WHAT GOES IN by Iris Anixter
IT’S A SUNNY TUESDAY morning, and my husband and I are in Nurse Nancy’s clinic looking at pictures of human feces.
“Like pudding?” asks Nancy from behind her wrap-around desk. Her face is creased with wrinkles, and her red-blond tinted hair is permed into an ’80’s style bob shot through with grey. Behind her is a bookcase filled with medical texts and academic tomes on gastrointestinal diseases. Above her is a wide-screen set for illuminating the x-rays of children’s abdomens.
“No, chocolate milk,” scowls my husband, Greg. I’m sure, he, like me, wishes we weren’t here discussing yet another complication stemming from our daughter’s premature birth, from her four years on feeding tubes, from the ever-thicker, caloric-intensive blenderized diets created to stifle her vomiting, from the chronic constipation she showed almost from birth that has changed name and frequency to become “encopresis.” Kindergarten starts in a few weeks, and Lori has been running to us crying, shaking, and pointing to brown smudges or black streaks on her white or pink or yellow undies. Lori is smart and spunky and sweet and loves gymnastics and books and stuffies. Kindergarten scares her. Kindergarten means leaving her preschool teacher and friends of the last two years for a big school where she’s a little kid who doesn’t know anyone. Kindergarten scares me, too, as I imagine “poopy Lori,” or “the shitty kid,” or any other schoolyard taunt that can all too easily ring out at recess. Luckily for us, our pediatrician understood what was happening and sent us to Nurse Nancy, who explains that Lori’s colon is so backed up that new poo forms a slurry sludge that slides past rock-hard stacks of feces.
Nancy sighs. She shakes her head. Sunlight streams into the small office as she describes the perfect poo, the Holy Grail of defecation we’ll find after two or three or five or forever years of Miralax, mineral oil, Fletcher’s pediatric laxative taken once or twice or as many times a day as needed until our daughter achieves daily bowel movements, brown and not black (the darker the color, the longer the poo has been stuck in the colon), not stinky either (same reason), but log-shaped with the consistency of applesauce.
“It needs to look like pudding,” Nancy insists, tapping her finger on the desk.”
“Well it looks like a smoothie,” Greg snarls.
I feel my body tighten, that well-known response to so many of these pediatric visits with so many specialists for too many years, but now, describing feces as food while logically correct is nonetheless making me nauseated. With nowhere else to look, I stare at the laminated page Nancy slides across her desk. In seven rows of five photos are more forms of human feces than I’d ever imagined: pellets clustered like berries; long, sausage shapes; clumps that rise to meringue-like peaks; puddles pale as beer; runny remains resembling soy sauce. Nancy and Greg are arguing, but I’m not listening. All I can think is: I never knew there were so many ways of looking at feces.
1. Feces remind us of who we are. Animal / Bodies is a book of poems by Lisa Couturier, who writes of birth (“My newborn nestled / against my chest / while we wandered the city…”) and death (“…They left / without their fallen one, wrapped / in his wings, like leather leaves…Forgive what’s said of you, bat. Head toward the stars”), both human and animal. What is between birth and death? Daily life; all the mundane acts of eating, breathing, adoring, wondering, worrying, dreaming, defecating. What goes in, what goes out, day to night, sunlight to darkness. Forget the public health arguments, the need for hygiene and sanitation, the wonders of the human mind at its beautiful best, whether the Lascaux caves, Michelangelo’s David, Voyager leaving the solar system. Every day, several times a day, we poop. We’re bodies. We are souls and spirit and inspiration and imagination, and we are always in and of our bodies. Perhaps we dislike defecating for the same reason we dislike our daily prayers: both are a necessary humility, a reminder of our bodily origins, of our place not in heaven but here on earth.
2. Feces are formal. I once attended a lecture by Margo Anand, where the world-renowned tantric master played a tape of an Indian guru (whose name escapes me) praising “fuck” as the most wonderful word in the English language, flexible enough to be used as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb (sometimes all in the same sentence), descriptive enough to express love or hate or anything in between from tenderness to annoyance, exultation to exasperation. Isn’t it the same with “shit,” capable of one meaning or many, from object to person to place, the best and the worst? Yet “feces” is more restricted: either a noun or an adjective, but never a verb, and even then, rarely heard outside a doctor’s office.
3. Feces are unwanted. Feces are expelled from the body, covered over, cleansed, reconfigured in sewage treatment facilities. Once out of us, we want them gone.
4. Feces are unmentionable. It’s not polite to discuss feces. Young children will talk about feces, usually at moments that will maximally embarrass their parents, and so will middle-aged spouses as words of romance are replaced by discourses on fiber, constipation, Metamucil versus Citrucel, enemas, a slowly failing digestive tract. But for the most part, we circumvent the topic with euphemistic talk of regularity, raw foods, roughage, good gut health.
5. Feces are secret. What’s unwanted and unmentionable becomes a raw and wild place. We hope the boundaries will hold; often they don’t. Secrets are transformative places; secrets can irreparably change a friendship, a family, a marriage; secrets can dedicate or destroy, repair, retain, plant seeds of change, turn wilderness into a garden and back again. Anything is possible when a secret is exposed.
6. Feces are body waste. Nothing more; nothing less. Undigested food, intestinal skin and/or mucus, parasites or bacteria or microorganisms that can include typhoid or other diseases, and other materials can all be formed in the colon and then expelled via the anus (or cloaca for some species such as birds).
7. Do vampires poop? This is a serious question, or at least it is to the participants of reddit.com’s AskScienceFiction group, who debated it at more length than it arguably deserved. Vampires drink blood, and blood contains micronutrients but not macronutrients, so there would be no digestion process producing indigestible waste, or so argued most of the people commenting. (This led to the question of whether vampires retain an anus, but we won’t go there.) For that matter, what about other monsters? Frankenstein wouldn’t poop (he’s doesn’t eat), but werewolves would (a lot). How does a writer create a new world? A few basic questions must be imagined: What food or water do a world’s creatures consume? What do they look like? How do they reproduce? How do they go to the bathroom?
8. Feces are a lifesaver, if you’re stranded on another planet. In the movie The Martian, a stranded astronaut survives by using his excrement as fertilizer in a makeshift garden. Something similar happens in another solar system on a planet that has a name I can’t remember. In this fictional world, Earth colonists are facing starvation on a planet where their animals die, their crops fail, and the local flora and fauna is indigestible. Luckily, there’s also an animal, one never seen and known only by the poop it leaves behind in its travels. The creature’s feces are edible, the only thing on the planet that is, and the colonists flourish.
9. In science fiction, so in space exploration: feces go with us to the stars. NASA held a Space Poop Challenge to design a long-voyage space suit comfortable enough to be worn for days at a time yet still able to let an astronaut urinate and defecate in zero gravity conditions without discomfort. Some 20,000 people submitted approximately 5,000 designs, with the three winning designs consisting of a spacesuit with an airlock at the crotch through which inflatable bedpans, diapers and underwear could be passed, an “air-powered system” that would push waste away from the groin and toward other areas of the suit for storage and removal later, and a garment worn close to the skin that disinfects and stores waste within the space suit.
10. Feces are our daily diary. Nurse Nancy gives us a set of 8x11 white sheets, where we will write down in small rectangular boxes how much Miralex and mineral oil was given in the morning and how much at night, whether my daughter pooped, how much, and when. But is it really so simple a record: times and dates and color and amounts scribbled in a tiny box? Looking at my daughter’s poop chart is like deciphering hieroglyphics charting her prior 72 hours: how much fiber she had, how much water, what she ate and with whom? Having spent so much time in her body, who’s to say this poop we examine and measure (my estimate of ½ cup is my husband’s estimate of ¼ cup) isn’t her, isn’t who she is and how she lived, even if all we do is flush the poop down the toilet and put the sheets in a folder by the microwave?
11. Feces are a sign of spring’s fecundity. By early May, the sweet-sour smell of cow manure rises in wisps off lawns and backyard farms until one would think my residential, blue-voting neighborhood is a stockyard.
12. Feces are money for a good cause. In my early thirties, I was a professional fundraiser for a nonprofit food bank. One day, I found myself stuck in a conference room at a b-list hotel offering middling downtown views, stale sugar donuts, and bitter coffee for a training hosted by a failed actor turned professional auctioneer who did the society events that pulled in six-figures or more for symphonies, aquariums, and other charities. Between sage words on whether to put up for auction Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs (don’t do it) and firearms (ditto) was advice on ZooDoo: “Lock it up early! This town goes gaga for ZooDoo!” Said sure-fire money-maker is feces gathered from the local zoo’s elephants and hippos, giraffes and antelopes and other herbivores, and then turned and tended in compost beds until it becomes premier organic fertilizer.
13. Feces aren’t Hitler. An artist created a series of portraits of Adolph Hitler, with the dictator and mass murderer’s face painted in feces so as to depict Hitler “…in the worst possible way…” (or so I recall the wording in the artist’s interview) by using the most revolting of materials, outcast elements not in keeping with human society. I disagree with this approach. Feces are an inherent part of the human body, just as anti-Semitism was (and still is) an ongoing part of the human body politic. But feces have a positive role in improving well-being; anti-Semitism is never positive and never will be. Why malign feces by placing them in the same context as Hitler and his many willing executioners obscured by his image?
14. Feces tell us who our neighbors are. Several years ago a backyard visitor left a mound of black poop, not the tootsie-roll shape of dog feces but not loose either. Threaded through were strands of grey fur from a cat or rat or rabbit that fought unsuccessfully for its life. A predator’s scat. Poop was there again a day or two later and in the same place, namely the center of the cement carport, itself strategically placed at the nexus of the east-west alley running behind our rented house. The poop was left at night or very early morning, never mid-day. A secretive animal, and after the third mound, I was certain the creature was communicating, but with whom? Then a neighbor said he went to his yard at dawn and startled an animal that leaped several feet straight up onto a fence, where it balanced perfectly before leaping to the other side and disappearing into someone’s backyard. Not something a dog could do. A large fox, wondered the neighbor. A coyote, I replied. One morning there was no carport poop. Instead a mound had been placed in the center of our north-south driveway just as it emptied to the street. The message was clear: the driveway, the alley, the house is mine; move on; get lost. I still wonder, though, whether the message was for our neighborhood’s many coyotes, or for us.
15. Feces demonstrate family loyalty. Tiger, a black-and-grey tabby cat, is a former stray that showed up on my doorstep some eighteen years ago when he was young and frisky and playful. Now he’s old, and in and out of his litter box throughout the day due to diabetes. He’s too arthritic to clean himself and so tracks kitty litter in his increasingly matted fur. Sometimes, feces cling to his hind legs only to fall as he wanders the house. We’ve found cat feces in our bed, the kitchen, hallway, stairs, my basement office, and in the shower. After nearly two decades, Tiger is part of our lives, not a child but more than just a pet, and he and his poop remain in our hearts and home.
16. Feces foster conviviality. Cockroaches expel gut bacteria when defecating. Other roaches find the odors appealing. Rather like martinis at a cocktail party, cockroaches with lots of bacteria become the life of the vermin party, attracting friends and companions. Roaches without the right bacteria are as lonely as teetotalers.
17. Feces express folk language. “Don’t shit where you eat.” “Doesn’t know shit from shinola.” “You’re shitting me” (and many variants). When feces become part of folk expression, the result is language that’s basic, visceral, forceful, and earthy. Rather like feces themselves.
18. Feces foster health. Fecal transplants, where stool is transferred from a healthy person to someone struggling with infections of antibiotic resistant Clostridium difficile, are effective in ending the debilitating diarrhea and other conditions that kill upwards of 14,000 people yearly. Research is underway to see if fecal transplants would be effective as a cure for Crohn’s, obesity, and other gut-related disorders. For those who can’t stomach a transplant (no pun intended), pills filled with fecal bacteria are under study.
19. Feces fuel altruism and capitalism. OpenBiome is the nation’s first stool bank providing carefully screened feces to hundreds of hospitals and clinics across the country in an effort to make an expensive treatment available to all. Fecal donors receive $40 per donation. That’s small potatoes compared to the millions that venture capitalists are pouring into fecal treatment research. Feces, it’s felt, will one day be a medical wonder drug making millions for visionary, rule-breaker investors.
20. Feces are nurseries. Dung beetles will lay their eggs in carefully tended balls of poop left by other animals so that the newly hatched beetles will have a ready supply of food.
21. Feces promote species conservation. Sequencing DNA and then identifying specific species from it (the “Species from Feces” technique) has proven effective in distinguishing up to 54 different bat species, which are difficult to identify and study due to their small size, nocturnal flight, and preference for caves, bridge under-sides, and other inaccessible habitats. Once it hits the ground, feces are stationary, easy to collect, and a cheap way of identifying the presence and habitat needs of rare, invasive, or common bats, which is a first step in protecting some of the world’s declining pollinators.
22. Feces are field guides. I’ve learned to haul my Field Guide to the Birds of North America with me on hikes and use it well. So, too, my butterfly and various botany field guides, but what remains incomprehensible is telling rabbit scat from bobcat scat, deer scat from raccoon scat. Field guides for these all-too-common species markers exist. But just as some people are plant-blind, unable to distinguish even common backyard weeds, in the woods I am scat blind. How much more of the world I would understand if I simply learned to look at what I so carefully walk around?
23. Feces fuel renewable energy. Britain’s bio-bus runs on biomethane generated by treated food waste and human waste. A 40-seat bus can run approximately 186 miles per tank. How much human feces and other waste is needed to make a single tank? As little as is excreted by five people over the course of a year. Biomethane gas is also collected to power Britain’s homes. Given how many millions of people there are in the world, and how often we poop, feces are the ultimate renewable energy supply.
24. Feces mark life’s milestones. Making the transition from diaper to potty seat to toilet, and in other ways controlling one’s bowels and bladder, are developmental steps indicating a child’s successful journey toward adulthood. And at the voyage’s other end? Loss of control over our bowels and other bodily functions often signals we are another step closer to death.
25. Feces solve crimes. What happens when a killer steps in the poop of his or her victim’s pet before leaving a crime scene? Police can collect the suspect’s shoes, from which a forensics lab can collect fecal matter. If the DNA on a shoe’s tread shows a match with that of the victim’s pet, it establishes the killer was at the crime scene around the time of the murder. How promising a technique is this? There are veterinary forensic labs set up to discern this and other animal-based clues.
26. Feces reveal the “poop and runners.” As dogs become more numerous, so, too, does the amount of dog feces left on sidewalks or other public places. The Israeli city of Petak Tikva piloted a program whereby dog-owning residents have their pet’s poop scanned for DNA patterns. Dog owners who put their pet’s feces in specially marked bins are rewarded with pet food coupons and dog toys; owners who leave their pet’s poop on the street for someone to step in can get fined for a “poop and run.” In the U.S., condo and apartment managers in Seattle, Miami, Dallas, and Los Angeles are increasingly requiring dog scat scans, and the practice appears poised to spread nationwide.
27. Feces are the ultimate unwanted gift. I Poop You (ipoopyou.com) is an online (of course) “professional poop delivery service” of “High Quality, farm raised and Eco-Friendly, hand-picked animal poop” (no third-party certification is given), that guarantees “fresh & smelly” deliveries to the door of your ex-romantic partner, boss-from-hell, next door neighbor of the mid-week all-night keg parties, landlord who kept your security deposit, or anyone else who deserves feces in a gift-wrapped box. Deliveries can be anonymous (no surprise) or include a personal card, all from a company in San Francisco that refuses to deliver poop for reasons of “…harassment, annoyance, provocation, stalking, humiliation, embarrassment, intimidation, bullying of minors, or any illegal purpose whatsoever…” (Are there other reasons for sending anonymous poop deliveries through the mail?) Goat bites (“…adorable but not so cute…”), chicken delights (“Smelly and disgusting though low in calories…”), oink-oink turds (“…you can’t go wrong…”), horse spring rolls (“…100% organic…”), cow chocolate pudding (the name suffices) and Thanksgiving…A Shit (“…Turkey says: Eat this!…”) range from $14.95 to $24.95 depending on the species and how much is sent. Truly inexpensive for a gift that will never be forgotten.
28. Feces are the dregs, literally. The word “feces” comes from the Latin “faecus,” meaning sediment, the dregs (the bottom), although the English use of the word isn’t associated with human waste until the early to mid-1600s. “Defecate” also comes from the Latin, specifically “defaecatus,” meaning to “cleanse from the dregs, purify.” The many synonyms (manure, scat, excrement, bodily waste, dung, and more) don’t carry those moral overtones of getting rid of the worst, the lowest element.
29. Feces can be the raw fiber of literature. All paper is made from fibrous materials turned into a soggy pulp, then spread over a framed screen where it dries in thin sheets. The paper I used to write this essay is 30 percent post-consumer recycled paper that originally came from trees, but increasingly common, and far more sustainable than large-scale tree cutting is paper made from the fiber-infused poo of elephants, horses, and other herbivores. Poo paper can promote conservation, as in Sri Lanka, where one fair trade company is building an international market thereby giving local people an economic incentive to keep elephants alive and on their lands.
30. Feces can replenish us after a disaster. Ecological toilets in earthquake-torn Haiti separate out feces from urine, which are then taken to a composting facility and exposed to heat-generating microbes that kill disease-causing bacteria. The newly formed compost becomes nutrient-dense soil used to grow foods in community gardens or to replenish soils on lands depleted by over-foresting and other development.
31. Feces are love. What else brings us to Nurse Nancy’s office? Love as verb, not noun; love as action, not feeling, because all I’m feeling is queasiness in the black office chair as I look at Nancy’s poop pictures. Not so much nauseated as sick of it all: weary of my daughter’s medical conditions, of calls to nurses and appointments with doctors without end; exhausted with first counting ounces of food consumed, and calories, and daily weight, and now feces and Miralax and mineral oil. Nurse Nancy warns us that some kids never get off the medicines. But we love our daughter. And feces, like love, is the end result of daily, often unexamined kindnesses of cooking, feeding, caring for, all those other mundane motions done day after day, rarely remembered, as if our slate had been wiped clean; the love in each day done, dismissed, forgotten and, yet, laying a foundation for all of our days.
IRIS ANIXTER is a former poet and photographer turned essayist, who hopes to soon be retired from the nonprofit sector. Her non-fiction has appeared in Hippocampus, Ducts, and Compose—A Journal of Simply Good Writing. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her at irisanixter.com.