Forest walk (Unsustainability)

Forest/city walk: The weight of waste


This forest/city walk invites you to consider how you relate to the ‘waste’ you produce – both organic and non-organic. You will be invited to reflect on your capacity to see the planet and yourself as interconnected metabolisms and to evaluate your metabolic “literacies” – to evaluate to what extent you are capable of “reading” the dynamic processes around you and to what extent you are prepared to compost shit.

This walk consists of 3 parts. In part A you will read part of a story from the book “Hospicing Modernity” about how Vanessa (one of the instructors) learned to relate differently to what we call waste. In Part B you will walk with the visibility of your waste in a forest (or a park in a city, if you don’t have access to a forest). Then you will close with Part C, where you will be invited to reflect about digestive practices.

Part A: 

My sister from another mother, Mama Maria, is from Valle Sagrado in Peru. She is Quechua and lives in a place called Pincheq, near Pisac, in a piece of land at the top of a steep hill. When we found each other 20 years ago, that land had three small adobe buildings. The one with the thatched roof was the kitchen, and it had been built by her great-grandma 100 years before. The other two buildings, with tin roofs, were small bedrooms that also worked as living areas. There was no toilet on site. None. When I visited, she would insist that I took one of the two adobe tin-roofed buildings for the length of my stay, while the rest of the family (5 people, including small children) would sleep in the other building. I always felt embarrassed to be taking up so much space and tried to argue my way out of it, but there is no arguing about hospitality with Mama Maria!

Another thing that made me really uncomfortable in the beginning was the toilet protocol. Every night, Mama Maria would bring a bucket to my door with a huge smile on her face. In the morning, I was expected to hand her back the bucket with liquids and solids inside. I am convinced the huge smile was there to disarm me – she knew I would try to resist letting go of my bucket and she was ready to gracefully and humorously stand her ground. The first time she came for my bucket in the morning, I refused to hand it in. She insisted. I felt really attached to my bucket. I hugged it close and told her that I would dispose of the contents myself. She wouldn’t have me do that. She explained to me that I would not know what to do: that the liquids would go in one place, with one type of potato peels, and that the solid stuff would go somewhere else, in another compost pile that served a different purpose. Besides, it was rainy and muddy and the terrain was steep, so it would definitely be more work for everyone if I fell and broke my ankle, than to just hand in the bucket. I knew I could not win that argument. I had to put my pride and vanity aside and surrender the bucket. In our relationship, the practice of handing in the bucket, and later of holding the bucket, were to be repeated copious times both literally and metaphorically.


The project of the house of modernity is about achieving perfect form, efficient functionality, and maximum regulation, including sanitary regulation. The intention is to control nature and to achieve timeless permanence – to defeat decomposition and death. In order to do that, the house of modernity needs to hide the shit. Flush toilets are a great way of doing that. Flush toilets have been designed to sanitize our metabolic reality. We sit comfortably, dump our shit in clear water, and with a magic flush, the shit disappears, it is taken “away” forever. However, if we can pause for a second our sense of separability inherited from modernity, in order to see the planet as a dynamic metabolism, we may realize that there is no “away”: our shit goes somewhere even if we don’t know exactly where or face any responsibility for it.

Without flush toilets, Mama Maria knew what to do with liquids and solids in my bucket, she had metabolic literacies that modernity had deprived me of. It was clear in this case that my privilege was also a loss of capacity to “read” a lot of things. In this sense, modernity’s toilets make us illiterate: we lose the capacity to read what comes out of our bodies and how that part of us goes back into the land to feed other beings that in turn feed us as well. Without practices of metabolic literacies we cannot see ourselves as living metabolisms nested in wider metabolisms. Having the flush toilet as the “most civilized” practice of shitting is a terrible idea from a metabolic perspective. Flush toilets reinforce the belief that we are separate individuals entitled to poop comfortably, to send shit away with the water, and to not have to ever think about it again. Metaphorically speaking, this aversion, avoidance and lack of ability to compost shit may be what got us into the mess we are in.

Excerpts from Hospicing Modernity: facing humanity’s wrongs and implications for social activism, 2021

Part B: 

  1. For two days collect all the ‘waste’ that will end-up in the land-fill in separate container. See how your consumption patterns change just by this invitation. Pause and check for a short-lived-moment of accountability, that is, feeling accountable for your waste production for a brief moment in time, without doing the depth work necessary to inquire about the patterns and work through our compulsive patterns.
  2. Your task is to visit the forest/city, carrying this bag of ‘waste’ in a visible way. If you have to take public transport to the place of your walk, you need to find creative ways to bring it with you. Notice any feelings that may arise in relation to the people who you encounter.
  3. If you are going to a forest, before entering, ask for permission to enter.  Make an offering if you can. Enter only when you listen or feel a response (if the response is no, accept with grace and return another time).
  4. Walk around carrying the bag of ‘waste’. Notice any feelings of shame that may arise. How is your accountability to the non-human different from the human? Notice if part of you wants to  throw your waste “away”? Remember: there is no away. All of the stuff you are holding in your hand will go somewhere; even if you don’t know where that is.
  5. Notice the ways in which matter is transformed in this forest. There is no such thing as waste. The illusion of waste (deeming stuff as value-less and therefore disposable) is an idea from the house of modernity. The adoption of linear processes where we violently extract from the land, consume, dispose and then forget about it.
  6. As you keep walking around the forest with this bag notice if you feel like it is a burden. Remember that when we ‘dispose’ waste, we are only re-distributing the burden to the land: plants, fungi, other animals, and humans who work and live in/from landfills. When we throw stuff ‘away’ it doesn’t disappear. We are just hiding it. But at some point, the land saturates with waste and makes it confront it again. How can we notice when this is happening?

Part C: 

On your way back, think about the fact that everything that you put in your mouth is either already dead or dying and will be decomposed, or is alive and will add to the living ecology of your guts. Every day each person poops an average of 500gr of fecal matter. We have around 7.8 billion people alive today. You can do the math yourself. Remember that this is just organic stuff that is relatively easy to decompose; the other “shit” we discard (like plastics and other waste that is toxic to ourselves and the metabolism) is much more difficult and there is more of it.

Another interesting fact is that many cultures have prayers for things that go into our bodies, but not for what comes out. Across cultures, we have practices of gratitude towards those responsible for bringing the food to our tables. Some cultures also pray for the food to give them health and strength to be in service of others.  But, what would a prayer look like for what we return to the earth? Who or what would you be grateful for? What could be a good prayer for your shit and the land that will receive it (think beyond your own digestion)? If everything is sacred, pooping should not be an exception. What do you think your toilet socialization has given you and deprived you of? The next time you need to go to the toilet, pause for a while as things are brewing, and contemplate that part of you that will be released in a metabolic cycle that does not stop with the flush.

Mama Maria with NinawaNinawa and Mama Maria