Hugo, humanure and nettles

One of the original illustrations to Les Misérables (1862)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Anne, our neighbor with the pea-ravaging Chihuahua, brings to our attention the fact that Victor Hugo was a humanure enthusiast, and in fact dedicates long passages of Les Misérables to it.

This is taken from Volume V, Book 2 (The Intestine of the Leviathan), Chapter One, provided by Project Gutenberg:

Paris casts twenty-five millions yearly into the water. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? Day and night. With what object? With no object. With what intention? With no intention. Why? For no reason. By means of what organ? By means of its intestine. What is its intestine? The sewer.

Twenty-five millions is the most moderate approximative figure which the valuations of special science have set upon it.

Science, after having long groped about, now knows that the most fecundating and the most efficacious of fertilizers is human manure. The Chinese, let us confess it to our shame, knew it before us. Not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckberg who says this,—goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young as in the days of Abraham. Chinese wheat yields a hundred fold of the seed. There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.

What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss. 

Fleets of vessels are dispatched, at great expense, to collect the dung of petrels and penguins at the South Pole, and the incalculable element of opulence which we have on hand, we send to the sea. All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, restored to the land instead of being cast into the water, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those heaps of filth at the gate-posts, those tumbrels of mud which jolt through the street by night, those terrible casks of the street department, those fetid drippings of subterranean mire, which the pavements hide from you,—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening, they are perfumed hay, they are golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are joy, they are life. This is the will of that mysterious creation which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven. 

I’ll stop there, but it goes on…and Anne says he brings it up again later.

As I recall, Hugo also had a thing for nettles….hey, wait a minute! Turns out that his rant about nettles is in Les Mis too:

One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: “They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!” He added, after a pause: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

I’ve never read Les Misérables, but I’m beginning to think it should be required reading–just for his asides. It’s time to face my PTSD from the musical and embrace the book–all three billion pages of it.

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  1. Les Mis is on my TBR pile, too, and now seems there’s an even better reason to read it than just that it should be read ;).

    What’s funny is that I do remember hearing when I was growing up that the Chinese used humanure, but it wasn’t considered a good thing. I remember hearing that their choice of fertilizer was the reason they cooked all of their vegetables.

    Of course, at this point in my life, I’m in a much different place, and I have to say I agree with both Hugo and the Chinese and that we need to start making better use of the gifts we’ve been given ;).

  2. There is a great difference in safety between putting fresh manure on as fertiliser and using well composted manure. When reading the humanure handbook, this issue is made very clear. The historical use of humanure did not involve composting it first, hence the need to make certain that all field-raised vegetables were cooked…

  3. There is a big difference between composted human waste and not. Those of us who remember the back to the land movement of the ’60’s know of those who put their gardens “downstream” from their outhouses and the problems they faced . .
    ignorance is not always bliss

  4. Rotting it well is important of course; most manures have to be rotted. Rabbit manure is the only manure that can go on hot, except worm castings, of course.

    However, the point here is to do it!

    After Friday’s earthquake in Japan, I finally got off my duff about getting earthquake supplies together. (It just makes sense; tectonic energy is released a little at a time along a fault. Japan’s quake was so big, there has to be another coming sometime, and there’s no telling where on the Pacific plate it will happen. Luck favors the prepared, so I’m preparing.) One of the things we got was a tarp, toilet seat and five gallon bucket for a composting toilet should we need one. But there’s nothing that says I can’t rig it up early and start using it. Well, except my husband. He’s kind of slow to adopt things. I still can’t get him to pee on my compost pile for me….

  5. oh yeah! you remind me I have nettle seeds that need to be planted! Also comfrey, which is really good for the compost pile. I also read somewhere that comfrey leaves make a good toilet paper, in case you can’t get toilet paper…

  6. The poop depends on the eating too… The cow eats anitbiotics and hormones, We eat the cow/drink it’s milk… even after composting, those chemicals would end up in our veggies…. So be careful where the poop you use comes from. If you control the whole circle you are fine.

  7. As a former grad student in French lit, I have to say that Les Miserables is one of my least favorite Hugo novels. However, maybe I need to re-read it in light on humanure and nettles. Sounds very enticing!

  8. I have plans to just have my kids pee in a bucket in the bathroom. Maybe you can sneak the bucket into the toilet in the middle of the night. That way, your husband can help you in spite of himself.

  9. Coming a bit late to this topic, sorry – just found this wonderful blog and it’s all I can do not to spend all day perusing it. I wanted to recommend an alternative to the humanure toilet that consists of a bucket for waste that goes to a compost pile. A dry toilet that separates liquid and solid wastes takes a bit more effort to construct, but can eliminate most interaction with solid wastes before it becomes the best compost ever, and the issue of maintaining a compost pile hot enough to safely process human waste. I’m embarking on a self-build home project in Venezuela in a rural area where there are only the dreaded polluting septic tanks as sewage, and before we build the house the first thing we will build is a bathroom with this kind of toilet. Later, when we build our main house, we will also include this kind of toilet.

    I’ve only researched this in Spanish but this link: if you scroll down has lots of drawings that I think make the concept clear. These types of toilets can even be retrofitted onto existing houses. Anyone interested in knowing more should feel free to contact me through our “oh my goodness we’re going to build our own house” blog at Saludos to the whole root simple community!

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