Sunday, April 09, 2006

A History of Magic and Muck

In my last post, I satirized two attitudes that infuriate me. The first is good old American consumerism dressed up in green, saying in a deep, earnest voice that it is our duty to buy insanely expensive products that supposedly save the environment. The second is that there's no point in even attempting a green lifestyle because it is too expensive unless you want to be a dirty hippy. We should find a happy medium, you might say. Extremes are always bad, right? I'm more in favor of exploding the questions that trap us between two static poles. We should set a green agenda that is ambitious but not dogmatic, material but not consumerist, focused on individuals in families but engaged with the sociopolitical situations that we live in, and internationally-oriented without exoticizing the other. We've got to get beyond sheeshy green verses hippy green.

If you've been reading this blog consistently, you know I've made compost into a kind of metaphor for everything, a way of decomposing the familiar categories that hold us back, and coming up with something fertile. The following history is my way of suggesting an alternative, a third way of approaching green living.


Rivers and brooks crisscrossed the land. A half-man, half-goat played his flute in the woods. A hunter who ogled a nude goddess was turned into a deer. Garbage, as we know it now, was not practiced. People left their peelings, the uneaten innards from the hunt, and their own evacuations wherever they might. The world was their bathroom. If they turned their campsite into a dump, they moved on. They foraged somewhere else – the next meadow, another continent. The earth was its own waste management system. Then people took to agriculture and they built cities. That is when composting was first born. The earliest instances of writing – the clay tablets from Akkad, the capital of an empire on the Euphrates – mention the manuring of soil. Instead of moving their homes around, people carried their detritus out to the fields. As civilizations spread, so did composting. The Greeks, Early Hebrews, and Romans all described compost. The Arab Book of Agriculture describes the value of crushed bones, wool scraps, wood ashes, and lime in compost.

The invention of modern composting is attributed to Sir Albert Howard, an Englishman who lived in colonial India from 1903 to 1931. He promulgated the Indore Method, named after the state where he carried out his research, in a book called The Waste Products of Agriculture. The hallmarks of the Indore Method, and its many derivatives, are 1) the layering of nitrogen and carbon rich materials and 2) the turning or aeration of the pile. Hot backyard piles and industrial composting are largely derivatives of the Indore Method.

Sir Albert believed that the introduction of improved crops and better soil management could improve the total agricultural output of India. Unlike his peers in Europe, he did not look at nature as adversary, but as a teacher or the “Supreme Farmer.” Indian farms were just one step removed from the ideal of nature. He wrote, “The agricultural practices of the Orient have passed the supreme test – they are almost as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie or of the ocean.”

According to Louisa Albert, his second wife, Sir Albert saw in India a vast laboratory of composting, “a series of 100,000 experimental plots which were plain to the eye.” He traveled to Baluchistan and Kashmir, Sikhim and Nepal, and into Sri Lanka. He noticed that agriculture in the countryside was average but “where human excrement was daily deposited, was infinitely richer.” He lamented like other Englishmen that Indians did not use cow excrement to the same effect, but instead had to use it as fuel. Sir Albert was determined to use his resources as the Director of the Institute of Plant Industry at Indore to develop a way of creating a manure from unused agricultural waste like cotton stalks, grass, hay, leaves, and urine earth, mixed with some cattle dung.

Louisa sums up her father’s genius, “The solution of the manurial problem of India was thus to be found in the combination of animal and vegetable wastes. Yet India herself, in spite of her 100,000 'experiments', could not provide the final formula of success.” But the story is only half-told. Louisa herself notes that Sir Albert named a co-author to The Waste Products of Agriculture, an Indian by the name of Yeshwant Wad. Ironically, it was Wad – the child of the mystical Orient –who provided the scientific rigor of a trained chemist. He carefully documented the nitrogen ratios in each of the composting experiments. For some reason, Wad is never credited as a co-founder of modern composting. He is given little more mention than the nameless Indian men and women who constructed the compost bin, stacked the cotton stocks, mixed in the manure, and carted out the soil to the fields.

I have focused on the fact that modern composting was developed in colonial India, because it reflects one of the central tensions I feel as a parent. I always seem to end up in India whenever I start to dig into alternative parenting and green living. This has to do, in part, with India’s important place in the world, the depth of its history, and the innovations of its people. Or am I imagining my way back to India? Am I searching it out? I could be obsessing over India because I fear that my daughter, who is half-White and half-Indian, will be lost to the homogenizing forces of American culture. Its feels so odd to discover my own cultural through European or White American reformers. This story of Sir Albert, Yeshwant Wad, and Indian peasants is odd. I want to bare witness to its oddity in all its fullness.

Sir Albert was ridiculed by his European peers for his faith in “magic and muck.” He must have been a strange gentleman to devote himself to the study of Indian waste. Consider Florence Nightingale’s one-year public health mission in India. This what she had to say by the end in 1870, “[Indians live] amidst their own filth, infecting the air with it, poisoning the ground with it,” and “polluting the water they drink with it...some even think it a holy thing to drink filth.” Nightingale’s sense of compassion, her famously tender nursing of and advocacy for British soldiers in the Crimean war, seems to have failed her in India. Whereas Sir Albert studied waste management in India with a keen eye and helped improve it, Nightingale saw her own prejudices reflected back to her. It is not Sir Albert’s fault that the historians of compost give no credit Yeshwant Wad. At least Sir Albert had the courage to work with an Indian chemist and list him as a co-author. To think that modern composting was invented through the partnership of elites and subalterns – a churning of science and tradition that defies the boundaries we too easily believe in – this is the type of story I want to tell my daughter.

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