Our respect for nature should be all-encompassing; it should even extend to poo, because poo is not disgusting, it's really quite magnificent!

I remember rattling along a dirt road in an open truck in Zimbabwe and seeing in the middle of the road up ahead an enormous pile of elephant dung - so fresh that it was faintly steaming. Stopping in front of it our guide jumped out, rolled up his sleeve and inserted his arm up to the elbow. He fished around for a moment then pulled out a large seed - the undigested stone of the plum-like Morula. He explained that the Morula fruit was a favourite food of elephants and that the seed had to pass through the elephant's digestive tract before it could germinate.

Growing up on a farm and having trod on cow pats and experienced the grotesque delight of having it squelch up between my toes, I was rather nonchalant about the concept of plunging into warm poo. Defecation is, of course, as natural as eating and occurs just about as often, and a herbivore's poo is nowhere near as rank as a carnivore's. But my reaction wasn't shared by all; some felt that feeling around in fresh excrement was repulsive.

My experience in Zimbabwe was an example of a wildlife guide who saw dung as a source of information about his work, but in some communities dung actually becomes part of people's homes.

Many residents of the Tibetan Plateau live in houses where the family dung mingles with that of their domestic animals. Yak dung is the fuel for almost all their heating and cooking needs and the accumulation is never cleared away - whatever is surplus to requirement simply piles up on the floor until it comes close to the ceiling, at which time the house is abandoned.

Most of us in the western world, however, have an aversion to poo - despite the fact that our urban environments are covered with thousands of tons of dog excrement, much of which disintegrates, blows about, and fills the air we breathe. It's a response that develops in tandem with habits of cleanliness, but its effect is to distance us from nature. It's a pity because when the subject of poo is understood conceptually, it is actually very beautiful.

The Morula tree wants its fruit to be eaten by elephants because it wants its seed to have the best possible start in life. And what better start could there be than a dark roller-coaster ride down the warm, moist digestive tract of an elephant? Caressed by waves of peristalsis and safe from the desiccating effects of the sun and wind, the seed can relax as its fleshy coat is removed, not by an attentive butler, but the action of warm digestive juices. As its hard shell is softened the seed activates its internal processes, ready for the climactic end to its long aqua-slide, where it plops out onto the ground. And then the final unexpected thrill as it is buried in a warm, moist wigwam of nutrients. What better send-off into the big, wide world could the Morula give its progeny than to entice an elephant over for lunch?

It's certainly an elegant win/win situation; everyone gets what they want, no-one is taken advantage of and both parties are better off. The Morula wants its fruit eaten and the elephant wants to eat it, sometimes waiting a few days for the flesh to ferment for the extra enjoyment of a Morula liquor. The elephant eventually wants to defecate and the tree wants to feed off its excrement and so on. It's a beautiful thing.

So the next time you're standing near a tree, take a moment to consider this extraordinary cycle. Say, for example, you're in front of an apple tree. Think about how the tree offers you its fruit from above, how you ingest it from above, absorb its goodness and convert the rest downwards into poo; how you release this to the earth below, how the tree receives it from below, absorbs its goodness and converts it upwards into fruit, and offers it to be eaten. It makes you feel duty-bound to give your waste to the soil, rather than - as we so often do - send it out to sea.

Our dung is our gift to the vegetable kingdom, and to the vegetable kingdom it is more valuable than gold, because it plays an important part not only in its growth but also in its ability to create future generations. Dung is the first great stimulator of the food chain, and the food we reap is our gift in return. The poo-cycle is a beautiful cycle, and together with the sun it sustains all life on this planet. How tragic it would be to see it as disgusting, when it is - in reality - quite magnificent!

Copyright © 2009 David Staume


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