Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Theology of Manure: SERMON and Readings for 3/14/2011 by W. Howarth

As I mentioned in my last blog installation, tomorrow is Sunday and the long-awaited Manure service!

I'm psyched.  This is my first time in the pulpit.  For those of you just tuning in... no, don't worry, I have not traded in my academic tassels (and mortar board) for a stole and white collar!  I've been invited to lead the service tomorrow as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Worship & Music committee at my church/fellowship.  It is a one time deal, I'm pretty sure.  But I may be so drunk on the evangelical power, I may refuse to come down!

I thought it would be fun to do a sermon on transcendentalism, then it GREW into something more personal.  I began reading about Margaret Fuller and then about Brook Farm.  This of course brought me to the Blithesdale Romance  and good old Nathaniel Hawthorne who had quite a time with his transcendental, back the earth, community living experience (as a side note, Hawthorne actually died in Plymouth, NH on his way to hang out in the White Mountains with former President Franklin Pierce).  The more I read about Nate and the ideas of 19th century transcendentalists (I've been playing with Thoreau now for sometime, as you know), the more connections I was able to make to my own experience living in community at Sadhana Forest, India this past January.

What else could tie all this together but MANURE?  Strange theme, I know... but you'll see, it actually works.  At least, I think so.   The big picture here is spiritual ecology, interconnectedness, and living in community.  It is the culmination of ideas I've been having throughout this BLOG so here it goes...

1st Reading: (From the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins)


In a sense, we have a universe above us and one below us.  The one above us can be seen in the heavens at night, but the one below us is invisible without a magnifying lens.  Our ancestors had little understanding of the vast, invisible world which surrounded them, a world of countless creatures so small as to be quite beyond the range of human sight.  And yet, some of those microscopic creatures were already doing work for humanity in the production of foods such as beer, wine, cheese and bread…  Composting is one means by which the microorganisms can be utilized for the betterment of mankind.

…Organic refuse contains stored solar energy.  Every apple core or potato peel holds a tiny amount of heat and light, just like a piece of firewood. 

Perhaps S. Sides of the Mother Earth News  states it best:

“Plants convert solar energy into food for animals (ourselves included). Then the [refuse] from these animals along with dead plant and animal bodies, ‘lie down in the dung heap’ are composted, and ‘rise again in the corn.’  This cycle of light is the central reason why composting is such an important link in organic food production.  It returns solar energy to the soil.  In this context such common compost ingredients including onion skins, hair trimmings, eggshells… and even burnt toast are no longer seen as garbage, but as sunlight on the move from one form to another.”

2nd Reading:
In a passionate love-letter dated April 13th 1841, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about his troubles with manure to his fiancee, Sophia.  In this excerpt, the ‘gold mine’ he refers to is 320 wagonloads of manure that needed to be spread in the fields:

Very Dearest, I have been too busy to write thee a long letter by this opportunity; for I think this present life of mine gives me an antipathy to pen and ink… I could not live without the idea of thee, nor without spiritual communion with thee; but, in the midst of toil, or after a hard day’s work in the gold mine, my soul obstinately refuses to be poured out on paper.  That abominable gold mine!  Thank God, we anticipate getting rid of its treasures, in the course of two or three days.  It is my opinion, dearest that man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap or in a furrow of field, just as well as under a pile of money… meantime, my health is perfect, my spirits buoyant, even in the gold mine.

Sophia Peabody, 


The theology of manure: sacred mystery, magical compost or mess? by Whitney Howarth

Nathaniel Hawthorne was 37 years old when he wrote the letter we just heard to his beloved Sophia.  He had just arrived the day before to Brook Farm, a transcendentalist Utopian community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. He would live and work here for the next eight months of his life.  Brook Farm was started by Boston Unitarian-scholar minister, George Ripley, as an experiment in social reform.  Both Hawthornee and Ripley were attracted to idea of living in a community of like-minded persons inspired by the hopeful dream of a better world.

George Ripley (1802-1880)

But despite lofty ambitions, this was, after all, a farm.  And a farm needed sweat and manure.  Hawthorn, a reclusive, well-educated, soft handed chap who had studied Latin at Bowdoin was little prepared for the physical exertions that the life at Brook Farm demanded of him.  His hope that the farm would provide a place of security for his future family, and a peaceful setting for his literary efforts, were soon dashed by the hard work of life in community.

When Hawthorne arrived at Brook Farm in 1841, he wasn’t famous yet and he didn’t have steady income.  He was secretly engaged to Sophia, partially because they feared her family’s disapproval.  He wouldn’t write his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, for nearly a decade (1850).  And it wouldn’t be until 1852 that he’d publish The Blithedale Romance, a novel based upon his experiences at Brook Farm.   For the manual work he did there during his stay, primarily milking cows and shoveling manure, he received room and board.  As a founding member, Hawthorne invested $1000 in the farm as a shareholder in the community project which would, at its peak, be home to about one hundred people.

Brook Farm
  Hawthorne had hoped to secure a home at Brook Farm for Sophia and himself.  However, he couldn’t endure the physical labor or the life in community. He left dissatisfied by the experiment and disappointed in himself.  A shy man, he found he did not care for the company of the zealous social reformers (larger than life personalities, plenty of big egos) and, he admitted, he was too exhausted by the work to find time to write.  His letters to Sophi suggest that his emotions swung between regret and ambivalence.  He went from idealizing the experiment as the epitome of social & spiritual progress to despising it as an unrealistic, impossible sham.   Eventually, Brook Farm went bankrupt and after an outbreak of small pox and a devastating fire, closed in doors in 1846.

Despite its failure as a Utopian community, Brook Farm had hosted some of the most brilliant thinkers, writers, social reformers, and Unitarians in the century:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to name just a few.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)

Nathaniel kept good company!  He was not alone in imagining a better world where people would come together, regardless of class, theology, or gender to create a model community by the sweat of their brow and the unity of their labor -  a place where all members might realize a higher consciousness, a deeper connectedness, to one another and to the earth. 

Just a short time ago, I traveled to India and entered into a similar experiment in community living with 10 students from Plymouth State University at an ashram devoted to sustainable living in Sadhana Forest, Tamil Nadu.  For three weeks, we joined 100 like-minded persons devoted to making the world a better place.  Like the residents of Brook Farm, we devoted ourselves to physical labor and radical simplicity.  We worked the land and shoveled tons of compost.  We rose at dawn to work in the forest and in the gardens, slept and ate in communal spaces, prepared food together in a community kitchen, and held workshops and discussion circles about ways each of us could change the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1802-1883)
At Brook Farm, the late night discussions at the hearth focused on temperance, slavery, and prison reform (topics hot on the social reformers agenda in the late 19th century).  Margaret Fuller showed up to lecture on transcendentalism and feminism.  Ralph Water Emerson stopped by to discuss his writings on “Nature” and the doctrine of labor.  At Sadhana, Monday nights we gathered around a blazing fire to sing African folks songs and raise our voices in devotional chant.  We had discussions about petroleum dependency, solar energy, permaculture, environmental sustainability and non-violent communication.

Dr. Thirunarayanan came to speak to us about Sacred Groves and Siddha medicine, a 10,000 year old  traditional healing system still practiced in South India today.  

A young man named Tim, spoke to us about the half dozen or so eco-villages he had visited in the last year travelling around the world on a Watson scholarship.  


We talked about why consumer capitalism and industrial agriculture had failed us, and imagined alternative, healthier, more fulfilling lifestyles.
We worked hard in the mornings.  Then we spent some afternoons visiting various faith religious sites.  One place we visited was Auroville, an experimental community founded by Aurobindo’s disciples.  Auroville is a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The self-stated purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity. 

The experiment has been on-going for over 40 years.  Today, Auroville is the home to 2,000 residents from over 40 different countries, a third of the residents are from India.  People are employed in agricultural enterprises, research, education, construction, information technology, small businesses and handicraft production.  Most members of the community subscribe to the idea of Karma Yoga; the idea that physical labor is a spiritual practice.  Work is holy. At Auroville they say “to work for the Divine is to pray with the body.” 

Karma Yoga inspired our work at Sadhana Forest, too. As we tried to build a community and grow a forest, we realized this spiritual practice wasn’t easy.

Work as sadhana (spiritual practice) was an idea we struggled with during our stay.  As Hawthorne had struggled with bodily fatigue and the discipline of daily labor on Brook Farm, so too did some of the students with whom I lived at Sadhana. Many found the conditions very rustic (thin mattresses on coconut rope beds, mice in the huts), the food too simple (a vegan diet, little spice and no sugar) and the physical work challenging.   As a result, for some, it was hard to connect spiritual practice with work. 

I struggled more with the challenges in living in community than I did with the physical conditions or the hard work.  Having lived in India before, I was accustomed to living in less than pristine conditions.  Being constantly dirty and sweaty didn’t upset me.  What I did find difficult was sharing work.  Particularly, sharing work with people who seemed less motivated and less invested than I was.  Some people were just plain lazy.  Some seemed to always sign up for jobs that were fun and quick.  Some people gave up on jobs that demanded too much effort or, sometimes, forgot to show up at all.  I found myself doing other people’s work and resenting it.  I bit my tongue, a lot, and tried to convince myself that doing more work, more energetically, was winning me more “spirituality bonus points”!  I discovered it wasn’t easy living so closely or so interdependently, no matter how like-minded we claimed to be as spiritual seekers. 

 The greatest spiritual lesson I may have learned at Sadhana was also my greatest ecological lesson. 


We are all interconnected by the choices we make, by the things we produce, by that which we consume, by the waste we create and excrete.  This sublime and challenging interconnectedness was never more evident to me and my fellow seekers there in Sadhana, living closely in community, in simplicity, without the modern conveniences and far from my ordinary life -- my life more idle, sedentary, and sanitary.

And nowhere was the interconnectedness of our choices and our communal efforts more apparent than in the composting toilets of Sadhana.  It was there that I discovered the theology of poo, the sacredness of manure and the mystery of muck. 

 Our poo was a constant theme of discussion at Sadhana, a running joke and a serious concern.  Keeping a group of 100 backpackers and spiritual transients living in communion with the forest healthy for weeks and months at a time is no small feat.  And for many of us, ill at ease with a purely vegetarian diet, supplemented by occasional trips to less-than-hygienic  Indian cafes and street stalls, we found our tummies uncooperative and our poo ample. 

Complimenting these realities was the fact that the composting toilets at Sadhana were squat toilets – two holes in the ground per stall – one for wet and one for dry. Use of toilet paper was heavily discouraged.  Indians don’t use it, it is un-environmental, it slows down the composting process.  Instead, water buckets were provided with small tin mugs for washing.  Large tubs of sawdust with their own mugs also sat nearby for composting.  Complex demonstrations were given each week by veteran staffers who had mastered the art.  In the toilets, poo was mixed with sawdust and allowed to ‘cook’ for about a month once the hole filled up.  The ever vigilant ‘hygiene teams’ came around once day to mix, scoop-out, and transport massive quantities of humanure to the large piles at the periphery of the ashram. There the compost cooked for about another year before it was hauled off in large buckets by volunteers to the forest, the orchards, and the gardens for use. 

Maintaining a vegan diet was a spiritual practice asked of us at Sadhana Forest.  Vegan here meant not eating any animal products (milk, cheese, or honey) but also not using animals or their manure for our own purposes.  Veganism as a spiritual practice meant that the intimate interconnectedness of our consumption and our waste was made clear to us in remarkable ways.  The energy we put in our bodies, what we ate from the gardens, was nourished by the energy that came out of us at the other end. 

Every act of eating, therefore, was a spiritual act because it not only provided energy for the transformation of our consciousness; it also fed the physical body that needed to labor in the forests and gardens.  The cycle was one of choice and consequence.  It was a new way of looking at consumption and waste – and realizing that nothing need be wasted at all.  Even our urine was used in combination with charcoal from the fire as an organic nitrate for the flower beds.  We had separate systems for collecting raw food compost (from the kitchen or from leftover salads) and collecting cooked food for compost (scraps and scrapings from the bottom of the pot).  Everything was used to make the earth grow and to keep us growing too.

We were asked not to consume processed, greasy, sugared, caffeinated or highly spicy foods and drinks.  We were encouraged to try the ‘hygiene team’ as part of our work so that we might get over our aversion to our own poo and have a deeper connection to that part of ourselves we often just avoid, flush and ignore.  By being more mindful of the product, the process, and the use of our humanure, we were also being asked to be more mindful of our consumption choices.  We were made conscious of the cycle of life.

In this way, we became more interconnected and more aware of the spiritual task involved in Karma Yoga.  Stirring, scooping and lifting buckets of humanure for multiple hours everyday in the hot Indian sun, weeks at a time, is not work for the feint of heart. 

To be honest, I didn’t do this job.  But two of my students did and they were proud of this work. We talked about why.  For them, it felt special.  They were moving beyond the restrictions of their own social conditioning which said: poo was bad, dirty and undesirable.  In fact, their work helped them to appreciate poo – to see it as something desirable.  Poo became central to the good work we were doing because it gave life to the trees and flowers and the veggies and the fruits we loved so much.

Thinking of manure as sacred may sound profane to those among you who haven’t worked a lot with manure but I’m sure it isn’t so shocking to the gardeners listening.  Manure and especially manure that has been composted is GOLD for gardeners.  Hawthorne may have been writing tongue-in-cheek to Sophia when he described his work on the dung heap as slaving away in the gold mine – but it was true!

My first encounter with manure came last summer when I found myself, like Hawthorne, shoveling the rich, black goodness for hours.  We bought yards and yards of it from a neighboring cow farm.  We spread it into the garden Michael and I share with Belinda in Thornton.  It was my first fore into serious gardening and it was my first exposure to animal excrement.  I remember being squeamish around the stuff at first, and then, after spending weeks shoveling and mixing it with our dry, clay soil, coming to actually love it.  As I learned to plant seeds and fertilize, to nurture and coax my baby veggie plants, I realized that my manure was magical.  It was life giving.  It was sacred mystery.  My peas popped, my beans climbed the poles, my squash squirted forth from the earth.  It was all a miracle. 

my beans
I am not the first person to recognize the miracle of manure.  Manure is actually mentioned quite a bit in the Bible.  Theologian Eugene Heideman has written about biblical manure and its life affirming capacity in his article ‘BEYOND DUNG: The Theology of Manure.”  Heideman claims that in the New Testament a sense of joy and gratitude surrounds references to the biological as a means of communion with God.  Manure, he says, and even death, have a place in the goodness of this biological world.  Manure enriches the life of plants, just as the plants feed animals and humans.  God’s creatures excrete waste products not only to maintain their biological equilibrium but also to ensure that vital nutrients are returned to the biosphere to sustain new life.

Heideman asks what does it mean for us, spiritually, that we modern Westerners flush away our nourishing waste and agribusinesses prefer Chemical fertilizers?    

It is sad that we dismiss manure as a four letter obscenity that has to be dealt with as a health/sanitation problem rather than the source of nourishment for other living things.  We may also be exporting our attitudes to the third world by exporting techniques (agriculture/sanitation) that make manure both unnecessary and unwanted. 

It is easy enough to thank God for a glorious sunset or the sweet taste of an apple.  When is the last time you gave thanks for manure?

I think there is a lesson to learn from all this.  There are lessons to learn from the writings of the nature adoring transcendentalists, like Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau – there are lessons in the Forest at Sadhana, in the fields of Brook Farm, and on the ashram of Auroville – there are lessons from theologians like Heideman and from gardeners amidst their happy heaps… 

The lesson is that we have the capacity to love and embrace ourselves; all parts of ourselves.   We can make the choice to love ourselves! To love those parts of ourselves that are both of the earth and return to the earth in one blessed cycle.

The lesson I have learned is that each of us has the capacity to love our selves fully; to love that glorious, magical, messy, mysterious connectedness we all share with the Divine.

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