughly dry.
This is the first video of what I hope will be many. Big thanks to blog reader lars for hooking me up with a video camera! Thanks dude!
And don’t miss my one other youtube video ever, the epic guinea pig munch off!
Preface-like paragraph: I have, over many years and with a lot of intention, slowly come to see the world around me as a sort of resource-scape, that is, as a world of potential resources. This can extend to people and ideas as well as physical objects and also phenomena of energy, like wind, or sun, or the action of an animal. Having made a pretty intense study of primitive technology as well as of other subsistence paradigms, I’ve been impressed deeply by the fact that different groups of people, given similar environments, or even the exact same environment, will do completely different things there and live very different lives. While we are guided by our environments, we are also very much guided by our cultural influences and what we know, or just as importantly what we think we know is and is not possible.
So? As a result of this perspective of resource consciousness, I tend to walk around constantly looking for unseen or undervalued potential that could be harnessed to make life better, more sustainable, or to make work more efficient and certainly a little just to keep myself entertained! While this view has resulted in way more ideas than I have energy to experiment with or turn into functional realities, having that view does serve me decently well sometimes. I’ve noticed in the garden that there are numerous resources that are underexploited and can be micromanaged into great usefulness. One of my main influences in this area is Farmers of Forty Centuries. It is a long, boring ass, pedantic book from the 40’s that is probably a good 100 pages longer than it needed to be (kind of like this post probably…yawn…). It is worth reading though for a few specific items of farming practice and, more importantly, the broader message of what can be done with resources that we might not even stop to think are useful in our modern society where views of work and resources are extremely skewed away from traditional ones. The picture painted by that book makes any western gardening I’ve ever seen seem sloppy and wasteful. We are spoiled, and that’s great in it’s way, but it blinds us to the potential around us when compared with the asian cultures in that book who really had to figure out how to make use of every resource in the most efficient way they could figure out in order to survive their high populations. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. I just wanted to drop those general ideas on you before I start this specific story, because it’s somewhat relevant.
This way to geekage —> There is a long path to get to the actual subject. But bear with me. The sights along the path set the context and this post isn’t actually just about one idea. There is an idea, but it could be summed up in a few paragraphs. But that idea evolved in a context which has specific real or perceived problems, and that context has other lessons and provides a framework for learning about the world we live in (or at least the one I live in!). And, there is more to glean than the end point idea, which after all is not an end point at all, but just part of a long evolution. It may be a good idea for me, while it may fail you utterly or be totally irrelevant to your life and work; but if we view it in a larger picture, we have more places to go from here and may find modifications, or other uses and ideas branching off of this one. So hang with me if you want to, or just go read the last couple of paragraphs. Continue reading
I’m going to tell you how to make delicious fermented green olives by the easiest curing method I know of. One of my many long term projects has been curing olives. I started because I love them and because they were too expensive for me to eat in the quantities I wanted to. I figured I could turn those olives growing all over California into something tasty. Some 20 plus years later, I have a pretty good grasp on the subject. I’m headed to an olive tasting event this weekend, the Olive Odyssey organized by olive curing champion Don Landis. I was going to print up recipe cards for sicilian style olives, but thought I’d just save paper and send people here instead. Besides, now people can bump into this awesome recipe on the web!
What’s so cool about this recipe? Lotsa stuff. It is perhaps the easiest curing recipe I know for olives. There is no maintenance to speak of. There is no leaching with lye, or water, nor anything else. You stick ‘em in a jar with brine, seal it up, leave it for months and open one when you are ready to eat them. And of course they taste hella good homeslice! Big fat juicy, lively, acidic, rich tasting olives… oh yeah.
The downside? You have to be patient! Wait, that’s good for you, so get over it! Oh, and I only know one olive common in California that is really good for this process. If you’re lucky enough to have access to this olive though, you’ve got a gold mine of potential hanging on those trees in the fall. Continue reading