All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Holy shit, new books about poo

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I just finished two (relatively) new books on the topic of shit (something I never seem to tire of, somehow).


The origin of feces, by David Waltner-Toews (Toronto: ECW Press, 2013) is a delightful but flawed compendium of anecdotes, etymologies, and interesting tales.  Waltner-Toews is a veterinarian and epidemiologist, and his book is a testimony of how much personal experience he has on the topic: who else would devote a large portion of an African safari to the examination of dung beetles?  For that matter, who knew that dung beetles were once imported to Australia because the continent was getting covered in cattle and sheep manure that the local ecology had no means to deal with?

Where the book excels is where the author describes links between intestinal flora, manure, and disease.  For instance, there is an excellent description of Chagas disease, a parasitic disease transmitted by the kissing bug. The kissing bug feeds of the tear ducts of sleeping humans, and the parasite finds its way to the bloodstream when the sleeper awakes and rubs his eyes to relieves the irritation caused by the frass (a fancy word for insect poop) left in the eyelids by the bug.  From the impact of antibiotics in cattle manure to the fact that stealing manure was a capital crime in 18th century Japan, the book is full of delightfully disgusting anecdotes.

But there are flaws in the book.  Waltner-Toews gets some basics wrong, such as photosynthesis (plants release oxygen during the day, not at night) or ocean iron fertilization from whale poop (which needs to be above the photic zone to work, not the opposite as stated in the book); I hope that this only indicates sloppy editing.  But what about the true origin of feces, from an evolution standpoint?  Nothing, nada, zip – given the title, I felt let down.

But it’s still a fun book.  Where else would you find passages such as “How can we recover, if not a sense of celebration, at least a sense of meaning, in our shit-making? Where could our culture look for inspiration?”


Gene Logsdon’s Holy Shit (2010, Chelsea Green), in contrast, is flawless but more specialized.  As a farmer and former writer for Biocycle, Logsdon specializes in manure management and the book has a wealth of practical advice for any aspiring hobby farmer.

You’ll learn from the book that pig manure stinks really badly only when pigs are fed an industrial high-protein soybean mix; that odours can be controlled using traditional methods and ample bedding. You’ll learn that roundworm eggs from manure can survive up to two years in the field, illustrating the importance of proper rotation, and of composting manure.  You’ll learn that composts made from animal manures are an effective control against plant diseases, though no-one knows exactly why.  You’ll learn why it is a bad idea to flush away cat poo. 

You’ll learn that and much more in this well documented and easily readable slim book, should you care.  And you should; I know I do.  In both books, the ecological significance of shit as a vital resource as opposed to a problem comes through loud and clear.

And more importantly, you may have developed a “sense of celebration and meaning in our shit-making.”  Or at the very least, you’ll be equipped with a wealth of anecdotes for your dinner parties.


Written by enviropaul

September 2, 2013 at 5:56 pm

One Response

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  1. […] written about this topic before, including a few book reviews (here and here), a paean to whale shit here, or a look at how the costs of sewers in a sprawling city can be […]

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