Experimental Homestead

Soil Banking With Biochar: proposition for a migrating latrine system aimed at permanent soil improvement

“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.”



This proposal is built around the concept of using charcoal to permanently improve soils.  If you’re not familiar with that idea, a little reading on biochar might be helpful. 2 3 

(EDIT: Ok, I just posted this yesterday, but the original title sucked, so I had to take action.  The more I’ve thought about this idea today, the more I’m inclined to think that viewing it as just a latrine is somewhat limiting.  A system of soil improvement like this could serve to accommodate all sorts of rubbish and organic refuse.  I always thought that if I built a nice outhouse someday, that I’d make a sign for it that said Bank of Fertility (make a deposit:).  I like that concept.  I’m going to go with the term Soil Banking for the concept of a migrating soil improvement  system using an open trench.  While making daily deposits of doodie makes eminent sense for such a system, there are so many more things that could be tossed in the mix.  All people who live in the country that don’t have access to landfills, have rubbish heaps or pits of some kind.  What I’m proposing is that we use that open pit, and the material added, to a high level of advantage toward the end of permanent soil improvement.  At this point, I can only see a big open pit, placed in the right area, to be an outstanding opportunity.  The idea of permanent soil improvement, made possible by the addition of charcoal, is really compelling.  Dead animals and parts, rotten wood, old natural fiber clothing, shells, bones, ashes, seedy weeds that are best not put in to the compost, anything else that plants or soil life can feed on that the chickens can’t eat, or that we don’t want to put in the compost for whatever reason, and of course poo and charcoal, all added as they occur.  And of course adding whatever other amendments, like lime, rock powder or trace minerals might make sense too, depending on circumstances.  Over many years, this system could add up to an ever expanding bank of super soils that will probably continue to be superior for decades, if not for centuries.  So there it is, Soil Banking.  “What should I do with this dead maggoty possum?”  “put it in the soil bank with a few scoops of charcoal and some dirt”  “yeah, okay, I was going there to make a deposit anyway!” “righteous dude, high five!”  Now back to regularly scheduled programing.)

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 much more benefit to plants in the summer season.

Tree planting site, modified by digging a large pit to 2 feet deep, burning charcoal in it, crushing the charcoal and mixing it in as the pit was re-buried.

Tree planting site, amended by digging a large pit to 2 feet deep, burning charcoal in it, crushing the charcoal and mixing it in as the pit was re-buried.  Sort of the idea that got me thinking of a similar approach for a latrine.  This site now has an apple tree planted on it.

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 happens to be.  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 as a latrine was just a path into this 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.

This walnut tree, flanked closely by two latrine pits is starting to take off this year. I think the roots have probably hit pay dirt. Overall though, planning to plant trees over latrine sites hasn't worked out that well, and it's a short term soil improvement.

This walnut tree, flanked closely by two latrine pits is starting to take off this year. I think the roots have probably hit pay dirt. Overall though, planning to plant trees over latrine sites hasn’t worked out that well.  It’s also probably a short term soil improvement compared to charcoal amended soil.

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.

Ye 'ol outhouse, a loo with a view.

Ye ‘ol outhouse, a loo with a view.  Look for my new book, Bung Shui, the sublime art of outhouse placement by brown and brown publishers.  Note the tree gently shelters the house without completely enveloping it, offering both security and openness at once.  The grasses down the hill sweep gently to the right and slightly downhill subtly drawing energy out into the world.  The path approaches at an angle from the back, implying privacy where there basically is none.  While the small fir tree provides a slightly offset single understated subject against the background of more homogenous forest.  I am now so enlightened that I shit crystals of pure energy charged quartz that I sell on ebay for 1000.00 each.  Actually, I’m kidding, I hope you know.  It was just a flattish spot away fro the main living area, where there could possibly be a fruit tree nearby someday.

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.

Top down pile, ready to light as soon as rains start.

Top down pile, ready to light as soon as rains start.  Actually, I usually stack piles right before I burn them, because otherwise all sorts of reptiles and amphibians usually move in and get burned up.  I was hoping I could burn this one before the end of the season, but circumstances didn’t cooperate.

Top down pallet pile.

Top down pallet pile. Not a ton of charcoal produced, but it’s pretty easy.  Quite a bit of ash too, but I’m thinking with our acidic soils, that’s probably going to be a plus.  Ashes are about 30% lime.

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.

Burning charcoal in a trench. There is a trench, this is the end of the burn when it's full of charcoal.

Burning charcoal in a trench about to be doused.  There is actually a trench there, this is the end of the burn when it’s full of charcoal.  This pit was for mostly fir limbs, none of which had to be cut up at all.  Tangly brush may have to be reduced to more handleable pieces.

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.

July 29, 2014 - Posted by | Garden Stuff | , , , ,


  1. My title is kind of lame.

    Comment by Stevene | July 29, 2014 | Reply

  2. You’re shitting me! Heh, I mean, it’s a great idea. Combining poop and charcoal seems like it’d work well. You could also do parallel trenches over time and eventually transform a field (or slope in your case!).

    Comment by mendomama | July 30, 2014 | Reply

    • Yeah, exactly I’m thinking my first zone may be a future site for planting interstem dwarf apple trees. They would be planted about 8 feet apart, so two parallell trenches of 4 foot wide, with maybe a 1 foot strip in between to maintain trench wall integrity, would give each tree about 8×8 square of 3 foot deep modified soil. I’m guessing those trees would be very happy starting the first year. I wonder how long it would take to fill a 4×12 trench. I may add other stuff too. Like I said in the post, this seems like the type of thing the terra preta makers might have been doing, but as an all purpose rubbish heap. slimy stuff the chickens won’t eat, dead animals, some shells burned with the charcoal, rotten wood, leaves, and whatever else. The fact that terra preta contains broken pottery might very well indicate a sort of landfill situation. And that just makes good sense. Or maybe that stuff was all charred in the pit in layers as it was added, another possibility to explore. I don’t know if anyone has looked into those possible explanations. Thanks for giving a shit :) That reminds me, some friends of mine spent a little time in China teaching. They said that in the area they were in it was customary to try to have the best roadside outhouse to tempt travelers into stopping and taking a dump. Excrement and all other forms of organic matter are very valued. They also said that if going to visit someone, it is common for guests to show up with some kitchen scraps to donate to the compost. If you ever come and visit me I’ll be expecting some old carrot tops ‘n’ shit… no, I mean and shit, literally!

      Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014 | Reply

  3. Hey Stevene,

    sorry to hear you’re still poorly, bummer. Hope you’re managing to stay upbeat despite such tribulations.

    Like the idea of the moveable loo. I have a tree bog here and we’re about to put another one up, as it seems to work quite well and a lot less bother than the original ‘bucket and chuck it’ system. The one I have now is sited next to a tall privet hedge and although I planted some willow around it, it keeps being nibbled back by deer…. pesky wildlife….

    So I’m not harvesting biomass from the treebog as planned but privet is a very hungry feeder so it seems to be able to take anything we put in there with no worries about filling up. Have had a number of volunteers staying over the last couple of years but it’s back to just me now and haven’t had to do anything at all with it.

    I’m all in favour of minimising work and working cleverly, if only I could put that thinking into practice!

    As ever, one post leads to another and I started reading the Biochar in the 19th century post and love it!
    Old farming books are great and so useful – I shall print it out and read it at my leisure. I’ve been thinking about how to produce biochar here on a large ish scale so the link to the John Rogers video was perfect, as I have a lot of wood chip that gets dumped here from various tree surgeons. Of course, he lives in Florida, so I’m not surprised he can dry his chips out in a few days. Here in England, I think it’d have to go under cover, though we are having a glorious summer so can’t complain. I have a friend who is biochar obsessed (I see you have his website via the comments) and he is going to build me a cooker that is basically a rocket stove that makes biochar too, and does hot water…. I’m excited at the thought of being able to get rid of one more dependency, but of course it hasn’t happened yet because he lives 200 miles away, which is a long way this side of the pond, though I know you guys think that’s just a little drive….. Anyway, hopefully he’s gonna come over and play in the next couple of weeks and if he does, I will send you a picture. He normally uses his biochar as bedding for his horses, which solves the activation/bedding down issue in one fell swoop – stacking functions, can’t go wrong…. lol. I read a post from a guy on a fam making farm scale amounts of char but it turned out I forgot to bookmark the page and I seem to have lost where I found it, if you see what I mean. Think he had some kind of large scale retort, but that’s all I can remember. I’m hoping that Ed will know ot have some ideas when he finally gets here.

    It made me laugh when I read the bit where you said most people won’t click on the link and read it…. My biggest problem with your posts is not to get too sucked into them and thus the internet as I ALWAYS click on all the links you post and have yet to be disappointed. So I try to save reading your posts till the evening after I’ve done everything, so I can click away with a clear conscience! The best thing is somehow I always seem to have missed one or two, so there is usually more than one to be read at a time which is fab. I am a lazy geek and love that super geeks like you put in the time to find all this stuff for the rest of us!

    You’ll be pleased to hear that I have been inspired to order not only the Bung Shui book but a crystal for every member of my family….. tee hee…..

    Comment by Shadiya | July 30, 2014 | Reply

    • I’m not sure I would use the word upbeat, but I have coping mechanisms that have kept me on the planet so far!

      I hadn’t heard of the tree bog system, but then I haven’t done a lot of research into composting toilets for a while. It looks convenient and low maintenance, but it still seems more disposal oriented. I’d like to move toward maximizing use of all those nutrients and getting them where they will contribute maximally toward food growing goals, or in the case of the biochar latrine idea (seriously, I need to come up with a real name, any suggestions welcome), intensive soil improvement. Every turd is an opportunity. How can we make good use of that opportunity without creating excessive work or inelegant systems. Ecosan is a large investment, but it really gives back almost 100% of input to use wherever we might want. I like the idea of a permanently sited toilet, where the stuff is put directly to use. Problem is, it’s so much resource constantly dumped in one place, that there is scarcely anything that can use it all to good advantage, let alone something that we can in turn use. I think those systems might need to be expanded somewhat to spread out over a larger area. I know it’s blasphemous, but I think septic systems are worth a look. If the leach lines are run in a certain way, then we could be feeding plants liquid fertilizer in a continuous stream, and wasting no water. The water used to flush would be put to good use and plants would absolutely kick ass on all those nutrients. I am actually more interested in that sort of system for greywater, more especially because I don’t want to clean toilets! I’ve got a site for a potential experiment and some of the materials I need. I think everyone tends to dismiss anything resembling a septic system, because they are seen as conventional. Indeed, the standard approach seems silly and wasteful, but I think it might be turned to good use as a no maintenance system. which is after all, pretty nice. In a properly functioning septic, the solids are all eventually dissolved completely and flow out the outlet. I guess there is also the possibility of producing methane gas at the same time.

      Re: char. I think that top down barrel gasifier system looks great. I’ve got some barrels here to try it with, but no progress yet. I think it may really help to sift the chips. I haven’t tried it on chips yet, but I’ve done a lot of sifting of gravel with diagonal screens. build a frame and cover with the size screen you want, set it up at a steep angle and throw the material on it. As the stuff rolls down the screen and onto the ground, all the small stuff falls through. Then you have a pile of small stuff for mulching or compost material and bigger stuff for charring. I just say that because my friend uses a similar system and has trouble with denser packed material. I think a little air space is going to make the system run better.

      for me, I just don’t have that many chips, or access. I have mostly rangy brush, so the top down pile and pit/cone systems are probably the best type of approach most of the time. I’d like to experiment with a lot of different systems eventually and have options for different types of materials, but I’m really liking the simplicity of those two for now. The cone/pit can be pretty low smoke too, depending on the feedstock, so it could probably work even in some urban areas. Of course using the heat would be great. I have plans in that realm as well, but we’ll see…I’d love to see your biochar stove/heater when it happens.

      I really should do that bung shui book, or someone should. Thanks for saying hi, and Stay tuned for more geekage!

      Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014 | Reply

  4. Sounda like you have lyme disease my friend, better get making some knotweed tea.

    Comment by Dylan | July 30, 2014 | Reply

    • Thanks, but I’ve tried knotweed and all the Buhner protocol, years of Rife treatment, antibiotics, and lots of other stuff, some of which helped, but none of which got me past a certain point. I’m fairly convinced that borellia infection isn’t the primary cause of lyme disease, but that it’s rather more an especially negative reaction to infection, or high susceptibility. Not that the infection part isn’t important, but that there is some reason that some of us crash and burn while others have better outcomes. I’m looking deeper into endocrine disruption and digestive stuff right now. I’m trying to find the stuff that is flaky in my foundation. I think that’s the only hope. Treating the infection has yielded only partial results, a story I’ve seen play out over and over again. I don’t even try to treat the infection anymore. I can’t even be 100% sure whether I’m still infected or not. There is of course a chicken and egg argument to be made here, but regardless, I have some major specific dysfunctions to address and after almost 15 years of this, targeting borellia with antimicrobials seems not to be effective anymore.

      Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014 | Reply

      • Well my comiserations, im just recovering from it myself, just to add tho, have you read buhners coinfections book? Sometimes the babesia/mycoplasma coinfection can be what lingers.. Anyway great post, we are trying small scale biochar on our new england woodland farm. Thanks for the pdf its invaluable. I had read in weston price about scottish people using smoked straw for fertility.. Just need to find some free plans for a masonry retort.

        Comment by Dylan | July 30, 2014

      • I haven’t read buhners co-infections book. I just quit exploring that part of it quite a few years ago. I saw a homeopathist (desperate:) and she had me stop everything else I was taking, which was Buhners lyme stuff at the time. I felt a little better if anything, but basically, I might as well not have been taking anything. From there I decided that it was really an immune overreaction or something like that. Now I’m thinking more endocrine dysfunction and digestive issues. I also have a lot of inflammation that I’m not convinced is directed at any invaders, but probably at my own tissues. The search continues. If I ever do antimicrobial treatments again, it will probably be after I start feeling and functioning better. Except Rife. I may do some broad sweeps with my replica of one of the original rife machines, if I can get it running. Thanks, I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better.

        Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014

      • That bit in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration about harvesting the thatch roof for fertilizer is way cool. There is also a thing in farmers of 40 centuries about harvesting soot impregnated masonry flues for fertilizer. They made these beds that were sort of like a mass stove, or what people call a masonry heater. Then there was a guy that would come buy and pay you to haul it away and pulverize it for fertilizer. That’s how valuable it was. Mostly you will hear people say that creosote and soot are toxic to soil life, etc.. but those two anecdotes seem to indicate that it can be a very valuable fertilizer. Maybe I’ll make that another google books research project.

        Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014

  5. Howdy Stevene-

    Great to see that you have enough energy (barely) to direct some passion into writing again. I was beginning to wonder if you were back down with some immune system challenges??

    I too have been experimenting with the biochar-poo-mash-up. We are basically using the Joseph Jenkins poo-in-a-bucket and cover with carbon idea (hardwood chips) but have added crushed biochar into the mix. The bucket then goes into an active compost pile that we add forest materials, greens, wood chips, egg shells, paper, whatever….etc. The finished product takes about 8 months. The undigested material goes into the next pile. I was quite surprised how much manure a family of three could produce! It makes for a whole new experience of excitement after eating a hearty meal from the land and returning it back to its source. I suffered from pooparanoia for many years. Not now after seeing, smelling, and using the finished product.

    We built a biochar kiln about five years ago that is basically a 50 gallon steel drum insulated with cob and designed with the same architectural concept as a rocket stove. It needs very little wood fuel to create the finished product. We also have some control over the temperature which may be helpful?? I’m not sure if the hype over desired temperature goals is justified. Who knows? At the top of the 50 gallon drum is a small 1/2″ hole where the gases exit. At around 600 deg f. I can light the gases to get secondary combustion, reducing the pollution emitted. It’s not a perfect design by any means, but produces quality char consistently with little effort.

    To hear of your health symptoms makes me want to talk to you more. I am in Southern Humboldt and all of my family members (including our dog) have been diagnosed with Lyme disease. My symptoms are the worse of the bunch and like you, I also now have heart palpitations as well as central sleep apnea, perpetual flu-like symptoms, intermittent joint pains, blurry vision, cognitive issues, etc, etc. I also have been diagnosed with Babesia, another tick related nasty that acts similar to malaria. I have been through a whole host of suppressive treatments but the only thing that has really helped is stress reduction, meditation, naps, no caffeine, sugar, gluten, or alcohol. A media detox was also helpful. Stress is what really sets my symptoms off.

    This spring we got a wood-fired hot tub and I started doing heat treatments. By submerging my whole body under water (except for my lips) and bringing my core temp up to 103 deg f. for 10-15 minutes I started seeing improvements in my health after about 3 weeks of treatment. Supposedly the spirochetes can’t hang very well above 102 deg F ?? At this point I’ll try just about anything.

    Anyhow, I wish you the best on your journey to recovery. If you are ever in my hood, look me up. Tamara has my contact info.

    In solidarity,

    Kyle ( The Fool’s Farm)

    Comment by Kyle Keegan | July 30, 2014 | Reply

    • I figured I’d just write up some stuff that I have had on the back burner that doesn’t require me getting out and doing a lot. I spent quite a lot of energy researching video cameras and equipment and generating some income to buy one. I ended up buying a pretty decent camera, but I doubt I’ll do much with it till my energy picks up. I sort of got into the video mindset and stopped writing for a bit. A little under inspired too I guess and also researching health stuff.

      I don’t like the maintenance factor of the Jenkins system, but charcoal sounds like a great addition. Amounts of carbon required seem high too, but at least you don’t have to char it. That’s a major draw back to my proposal, if it becomes inconvenient for some reason, which things often are for me.

      I’m not sure on the temperature thing with the charcoal production either. I haven’t looked into what people are saying much. After finding the 19th century stuff, I was pretty much feeling justified in my leaning toward thinking that it didn’t probably matter too much. At this point, it’s whatever I can get made. I think it’s important to keep an eye on cost benefit analysis. We don’t want to make “the best” if the cost is so high that we don’t just make a lot more. Not knowing how big a difference there is in different chars, makes it hard to make an assessment, but for now, it’s kind of like planting by the signs for me. People are always telling me to try it, but I just get the stuff in the ground when I can, or it’s not going to get in the ground at all. It’s also hard to assess what is best on the different charring systems without just trying it, so I’d like to try various different approaches. But, then again, I know I don’t want to spend a lot of time cutting stuff up to fit is some special container system for charring. That char would have to be whole lot better than open burnt stuff to justify time and energy spent, or in some cases electrical or fuel energy. I’m sure much research is ongoing on that, and maybe this question is already answered, but I haven’t looked hard enough to find out. For now, I think I’ll be using predominantly open piles and pits as accessible solutions suited to the massive amounts of brush I should be generating here doing forestry work that really needs doing.

      bummer on the Lyme. Again, I tend to think of it as a disease of susceptibility now. I, and probably you, and many of the type of people who might read this blog are this sort of type A personality, pretty driven by personal interests and goals and not always minding our bodies signals. It took literally over a decade of being sometimes wretchedly ill, and very, very rarely feeling 100% to finally accept that I can’t do that ;) I think you might know what I mean. There is a chicken and egg argument here, like did we end up that way by starting with some kind of HPA dysfunction, or other biochemically driven thing, or is it really “just” personality, quite possibly both. I’m hopeful that by looking closer at my hormone levels, I can find places to intervene. I’ve got my body temperature up, which probably means my thyroid is doing okay now, but I suspect my adrenals may not be able to keep pace. That whole hormonal system is very complex and there are checks and balances in the cascade with multiple mechanisms by which to down regulate the production or use of a hormone if that’s what the body wants to do. Of course the glands or those mechanisms may just be broken or haywire, and that is probably the standard view, but I’m more inclined to think that there are somewhat legitimate reasons for the down regulation in many cases, highlighted by the starvation response and thyroid for instance, which can often be reversed simply by rest and re-feeding. Still, with screwy hormones, it’s probably difficult to impossible to get over a chronic disease, so chicken or egg, intervention is probably still a good idea. What is your body temp like? If it’s consistently low, or erratic, you should address that somehow. Getting mine up only did me so much good. I felt pretty good for a while and was making important gains. Heart palpitation for instance completely disappeared for over a year. They’re now back in force after a stint on naproxen sodium which gave me my life back for about 3 weeks or so, but apparently did some damage while it was at it. I’ve slowly lost almost all of those gains and am looking at possible adrenal insufficiency and any other wacked out hormonal stuff. For instance, apparently when thyroid activity goes up, it challenges the adrenals, which are not always up for the challenge. I’ve rested as much as possible, and I think my system must be too far shot to recover with out specific interventions at this point. I’m also very susceptible to stress, again, thinking endocrine system and probably specifically adrenal function. I’m trying to deal with my gut too. Always been funky and, long story, but I think that has something to do with my autoimmune symptoms. Every heard of fecal microbial transplant? That’s on my agenda too. Talk about looking pooparanoia in the face!

      I think the heat treatment thing is probably totally legit. It sure is hard to do though, at least for me. I could never really do it. I have an old book on syphilis from the 40’s heat treatments were being used more and more then for treatment having evolved out of malaria therapy, which just induced high fevers. Sounds radical, but with no antibiotics, and syphilis eating holes in your brain, bring on the mosquitos eh?! Then antibiotics came along, which take time to treat syphilis, but they do work, so all of that heat stuff stopped. Too bad they don’t seem to work as well for lyme.

      Ditto on the visiting if in the neighborhood. Feel free to call if you want to chat about lyme/health stuff. Not surprisingly, Tamara has my number too!

      Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014 | Reply

      • Hey Stevene,

        Thanks for the response. You hit many good points, on all fronts.

        I have also looked into the thyroid–adrenal link since it was one of the possible positive feedback loops that was setting off my heart. I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation about a decade ago and it has gotten much worse over the years. The tick disease/autoimmune response issue is an epidemic in these Northern California hills.

        I have a theory that the increase in tick disease is a symptom (trophic cascade) caused by the the forced removal of keystone cultures (native peoples). With the removal of keystone cultures came the removal of keystone processes (such as prescribed fire). On a landscape scale this has undoubtedly caused a downward spiral of ecosystem vibrancy and health. That, plus the suppression and altering of predator/prey relationships has also had an impact on tick cycles. Prior to Euro-American contact the patchy mosaic pattern of landscapes maintained by fire provided much more habitat for Western Fence Lizards and Alligator Lizards, which (as you know) play a role in neutralizing borellia spirochetes. The timing of indigenous burning practices in the fall was also at a time when the nymphal ticks were most vulnerable to dessication. No doubt the Indians knew that well timed fire could burn those little blood sucking f—ers! So, for right now I am seeing this disease as a symptom of a post-logging-post-ranching-fire-suppressed ecosystem being uncared for by a nonnative culture of “no place.” In the mean time we’re trying to emulate indigenous land care practices here with the hope of being able to use prescribed fire in time. We’re also really into making “lizard hotels” out of rocks and logs in sunny places wherever we can. Why not?!

        Yeah, I’ve heard of the old borrowing someone else’s feces re-packer technique. Whoa! Last resort for sure! Whoa again! I’ve heard of some great successes with that technique.

        I hear you on the energy returned for energy invested part of the biochar scheme. We are doing tons of fuels reduction here around the place too. When I do the fuels reduction I just cut the branches to fit the retort. Kind of a hassle, but not too bad. We also make piles and burn in trenches and then cover with soil. Still trying to find balance with this one.

        If I didn’t have a close source for free hardwood chips I probably wouldn’t be doing the J. Jenkins thing. But for now it is working great. It was a simple and free system to set up and I am still hooked on the whole magic of making awesome compost. In time we may adapt to using other methods.

        I still haven’t found an effective way to crush large amounts of char. What are you doing to pulverize it?


        Comment by Kyle Keegan | July 30, 2014

      • I’m going to look at my adrenal/thyroid test results much more closely this time and see if I can make some improvements with supplements and hormone replacement, like physiological doses of hydrocortisone and we’ll see what else. Hopefully I’ll have test results next week.

        I have always planned on making lizard hotels too. The chickens probably eat some of them, so more places to hide is good. You may be right about the lowered ecological interventions. Still, it’s hard to think that those diseases weren’t common and for a people living outdoors constantly, with very little clothing on, I think it’s likely that there was a good degree of immunity. Maybe genetic or inherited by other means, but I’m inclined to think more of an innate immunity- high functioning immune systems and less of all this autoimmune stuff we’re experiencing now. Who really knows though.

        I haven’t really got a good way to grind char. I was using a corn grinder, hand crank, but it’s pretty slow. Then I used a 1 hp garbage disposal, but it stopped working, as someone pointed out, maybe because I was grinding charcoal in it! Last couple of batches I crushed under my boots on a piece of plywood. Pretty labor intensive, not that I’d mind if I had boundless energy, I mean it’s a pretty good time and all, but… I have an old hammermill type of shredder, that I’d like to hook up to a motor or tractor PTO. That should make short work of charcoal. I’ve also though of using a perforated drum arrangement that you could turn some how, maybe with a slow electric motor. Throw charcoal in with a few rocks, and let it spin till the charcoal is pulverized by the stones and falls through the perforations. If it worked really well, might even be able to just turn it by hand. I’d like to get it finer than I’m getting it, I know that.

        I think FMT is going eventually to evolve into a first line treatment for lot of suff, v.s. a last resort treatment. It’s somewhat daunting finding a donor and actually doing it, but it makes a great deal of sense and not hard to see why it would be much more effective than other attempts at rebalancing gut flora. Anyway, I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I am very excited that it might help me. But finding a healthy donor is proving very difficult.

        Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014

    • Oh yeah, another reason I wasn’t writing much, is that google trashed my search ranking for about three months. Views dropped overnight by about 75%. Just goes to show the problem with that sort of monopoly. They are pretty much the only game in town. Hits on my blog from other search engines are a trickle, because hardly anyone uses anything else. He who falls afoul of google is pretty much fucked at this point. One day a couple weeks ago, they just came back. Still don’t know why it happened, but it definitely put a damper on my enthusiasm for blogging.

      Comment by Stevene | July 30, 2014 | Reply

  6. Yo, steven,

    toilets: we separate wet/dry as in eco-san, but add worms to the mix, and don’t worry about added wetness from washing. They gobble it up and deliver wondrous stuff in return. Amazing (I suspect they also reduce any possible pathogens, but haven’t been able to confirm that). I just built a new one using an old fiberglass shower surround cut in half and set on a thin cement slab with the shower bottom as the separator and two open sides at either end to make removal doors. Seems like it will work. Now to build in the privacy part…and get the char production going so we can add it as we “go”… A local char guy showed me a neat little crusher: it’s a tapered 1-2 gallon hopper w/two side-by-side cylinders at bottom, one smooth, the other textured. Textured one has an axle that extends out from the hopper base — there he attaches an electric drill that spins the cylinder(s?) and crushes the char — sort of like an apple crusher for making cider — maybe that would work? He’s also cooking small chips, so he doesn’t have big stuff in the first place.

    Good luck and best wishes for restoring your health, man. Good to hear from you.

    Comment by harlanpotlatch | July 31, 2014 | Reply

    • Hi Kiko: Your worm toilet sounds pretty cool. I have definitely thought of using, or building a crusher like you describe. I had borrowed a similar apple/grape crusher and probably would have tried it if it was mine. I was tempted… Even by hand, I think one of those would probably be pretty fast. this one had adjustable width, with grooves along the rollers to pull the stuff in and crush it more effectively.

      Comment by Stevene | July 31, 2014 | Reply

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