Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What I learned in school today.

I spent a few hours staring at microfilm this afternoon. The most memorable thing I learned was the meaning of "night soil." When I first read the term, I didn't know what it was, but I quickly caught on. Night soil: human excrement; used as fertilizer. What a strange term. It was used in the report of the chief medical officer for the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia. I particularly liked this choice excerpt:

Reference is made, however, at this point to the custom of the Chinese to fertilize with liquified night soil the growing vegetables and as the Chinese coolies are the principal truck gardeners it is extremely dangerous to use uncooked vegetables in Siberia. Much difficulty will be experienced with untrained troops who have recently arrived and are ignorant of this method of fertilizing the vegetables to prevent them eating uncooked vegetables as those of Siberia grown very luxuriantly and are very attractive to the eye.

Let's hope the American soldiers were quickly informed!

What's more relevant to my own research is this comment on sanitary conditions in Siberia among the refugee population:

The condition of the [Trans-Siberian Rail]road was very poor owing to lack of funds and the chaotic state of the government; with literally thousands of the inhabitants living in the freight and passenger cars as they lay in the railroad yards throughout Siberia. These people had no way of disposing of their night soil, as a result the yards surrounding each station are covered with human excrement as no effort has been made in the past to remove it but once a year . . . .

Awful. As for using night soil to fertilize crops, it seems that the practice is unfortunately more widespread even in today's world than sheltered me might have realized (had I ever thought about it before).

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