Try to imagine yourself in an extremely primitive setting, perhaps sometime around 10,000 B.C. Imagine that you're slightly more enlightened than your brutish companions and it dawns on you one day that your feces should be disposed of in a different manner. Everyone else is defecating in the back of the cave, creating a smelly, fly-infested mess, and you don't like it.
Your first revelation is that smelly refuse should be deposited in one place, not spread around for everyone to step in or smell, and it should be deposited away from one's living area. You watch the wild cats and see that they each go to a special spot to defecate. But the cats are still one step ahead of the humans, as you soon find out, because they cover their excrement.
When you've shat outside the cave on the ground in the same place several times, you see that you've still created a foul-smelling, fly-infested mess. Your second revelation is that the refuse you're depositing on the ground should be covered after each deposit. So you scrape up some leaves every time you defecate and throw them over the feces. Or you pull some tall grass out of the ground and use it for cover.
Soon your companions are also defecating in the same spot and covering their fecal material as well. They were encouraged to follow your example when they noticed that you had conveniently located the defecation spot between two large rocks, and positioned logs across the rocks to provide a convenient perch, allowing for care-free defecation above the material collecting underneath.
A pile of dead leaves is now being kept beside the toilet area in order to make the job of covering it more convenient. As a result, the offensive odors of human feces and urine no longer foul the air. Instead, it's food scraps that are generating odors and attracting flies. This is when you have your third revelation: food scraps should be deposited on the same spot and covered as well. Every stinky bit of refuse you create is now going to the same spot and is being covered with a natural material to eliminate odor. This hasn't been hard to figure out, it makes good sense, and it's easy to do.
You've succeeded in solving three problems at once: no more human waste scattered around your living area, no more garbage, and no more offensive odors assaulting your keen sense of smell and generally ruining your day. You also begin to realize that the illnesses that were prone to spread through the group have subsided, a fact that you don't understand, but you suspect may be due to the group's new found hygienic practices.
Quite by accident, you've succeeded in doing one very revolutionary thing: you've created a compost pile. You begin to wonder what's going on when the pile gets so hot it's letting off steam. What you don't know is that you've done exactly what nature intended you to do by piling all your organic refuse together, layered with natural, biodegradable cover materials. In fact, nature has "seeded" your excrement with microscopic animals that proliferate in and digest the pile you've created. In the process, they heat the compost to such an extent that disease-causing pathogens resident in the humanure are destroyed. The microscopic animals would not multiply rapidly in the discarded refuse unless you created the pile, and thereby the conditions, which favor their proliferation.
Finally, you have one more revelation, a big one. You see that the pile, after it gets old, sprouts all kind of vibrant plant growth. You put two and two together and realize that the stinking refuse you carefully disposed of has been transformed into rich earth, and ultimately into food. Thanks to you, humankind has just climbed another step up the ladder of evolution.
There is one basic problem with this scenario: it didn't take place 12,000 years ago. It's taking place now. Compost microorganisms are apparently very patient. Not much has changed since 10,000 B.C. in their eyes. The invisible animals that convert humanure into humus don't care what composting techniques are used today anymore than they cared what techniques may have been used eons ago, so long as their needs are met. And those needs haven't changed in human memory, nor are they likely to change as long as humans roam the earth. Those needs include: 1) temperature (compost microorganisms won't work if frozen); 2) moisture (they won't work if too dry or too wet); 3) oxygen (they won't work without it); and 4) a balanced diet (otherwise known as balanced carbon/nitrogen). In this sense, compost microorganisms are a lot like people. With a little imagination, we can see them as a working army of microscopic people who need the right food, water, air and warmth.
The art of composting, then, remains the simple and yet profound art of providing for the needs of invisible workers so that they work as vigorously as possible, season after season. And although those needs may be the same worldwide, the techniques used to arrive at them may differ from eon to eon and from place to place.
Composting differs from place to place because it is a bioregional phenomenon. There are thousands of geographic areas on the Earth each with its own unique human population, climatic conditions, and available organic materials, and there will also be potentially thousands of individual composting methods, techniques, and styles. What works in one place on the planet for one group of people may not work for another group in another geographic location (for example, we have lots of hardwood sawdust in Pennsylvania, but no rice hulls). Compost should be made in order to eliminate local waste and pollution as well as to recover resources, and a compost maker will strive to utilize in a wise and efficient manner whatever local organic resources are available.
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing,
PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.