“From Soil to Soil:
Gene Logsdon on the Backside of Agriculture”
A review of
Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
By Gene Logsdon
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield.
Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
By Gene Logsdon
Paperback: Chelsea Green, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Shit. The word carries a certain sense, a sort of incredulity, skepticism, disdain. It comes in different shapes and sizes—there can be loads of it, tons of it, piles of it, bags of it, people can even be full of it. But Gene Logsdon wants us to rethink all of that and to see it as holy, set apart, a special gift that will play a key role in saving humus-kind.
Gene Logsdon should know. As he says in the preface to Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, “I grew up literally knee-deep in the stuff at times.” Logsdon was a farm kid who was well acquainted with the ways of manure, a man who grew up and continued to farm and deal, day in and day out, with shit (the productive kind they have on farms, not the other kind that tends to go on in offices), eventually becoming “The most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have,” as none other than Wendell Berry put it. Logsdon has written more than two dozen books on everything from wildlife to alcohol, and in every one he brings a sense of humor and deep purpose to showing a world that is losing its way, back to the soil from which it came.
Holy Shit is a kind of manifesto, a tract to reacquaint ourselves with an essential animal activity that, in an ideal world, connects us to the cycle of life—a cycle we are deeply disconnected from. The nutrient cycle is one of the most important cycles on earth and the more we can utilize every element of that cycle the better. With the nutrient cycle plants capture energy from the sun that are then utilized by various organisms including animals well suited to eat certain plants. People then eat both the plants and animals to capture the stored nutrients since we can’t capture nutrients directly from the sun. At this point in the story we have something more like a food pyramid or hierarchy. But it doesn’t stop there, every day we empty the unused nutrients from our bodies and these nutrients could then go to provide much needed nitrogen and other essential elements back to plants. Of course, except for the occasional camping trip, most of us just let the cycle end in a toilet. An end that does little to participate in the great web of life that creation seems set up for.
The unfortunate thing is that now, more than ever we are truly wasting a resource that could make all the difference to our world. Logsdon describes the coming fertilizer crisis, a crisis that anyone who follows the numbers sees is already upon us. Chemical fertilizers, because they are dependent on mineral sources, are extremely volatile to market price changes. With countries like India, China and Brazil putting increasing demands on the fertilizer market, it is looking more and more untenable that they way things have been will be the way things will be. Logsdon suggests that the solution is simply what farmers of an earlier generation always knew; you need to have a mixed farming system that has a built in nutrient cycle with animals providing most of the nitrogen.
F.H. King, an agronomist working in the early part of the 20th century traveled to Asia to understand the incredible agricultural productivity that Asian farmers had been able to achieve. What he found was a system of agriculture that took good care of its nutrient cycle. No manure, human or animal, was wasted. It was even considered polite to use the restroom at someone’s house before leaving, giving them a little gift for their garden. This was a system that allowed Asia to have a productive agricultural system supporting a large population for forty centuries. As Logsdon notes of our own system could never last so long, “One can only imagine the famine and chaos that would result if we tried to continue that kind of extravagance for forty centuries. As sources of chemical fertilizers decline, either manure will once more become the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or population levels will dramatically decline.” Given the hope, I would take the pot of brown gold.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t do anything of the sort. Instead we try to hide ourselves from manure and urine (also a great source of nitrogen according to Logsdon) by wasting one of the world’s most limited and useful resources—clean water. Quoting from The Humanure Handbook, Logsdon writes, “’It takes between 1000 and 2000 tons of water at various in the process to flush on ton of humanure. In a world of just six billion people producing a conservative estimate of 1.2 metric tons of human excrement daily, the amount of water required to flush it all would not be obtainable.’” Think on that next time you flush the toilet. Since reading Holy Shit I’ve had the double sense of committing a grave sin and flushing money down the toilet every time I use the restroom. I have ordered The Humanure Handbook as a how-to companion of Holy Shit to show me the way out of this absurdity.
Logsdon is not only concerned with human manure of course, the bulk of the book is a sort of introduction for non-farm types (and some farm types who have lost their way) to the ways of good manure management. There are practical tidbits on the proper use of a manure fork, a beautiful ode to the manure spreader, a machine whose invention Logsdon claims as “more momentous than that of the plow, or the automobile,” and wonderful descriptions of the important animals in the nutrient cycle like the lowly dung beetle.
Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook, claims that Holy Shit “could very well be one of the most important books ever written.” Looking across the too numerous volumes of my library, I have to agree. Few subjects are more important than the soil. It is what our biological life depends on; it is the stuff from which we are formed. If that soil from which we came was good soil, soil rich in life and nutrients, it probably had some manure in it. Why wait until we die to give something back? From soil to soil—we could do it every day.
Ragan Sutterfield is a writer, teacher and farmer who lives and works in Little Rock, Arkansas and also is author of Farming as A Spiritual Discipline (Doulos Christou 2009).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com