Contemplative Jogging - The Blessing that is Biosolids

If you can’t do WEIRD, just skip this. This is definitely a weird series of “thoughts” that tie biosolids with the meaning of life.

I was jogging the other day, listening to the On Being podcast interview by host Krista Tippet with blogger Maria Popova, and her “Brain Pickings.”  I learned from Popova that when ideas come to me while jogging it’s because my mind is open to making connections and free associations. She was connecting the great philosophers and novelists of the ages; I am connecting with… well you know what.

While jogging, I had a streams of thoughts.

First, I was contemplating the statement I had made in my presentation last week at the NJWEA Biosolids Session that only 2% of Philadelphia’s biosolids metal loadings were attributable to significant industrial users, and that only about 20% to 30% could be explained by urban drainage and water system corrosion.  That leaves the majority of metals in biosolids to what passes through humans from the food they eat.  The food we eat, the source of biosolids metals.

Second, the thought of eating reminded me of my dietary transgression with a gooey Federal Donut donut. I had attended this past Sunday the 10th anniversary celebration of the Broad Street Ministry, which has highly-acclaimed program of serving the homeless of Philadelphia with food provided by local restaurants. At this celebration, the food was blessed by prayer. So, in my jogging-induced thinking, I wondered, when food is blessed, does that blessing flow to the metals that pass out of us at the end of the day?

Third, the thought of blessing reminded me of my story from 2005 to  the California Association of Sewerage Agencies describing “caganers.” Caganers are figurines, a religious tradition of the Castalan region of Spain, used at the Christmas season as tree ornaments. They all share the distinctive attribute of being bare-bottomed in a squatting position in the act of defecation. No icon of popular or political culture is unrepresented; you can purchase caganers of Obama  and Pope Francis. The thought was, yes, it is our own culture’s peculiar squeamishness that makes difficult to forge a positive connection between popular culture and this basic human function. It need not be so, I had argued in 2005.

Fourth, the train of thought brought me back to Atlantic City. The last speaker of the biosolids session, John Donovan, presented on lessons learned since the Interstate Sanitation Commission 1975 report on sludge.  To my delight, Donovan quoted the poetic writings of Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, honoring the potential for returning the fertility in sewage to farms outside Paris: “Those fetid drippings of subterranean mire which the pavements hide from you, do you know what they are? They are the meadows in flower, the green grass, wild thyme...”  In the hands of Hugo, recovery of nutrients is work of great existential importance.

Fifth, while driving home from Atlantic City, so soon after Donovan’s talk, an email popped into my iPhone. The message said a dear friend had passed away, not unexpectedly, from kidney cancer. I am going to his memorial service this Friday at a church sited on ancestral Toffey lands in New York State.  My friend had been the volunteer caretaker for an ancient cemetery whose oldest headstones include my 4th Great Grandparents Toffey. My friend also had been the inspiration behind the church’s new memorial garden for spreading cremation ashes.  The last time I visited this unique garden, I was with my friend, admiring the garden and making my “final arrangements.”  Now his ashes will be commingled with the soil.  The garden is recognition that out of death comes new life.

The sixth thought was of my father-in-law, Karl, whose ashes we will spread this summer. In the last visit my children made with him, Karl had my youngest son read to him William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis. The poem brought us all to tears. This was the thought that now connected to me
Thine individual being shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements;
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod which the rude swain
Turns with his share and treads upon.
The oak
Shall send his roots abroad and pierce thy mould.

The seventh thought surprised me. When spread in the garden, my friend’s ashes were being “land applied.” His minerals would “mix forever with the elements” of the soil. “Ashes to ashes,” as told in Genesis 3:19  Yet, flowers will grow from them, just as crops grow when, in our business, we “land apply.”

During my contemplative jogging, I came to see the flowing of elements from our bodies back to the earth as a sacred process. This is true in a memorial garden with cremation ashes, why is it not also the case for our daily processes. A very small portion of elements we consume daily are retained by the body. Yet, we need a daily intake of elements to nourish our bodies. The release of these elements by our bodies is part of a sacred cycle of life connecting to the earth.

Biosolids is a Blessing.