Shit matters: Answering the call of compost in these times of exclusions
Keynote Speech at North American Permaculture Convergence
September 14-18, 2016
I am thankful for the wonderful opportunity to be here – to stand here, to participate in this assemblage of text, and script, and longing, and hoping, and not-knowing, and hugging, and dreaming, and caring. What is happening here is religion – maybe not old time religion with phallic spires and gyrating recipients of holy ghosts and speaking in tongues, but it is nonetheless a sacred grappling with things that often resist labels:
with what it means to be human in these times when we can’t be so sure;
with what it means to be gestating embryos of a system that doesn’t always value what we find to be meaningful and life-sustaining work;
with what it means to lunge at the prospects of a just world while being embroiled in the urgencies of paying bills, in sweeping our own floors, in keeping our cars running, in attending to our children, in struggling with who we are and the relationships that constitute us, and in burying seed or reaping grief.
This – what we are doing here – is our quest for answers where questions are not even clear…or final; this is our wanting things to be okay and to be part of something bigger than ourselves – even though those ‘selves’ seem to take up all our time nurturing. And taking care is never easy, straightforward or without shadows.
That’s what I’m here to talk about. And to do that I will be straying from beaten paths of permaculture analysis towards perverse directions that might I hope might queer our frames of thinking, challenge some of our fundamental assumptions about care, and shift our relationalities with planet, with place and people.
I come from Nigeria where the regimes of development and growth are hardly made visible, let alone contested. Where it seems the only way to address the system is to scramble at the gates of the heaven the system itself provides us. When I was born, my Yoruba parents named me ‘Adebayo’, which means ‘We have come and encountered joy’. For them, that joy had to be worked out within the established frames of a formal education, of getting good grades, of landing a good job, and living in a big house. Shopping malls were good. Asphalt was good. Speaking English was good. The world was not complicated then. Not before I began to notice that the big houses and large parking lots we fancied chased away people who lived there, and that the promise of a good life perched atop the pyramid of social mobility was a small space to occupy – a space with no gift, without community, without the enchantment of earth and soil and magic.
So I join you in this temple without spires tonight. I am no permaculture artist or expert; I am just a dilettante adrift on this wondrous contagion and secretion of yearning and longing, hoping that I can be my own daughter’s superhero, an orbiting satellite around the sun that is wife and life-partner, and a voice in a choir of voices that matters.
Pollinating my constant departures from my home, now in India, is among other things, the promise I made to Alethea, our 3 year old daughter: that I will protect her, and care for her, and build her a place she might with a soothing fondness call home. A cycle of generational yearning completes a haptic revolution, and the babe is now a parent. But what world did we bring Alethea into? What world will we leave her? A world of meaningless work and ecological distance? A world of unfortunate exterminations and weaponized exclusions? A world of Monsanto and Shell? These questions haunted us, and so we left our lecturing positions, my wife and me, and headed to the place of her birth in India, to make a life of small intensity, where god is present in every drop, every moment. A god of small things. To maybe grow our food, to shirk the kneejerk imperative to send our daughter to school, or to be careful that we do not force upon Alethea the burden of an already made world.
In learning to answer the call of nature, our lives were interrupted, generously.
Today I offer that gift of disruption in speaking of something as unsavoury and repugnant and yet distastefully familiar as excreta. I am here to tell the story of shit. Briefly. Yes, brown-black mottled chunky shit is what I have chosen as a site of analysis, and as a trope to situate my pirate thoughts on permaculture and the world we cultivate – many times unknowingly – with our hoped-for practices of justice-making. I’m talking about the thing itself, not a metaphor, not an exclamatory remark (like what you scream when something startles us), not a toned down, civil matter – but the bumpy, secretive, repulsive thing itself in its ongoing discursivity. Poop. The word itself lands with a jolt! It wants to be known. Wants to make a grand entrance. As such I stay with this figure because doing so might allow us to meet our discomfiture, unsettle our assumptions about care, meet the inappropriate, rethink the familiar, notice what we exclude from our gaze, stay with the discarded a little longer – and, as such, encounter the world in surprising ways.
In short, shit happens. And it’s happening matters because (as Dana Phillips remarks) “the call of nature is never one we can afford to ignore.”
We all answer to a lower power. To an excremental politics that shows up in unruly ways and at inopportune times. We are all intimate with shit: from the first moment we complete the world-defying act of cleaning our children’s buttocks, to the recognition that whale poop is effective for carbon sequestration, we are embroiled in an ecology of shit. There are cultural-political-economic dimensions to shit than cannot be easily characterized in a single moment. On the streets of many Indian cities and towns, where open defecation is an ongoing practice, it is not unusual to meet a steaming pile of cow dung smack dab in the middle of the road. My wife told me once that cows are often brought into new houses in Tamil Nadu to bless the building. If the cow defecates, the deed is done. Sometimes poop is smeared on walls to sanctify a place. Dana Phillips writes about the unexpected social and medical consequences of shitting for the Indian female who, because she often has to wait till dark to relieve herself in the open, risks snakebite. As such, at least in the so-called Global South, one is never really far from faeces.
And that’s a troubling thing because of sanitary concerns. We are told that a gram of faeces “can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs”. This multi-vocal ecosystem of contagious critters can have nullifying effects on our own survival. In the West, the porcelain convenience of the modern flush toilet emerged as a result of a Victorian sense of modesty, repressing the sexual undertones of sphincter contractions, and distancing the body from its messiness. An ideology of waste rapidly emerged, coinciding with the need to control, manage and tame bodily productions. Thanks to these developments, today, when we flush the toilet, we send our poop to a place called ‘Away’. Except that ‘Away’ is closer than we think.
Some weeks ago, I asked participants – mostly Europeans and Americans – on an online course I host to investigate where their poop goes to. To follow the smell of shit. The challenge was shocking for many, because as some later admitted, they hadn’t really considered that question. Even a lady who had once worked at a faecal processing plant in the United States found the need to ask questions about how this waste was treated, what chemicals were used, how these chemicals were disposed of and where, and whose lands were used as sites of disposal. We know that shit never goes away; it slips past our enclosures, filters into the air, returning to our food. The picture that is emerging is that we don’t know shit. We don’t know what to do with it.
The material promiscuity of poop makes it difficult to model or manage, or put in the family way. It is stunningly prolific. It’s not just that it is produced by our bodies, sometimes in excruciating ways; it’s that it produces us in return, shapes our lives, and defines our structures. Shit stumps us with its stunning agency and plays a very crucial role in worlding the world.
In shit, we meet the unsayable, an obstacle, a riddle, an impasse we cannot simply walk around. We meet nature, but the ‘nature’ we meet is not conveniently outside, or something that can be defined. Though we may work hard to contain it, it dances outside our frames like a drunken trickster. In one moment, it is compost, benevolent to soil, giving us food – and then in another, like a transformation from Jekyll to Hyde, it repels and frightens and interrupts our bodies. This re-description of nature as something, like shit, that resists names, final concepts, or models, hints at a ‘truth’ that many indigenous cultures have recognized for a long time, perhaps succinctly captured in the Indian proverb which says: to name a colour is to blind the eye. Immediately you define a thing, you cut out its multidimensionality. Nature is a performance; she resists stability. Nature cannot be protected, guarded, defended, preserved. She is not a resource by way of the commons – an already boundaried abstract we can wrap our heads around. We learn from perhaps the most eminent of western sciences, quantum physics, that the world isn’t made of things, it’s made of relationships. The boundaries and identities of things are always in motion, always in reiteration – so that when we speak about anything, we are always excluding something else of mattering. John Shotter writes that “no ‘things’ exist for us as fixed and permanent ‘things-in-themselves’ in separation from their surroundings. All ‘things’ exist as ‘doings’, as agential enactments, as focal things attended to from within a larger, ceaselessly unfolding, unbounded, fluid process…a world that is always in the process of becoming other than what it was before…”
Just like poop isn’t mere poop but is ideology, neoliberalism, gender relations, environmental data, caricature, porcelain dreams, comedic trope, Freudian ideal, public nuisance, bio-toxic nightmare, and sacred ritual, every object is already threaded through with multiple histories and agencies, and to properly account for that, we must turn our attention to the specificities of the practices that are producing ‘it’. Nothing comes without its world. And nothing comes without excluding other worlds. We ‘might’ ask then: what are we excluding? What is at stake? What are we silencing?
Permaculture is a certain way of caring for planet, for place and for people. With eco-innovative design, we want to lean into the soil, to reclaim our access to food and renounce the capitalist enclosures that poison the ground and isolate us from communing together. There is care given to how these knowledges are produced, evident from the practice of PDCs (permaculture design courses) and the institutionalization of other forms of discursivity. But that care isn’t innocent; it has context. It has exclusions and cuttings-out. To put it bluntly, permaculture is not a universal, neutral, decontextualized, abstract practice: it is populated by yearnings, by certain stories about the world and how it can work, by an ecosystem of ideologies – chief of which I suspect are the humanist ideas that we are stewards of the planet, that nature is essentially good, that we are the principal agencies that must work to solve climate change, and that – consequently – solutions are possible.
The questions that hang in the air in this place are: how do we preserve the commons? Achieve sustainability? Counter climate change? How do we preserve nature, care for planet? Give fair share? Ensure productivity? How come with all this work, the revolution hasn’t happened, the bastille has not yet been stormed, Jericho has not yet fallen? What can we do to scale up? Make this a global thing?
In asking this way, in caring this way, many other different ways of seeing are occluded – that’s because care is always selective. One of the questions I have been asking for some time now is why permaculture practice looks racially homogeneous. Look around you: there are beautiful, well-intentioned, sensitive people here. And yet if this were a sample of permaculture practitioners in the United States, it would be difficult to explain away the fact that it is predominantly white. 90% white according to recent estimates in a study conducted last year. The study suggested “that people of color are overall less likely than white/Caucasian people to participate…” and that the constraints on participation “may be due to increasingly limited access to the resources required to participate (such as time), increasing feelings of powerlessness that accompany marginalization, or increasing cultural alienation between privileged and marginalized subcultures, or some combination of these factors.”
Some of us already notice this. And with some of the practitioners I have spoken with, the response has been to say something to the tune of ‘hey, I know someone black or someone of colour that is an avid perma-person’, as if that kind of tokenism addresses the normative frames that upholds power in certain ways.
I would like to invite us to examine the contours and shadows of our care. To investigate how our search for highly productive landscapes, highly productive labour, ecological diversity and negligible soil loss already coincide with particular power dynamics and ideologies about an external nature we can heal if only we get our act together. Socio-demographic participatory diversity is needed in a time when racial tensions are high in the United States – when the deep wounds around husbandry and cultivation of food are still fresh because the scarred divisions between being black and being white, created by economic exploitative regimes, are even more sophisticated today.
The issue isn’t merely about being more inclusive, it’s about being more inconclusive. Elders in Africa say ‘you will find your way when you get lost’. Many of the practices that have been institutionalized into fixed permaculture practices and fixed expectations, and are now seen as solutions, didn’t even have names in Africa. There was a reason for that: you can’t name something indeterminate. The world moves awkwardly. Not in fixed algorithms, but in broken equations. Not in straight lines, but in drunken fractals. She unfolds in messy, less-than-linear, promiscuous patterns, in cross-fertilizing dalliances, in haptic involutions, in thickening palimpsests. In monstrous becomings and gaping holes. In not-knowings and experimentation. In spontaneous trials and magical causalities.
As I have said before, there is no commons, only a commoning. Nature is not an ‘it’, stable, fixed, passive and inert and awaiting protection. Nature isn’t necessarily benign or amenable to our plots and utopian longings. There isn’t even one nature: we produce and are produced by specific natures given the kind of stories and practices we share in a more-than-human world. If we tell the story that the world is an ongoing negotiation that will not always work ‘our’ way…fragile, vulnerable, intra-subjective, and more-than-human – meaning, in other words, that questions about the future will not be settled by the integrity of our models – we are likely to develop new modes of relating with the world. We might even notice how we are not even ‘human’ or ‘white’ or ‘black’ in any essential, unmoving sense.
Which brings us back to shit. We are in a hot mess, and I think this is okay. We need a politics – a compost politics that is about opening ourselves to the ongoingness of the world. Perhaps, with regard to the painful racial issues here in America, the killing of fathers and sons on the streets, and the government’s failure to address these tensions in any sustainable way, within a com-post politics, within an economy that emphasizes and celebrates sharing, a queering of the distinctions between black and white might happen, and those charged racial binaries will no longer be interesting. We will then take on new earthy colours and new differences. Our eyes, no longer beholden to easy monochromatic brushstrokes of all-white or all-black, might then be able to distinguish the many hues between: the speckled, littered, splotches of beige; the sun-bleached tones of sarcoline; the woody courage of wenge; the vulnerable saplike secretions of eburnean. We would see ourselves the way soil does.
Let us not despair that things do not seem to be catching on, that we are still at the fringes, that the world is not already covered in a permaculture fever, or that our efforts often feel like tantrums of a marooned sailor. It is not our place to tell the world what it must be, any more than a wave can aspire to be the ocean. It’s not a question of scale; it’s a question of unspeakable, preposterous complexity. This isn’t up to us. It might seem a harsh thing to say – especially if you still subscribe to the liberal, humanist ideals of being a steward of the earth, instead of the earth in a complex stewarding of itself – but the world is very often indifferent to human wellbeing, too promiscuous to abide by our models and bibles, and too indeterminate even to be fixed or stabilized into the telos of frontier settlements and borderland subcultures. We are part of an intricate, negotiated, often advantageous, less than linear, multivocal, multidimensional, material-discursive, always exclusionary, diffractive, messy, necessarily incomplete, orgasmic, worlding process – where knowledge is always partial and emergent only within the context of direct engagement, where boundaries are constantly troubled and care is inter- (maybe it is okay here to say intra-) dependently crafted in a more-than-human commonwealth, where a single earthworm burrowing into soil, turning and re-turning soil, ingesting, excreting, aerating soil, can upset our most well-intentioned paradigms of care and design; where a shrug of the shoulder is not simply a practitioner’s admission of defeat, but a humble acceptance that there are agencies, events and forces that matter, and that one’s own schematics are subject to those messy entanglements. Where effect sometimes comes before cause.
Permaculture might become some kind of eco-fascism if it is not practiced as a cultivation of impermanence. In fact, I make bold to say that permaculture is not a ‘thing’; it is not already defined – and any pretensions to finality is a denial of the flow of things. It is as fluid as the world is fluid, even though the significance of that fluidity – momentarily silenced by our fixation with concepts and models and courses and certificates and an identity politics that seems to privilege the fair-skinned ones among us – is not always seen. It has to be accountable to a world in motion.
Our bodies want to survive, to last – and, thankfully, we understand that this often happens in sympathy with healthy ecologies; with sensitive, troubled, design; with grounded knowings of perennial crops; with different relationalities with food. With brotherly conversation and the hospitality that invites strangers into one’s home. With tended gardens. With a hug and a firm handshake, leaning bodies and calloused smiles of soft acquaintance. But – and this isn’t a ‘but’ in the traditional sense – nature goes astray; she is not a body of laws or predetermined ideals. Our heads are not above the flirtatious inconsistency of clouds. [In the modified words of a new brother, Patrick Bresnihan, whose voice I cherish], there is no individual permaculturist strategically conducting themselves in relation to the (calculable) “long term” productivity of gardens. Instead, the “more-than-human commoner” is already entangled with human and non-human others, opening a less linear vision of the future: a future that is unpredictable because it is contingent on the less-than-perfect, shared process of negotiation in the present. We do not know the boundaries of the commons, because the commons is not a thing – even though we’d like to think it is. Because we are part of a common-ing, because we are part of an entangling, paradoxical, messy assemblage of apparent contradictions, of estranged ‘others’ we fight against, of haunted silences, of carbon footprints amassed over traversed miles (that needed to happen for this event to take place), of the contributions of neoliberal corporatism embodied in our phones and laptops, we cannot hope for pure homecomings.
I end with the words I have shared once before and feel compelled to share here: we are coming down to earth, and we will not arrive intact. And that’s some shit right there.
 Dana Phillips, Excremental Ecocriticism and the Global Sanitation Crisis (chapter in ‘Material Ecocriticism’, edited by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann)
 Dave Praeger, Poop Culture
 Rafter Sass Ferguson and Sarah T. Lovell (2015), Grassroots engagement with transition to sustainability: diversity and modes of participation in the international permaculture movement, Ecology and Society 20(4): 39 http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol20/iss4/art39/