July 26, 2023

Ecstasy at Esalen

Recently, I read an article in The New Yorker with the title, “The rebranding of MDMA,” which most people these days know as Ecstasy. The article mentions a number of people I knew when I was traveling in those circles, beginning almost four decades ago. So, naturally, it brought back my own memories of when I first experienced MDMA.

In one of my x-rated books, I wrote about my adventures when I first discovered and began to use MDMA, years before it became well known as a drug for raves and recreational uses. Indeed, it was perfectly legal then, though not for long. I was one of the lucky ones because I received my first and subsequent doses from a close friend of the chemist, Sasha Shulgin, who had synthesized it in 1965, so I could be assured that what I was taking was the real deal, pure and unadulterated.  

I thought you might be interested to read what happened to me, and where, when MDMA came into my life, so here’s the story….


In August of 1984, I was out in California on a lecture tour and to see some professional colleagues in connection with my work and my recently published book on near-death experiences, Heading Toward Omega. The last of my talks on that visit was to a medical society in the Bay Area that had been arranged by my cousin Cliff, a cardiologist. That evening, while I was still at Cliff’s house in Orinda before leaving the next day for Los Angeles, I received a phone call from another Orinda resident who was, but would hardly remain, a stranger to me. Her name was Emily.
It turned out that Emily had read my first NDE book, Life at Death, and wanted to talk to me about a professional matter concerned with that book. Since she had serendipitously discovered that I was staying very near her own house in Orinda, she wondered whether I could come over to meet her while I was still in town. I explained that that would not be possible since I had to pack and leave the next morning. Emily countered by asking whether it might be possible for me to take some time on the phone now so she could explain just a bit about what she had in mind.
She had a very pleasant and gracious manner of speaking – there was certainly something very appealing, almost seductive, about her voice – so I readily consented. She then had a bombshell to drop concerning another invitation altogether.
Emily told me that she had been working with an oncologist and that they were both concerned with trying to find ways for terminal patients to die with less fear and with a sense of some kind of transcendental revelation similar to that which near-death experiencers often report. In fact, what they wanted to try to do was to induce something like an NDE, and the means that they proposed to use for this purpose was the anesthetic, ketamine. Because Emily had read my book on NDEs, she said she regarded me as an expert on the subject, so she had suggested to her oncologist colleague that she should ask me whether I would be willing to be a “professional subject” who would take ketamine under supervision in order to see the extent to which this drug would mimic an actual NDE.
In my mind I remember thinking, “Oh, God, wait just a minute.”

I already was familiar with work that had been done with terminal cancer patients along these lines using LSD that Stan Grof and Joan Halifax had described in their book, The Human Encounter with Death. They had indeed shown that LSD employed in this way was sometimes capable of inducing an experience that had many of the same components and aftereffects of an actual NDE, including in most cases a reduction in the fear of death and an increased expectation of some form of life after death.
But ketamine was another story. I knew something about this drug from having read about John Lilly’s experiments with it and from some other sources, and what I had heard had certainly made me wary of it. I definitely had never had any interest to try it – if anything I was averse to doing so, particularly because I knew that it was administered by injection. Thoughts of heroin addiction flickered through my mind.
Besides, my days of using psychoactive drugs were by then long passed. I had experimented with LSD, peyote and psilocybin for a while during the 1970s, but I had taken them only about once a year, and had stopped for good in 1977. I had no desire to try anything new along those lines, and certainly not with anything like ketamine, which for me was a drug associated with real risk and danger.
“Ah, I don’t think this would be for me, Emily."

She had an alternative proposal ready.
“Well, you don’t have to make up your mind now, Ken. Just think about it, and let me send you a little literature on the subject, OK?”
She then happened to mention that the following spring she would be coordinating a major invited conference on psychedelics at Esalen Institute in Big Sur and wondered whether I would have an interest to be there, particularly because John Lilly himself would be attending it. She mentioned that it would be held during the very first half of June, 1985.
Now here’s the kicker.
Emily did not know when she tendered this invitation to me that I would actually be at Esalen at exactly that time. I had first been to Esalen in 1983 when its co-founder, Michael Murphy, had asked me to come out to do a program on NDEs. It was successful and Michael and I hit it off. He had recently been in touch with me again to invite me this time for a much more extensive engagement at the institute. He wanted me to come for three weeks in the late Spring of 1985 as a scholar-in-residence so that I could conduct a workshop on NDEs and so I could attend and present my work in other workshops and seminars that would follow mine, including a month-long workshop that would be conducted by none other than Esalen’s then permanent scholar-in-residence, Stan Grof. I had loved being an Esalen on my first visit, so naturally I jumped at the chance.
So I already knew what Emily didn’t – that I would be there at the same time her conference would be held.
It is a cliché among the people in my world to say “there are no coincidences.” Being contrary, I usually reply “except for accidents and chance events.” But in this case, however, I couldn’t help feeling a little unnerved when she invited me to attend. It already seemed like destiny had decided to take a hand in my affairs.
Naturally, I told her.
Naturally, she was delighted.
“I am so looking forward to meeting you,“ she gushed. But her enthusiasm seemed perfectly sincere. And besides, from talking to her, I really was starting to like this woman.
We agreed to table the whole business about ketamine for now. In due course, however, she would send me some materials pertaining to the conference. And that, for the moment, was that.
About a month later, after I had returned to Connecticut and was again teaching at UCONN, I got a call from Emily. She had just finished reading my latest book, Heading Toward Omega, and could not say enough good things about it. Again, her enthusiasm seemed sincere; I didn’t have the impression it represented only blandishment or an attempt at ingratiation.
Like a number of other women who read that book and subsequently became close friends with me or came to play a significant role in my life, Emily felt that she had really come to have a sense of the kind of person I was from reading that book. And that had made her even more interested to get to know me. “I hope we can really become friends, Ken.” Naturally, I concurred with her sentiment.
A few weeks later she called me again, but this time to tell me that, although she had not been seriously hurt, she had been involved in an automobile accident. She was pretty sure she would be fully recovered by the time of the conference, but she wanted me to know. In the course of our conversation, she also told me of some of her other health concerns – she had been ill as well - and since the same thing I had recently been true for me, we commiserated with each other.
By that time – it was now perhaps February or so in 1985 (I don’t remember exactly when this telephone conversation took place) – I had already broken up with my most recent girlfriend and though I was getting involved with the woman who would eventually become my fourth wife, I was still uncommitted. I felt open to Emily and I was already beginning to feel concerned about her physical problems, something that would persist for all the years I would come to know her. I had the distinct feeling we were getting closer to each other and that in a way, she had come to care for me, too.
In April, by which time Emily had recovered substantially, she sent me a large packet of materials, much of it mimeographed or otherwise unpublished, concerning the particular drugs that would be the focus of her June conference. It was clear that the main drug of interest at this gathering would be something that was abbreviated MDMA, but which the world later would come to call “Ecstasy.”


After the spring semester was over, I flew out to California, first to give a lecture in Los Angeles, and then to head up the coast for my engagement at Esalen and – to resort to the most banal of clichés – “my rendezvous with destiny.” However, as you will soon see, those weeks at Esalen were to change my life in a dramatic way and send me reeling onto a different course altogether. 
Once I had got settled there – they had found an apartment for me, not on the Esalen grounds, but about two miles north along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway – toward the end of May, I was ready for my first workshop. This was the one I was to conduct on my work on NDEs and was to be held that weekend. Since I didn’t have a car, I would have to walk down to the Institute itself, but that was no problem. The weather was glorious, the views spectacular, and I was feeling great.
There were only six people signed up for my workshop, however, only one of whom I had previously known. But the small size conduced to a certain intimacy, of course, and it came off pretty well, I think.
Aside from the one woman I knew – an NDEr herself who had gone on to found a healing center in northern California – there were two women who came to interest me. One, named Dorothy, came from the Boston area and was quite a delightful and charming person with an antic and playful sense of humor. She was a little on the dumpy side and in her forties, but we connected – and after the workshop, we more than connected. She stayed an extra couple of days, and during that time, we encoupled ourselves in my apartment and otherwise enjoyed the pleasures of Big Sur under the stars as well as under my sheets. Before she left, she gave me a t-shirt with the phrase, “Smiling Broadly,” and we stayed in touch for some years after we both returned to the East Coast.
The other woman, a beautiful and extremely articulate blonde, was named Melanie, and she was indeed the most interesting person at the workshop to me, but not just because of her looks and intelligence. She also had a lively interest in the subject matter of my workshop, had been a psychoanalytically-trained therapist when she lived in New York, and was now living near Esalen and hoping to create a new kind of professional life for herself in California. She, too, was very friendly toward me and offered to give me a ride if I ever need it since it turned out that we were living only about a third of a mile apart up on Route 1.
Meanwhile, I had begun to attend Stan Grof’s month-long workshop where I was able to present some of my work on NDEs. At Esalen, there is a cafeteria with a large outdoor deck so it was natural for me to congregate there and have my lunches with some of the people who were enrolled in Stan’s workshop who came from all over Europe as well as the United States.
At one of these lunches, one of these attendees said something to the effect that, although Grof’s workshop was first-rate, by far the most important thing that had happened to him during his stay was his experience with MDMA, the very drug I had already read quite a bit about on the plane to California in preparation for Emily’s conference. It was and presumably still is illegal to take drugs on the Esalen campus, but this person was not on the grounds at the time he had ingested MDMA.
Here is where this story takes on some “Twilight Zone” qualities, so be prepared.
The next day, sitting with another group of people from the workshop, someone else said essentially the same thing. It seemed as if more than one person was finding MDMA to be some kind of mind-blowing experience the way they raved about it.
The very next day I found myself having lunch with a German woman, also from Grof’s group. We were chatting as usual, and then – I swear I am not making this up – like a broken record, she started enthusing about what she had experienced recently on MDMA!
I remember thinking something to this effect: I feel like I am being set up. This must be some kind of a plot. It seems almost pre-destined that I will have to try this drug myself.
I had certainly become intrigued, first by what I had read in the materials that Emily had sent to me, and now, even more, by these three unsolicited testimonials.
After lunch that day, I headed back to the “Big House,” as it was called, where the afternoon session of Grof’s workshop was to take place. Outside the house, on the porch, there was a bench where people could sit for a moment in order to take off their shoes. As I was removing mine, Melanie happened to saunter by. (I had bumped into her one or twice previously at Esalen; she seemed to be a habituée of the place.)

“Oh, Ken, I’m so glad to run into you.” (Pause.)

“Say, Ken, I was wondering – would you like to MDMA with me?”
In an instant, I seemed to have several rapid-fire thoughts, but since I have more than an instant now to recall them, they seemed to go like this:
Can this possibly be happening?

I feel completely flummoxed!

Clearly, I am poised on the edge of a cliff. I can either remain the somewhat reserved professor and NDE researcher from the East Coast or I can throw off my professor’s robes and take a leap into the unknown. (I had already learned to do without my clothes at Esalen whenever I went to its famous baths and people in those days often paraded naked around the grounds.) 
This was clearly the moment of choice – it’s now or never….
“Er, ah, well….”
Melanie looked at me. She was smiling. She was very pretty.
Oh, what the hell!
“Well, it’s really strange you should ask me to do this with you, Melanie.” And I explained to her why.
We made a date for a couple of days hence. I could just walk up to her place – she told me she lived in a little cottage in a closed compound just up the road from me. All I would have to do is to let myself in by unlatching the wooden gate. I should call her before coming over.
It turned out it wasn’t so simple.
Fate had this time intervened to complicate things. In the meantime, perhaps because of speaking so much at Esalen, or perhaps because of psychogenic factors, or both, I had developed a really bad case of laryngitis. I could barely talk. How could I even call Melanie?
On the morning of the day I was to go to her cottage, I did try to call her. I could barely make myself understood. I told her that under the circumstances, I felt we would have to postpone our date. The problem was that I had some other people to call in order to cancel other engagements in the area (I was to meet some other people for dinner, etc., in the next few days), but Melanie said I should come over, anyway, and she’d be happy to make those calls for me. Even if we couldn’t do MDMA together that day, as long as my ears were working, she would like to tell me about a research project she had in mind to conduct with hospitalized patients.
She was very pretty.
I remember very clearly what I found once I had let myself into her compound. Melanie’s cottage was at the end of a little dirt trail. She was waiting for me, sitting outside on a little grassy promontory, wearing a sleeveless V-necked white dress. Behind her was the glorious Pacific Ocean, shimmering under the brilliant sun on another postcard picture-perfect cloudless day in California.
I hadn’t just entered Melanie’s compound; I was in Paradise.

After welcoming me, Melanie was kind enough to make a few phone calls on my behalf, explaining my vocal indisposition. Then we sat outside opposite each other while she told me about her proposed project, which had to do with using hypnosis to help accelerate the healing of surgical patients. By then, I could manage to eke out some occasional brief verbal responses, but mostly I just listened.
After a time, the question came up again about whether I should consider taking MDMA with her that day. I wanted to – but I was afraid it might result in causing more problems with my larynx about which I was already preoccupied. Could I really focus on the experience with MDMA under these conditions? Although the day certainly seemed favorable, even propitious, I was very unsure about the wisdom of preceding.
Melanie essentially left it up to me, but was reassuring and tried to give me a sense of what would be involved and where we would “do it.” It turned out that it would not be where we were now or inside her cottage since we might not have privacy there. Instead, she indicated that there was a cabaña at the base of the cliff on which we were now sitting (so I could be going over a cliff – literally – after all; it wasn’t just a metaphor!). Melanie advised that we could take a steep trail down there and then sit on some chairs on the deck of the cabaña, facing the ocean, where we would have complete privacy and an unimpeded view of the ocean.
Melanie was not only very pretty, she was beguiling, too.
For the second time within a few days, I said farewell to caution.
I followed her down the trail, watching my footing carefully. All I needed now was to sprain my ankle or have some other mishap. How would I ever be rescued then? I had a worried mind, but at the same time I was still eager to have this experience with Melanie as my guide.
After we had arrived safely, Melanie explained the procedure. It was apparently her custom, and maybe that of others, that before taking MDMA (it was in the form a capsule to be swallowed with a glass of water) one go through a kind of ritual – a ceremonial statement of intent in which one expressed what one hoped to learn through the experience and essentially asking for the blessings of whatever the gods might be invoked to watch over us. Melanie spoke hers aloud – she was unusually eloquent, I thought. I hadn’t had a chance to give my statement any forethought, but I remember asking for clarity for my relationships since at that time in my life that problem had been very fraught.
With those preliminaries now dispatched, we each swallowed our capsule of MDMA and then sat mostly quietly, although with some occasional brief desultory conversation, until the drug began to take effect. Even after all I had read and recently heard about MDMA, I really had no idea about what I might experience.
After a little more than a half hour had passed, I began to feel it – a kind a tingle, an inner buzzing in my head, combined with a certain sensation of coldness. Melanie herself became restless and started pacing around the cabaña. I got up from my chair and went to lie down on the warm platform of the cabaña, gazing raptly at the ocean in front of me.
It had been eight years since I had used any drugs, and maybe for that reason, this one, once it really took effect, hit me hard and soon had catapulted me into a mystical experience of such beauty, purity and power that I was completely overwhelmed by it. I remembered and re-experienced what LSD and the other psychoactive drugs I had taken had taught me – the complete unity of all things, and I was not separate from any of it. The ocean, the blue sky, the trees I could see in the distance, the fly that had alighted on my arm, the planks of the platform I was resting on, the great earth itself – all was one. And all was beauty beyond words. Everything was perfect, and I was an indissoluble part of that perfection. Wave after wave of bliss poured through me. This truly was paradise, or maybe this was just the real world as it really is but which we never can perceive until we are it.
I had, however, lost almost all awareness of Melanie, who must have been behind me, sitting again, after her brief perambulation.
I don’t know how long I remained in this state, but probably it lasted at its most intense for a couple of hours as I continued to stare at the ocean. (I have a permanent but now insignificant bit of skin damage near the bridge of my nose as a result of facing the sun for so long.) 
After I came back to myself, Melanie and I must have talked some – I’m sure we did – but I have no memory of that conversation. I was just blitzed – and full of love. And gratitude for Melanie. I don’t think I thought about my voice, or lack of it, at all. It was probably neither better nor worse for the experience; it just didn’t matter anymore.
We stayed there about six hours, as I recall. I know it was late afternoon by the time we had finally hiked back up the cliff. But we didn’t go back to Melanie’s cottage.
On my way into the compound that morning, I had noticed a large and handsome house, surrounded by a stunning stone wall, down below the hill before reaching the trail that led to Melanie’s cottage. It was a Saturday that day, and Melanie happened to mention as we approached that house on the way up that the woman who lived there and her sister who was visiting were also doing MDMA. (I remember thinking to the effect: Is this the usual weekend recreational activity for people in Big Sur? Of course, my actual thought was not that coherent at the time, but that was the nub of it.)
Melanie suggested we look in on them. 
“But what about my voice?” I mentioned to croak, suddenly remembering it.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Melanie, as I followed her into the spacious and elegantly appointed house in which I was soon to spend another very memorable time.
The two sisters were also just coming down from their trip. They both appeared to be in their forties. The sister who was living there was the wife of a doctor from whom she was separated. The sister who had come to visit was a gardener who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both were very mellow and friendly.
Melanie explained about my voice. 
These are some of the memories I have of our time when the four of us were together.
Melanie and the women talked. I massaged the hair of one of the sisters.
Melanie went out to dance on the patio overlooking the ocean. She was exceptionally graceful. She looked like an angel.
At one point, we were all sitting at a wooden table on benches – it was rather like a picnic table. The sisters were drinking some wine. (I don’t remember whether I was or not.) A few edibles had been put out.
Melanie came in after having danced.
At one point, she placed her forefinger into the top of the wine bottle.
I knew immediately that she either was or had been suicidal.
I whispered, “I’d give anything if you’d take your finger out of that bottle.” 
She looked at me strangely, but I had meant it. I even offered to pay her ten dollars to remove it (and days later, I actually did).
Of course she removed it; I was relieved.
When you are under the influence of MDMA – and all of us still were (we constituted a field of sorts) – you can tune into people and know things intuitively about them. To some degree, you are them. I was finally tuning into Melanie, and I know I had begun to care for her as of then, if not before.
We stayed there a very long time and didn’t leave until close to 3 in the morning. I was still in a daze. 
As we were headed back to Melanie’s cottage, I didn’t think I could manage to walk home at that hour in the morning along a dark highway, and I certainly couldn’t ask Melanie to drive me.
Her housemate happened to be away that day, and I knew there was a loft where her roommate normally slept. I asked if I could possibly sleep there until the morning.
“Of course, honey,” Melanie said. She was from the South, you know. “Of course, honey, of course.”
By 3 a.m. or so, I lay down but I couldn’t sleep for long. By 6, with Melanie still sleeping, I tiptoed out of her cottage and made my way home in the early morning light, the sun still hidden by the towering Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, which rose up from the highway in steep cliffs.
I thought: “So this is life in Big Sur. This truly is Paradise.”
For most of the rest of my time there, I rarely slept more than three hours a night.
I had taken and experienced Ecstasy at Esalen, and my life would never again be the same.

July 13, 2023

The Discovery of Phosphorus – and How to Outwit the King of Morocco

[Advisory:  Although this blog treats a serious subject, I’m afraid it also contains some feeble attempts at bathroom humor. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.]

In 1669 in Hamburg, Germany, a thirty-nine-year-old alchemist named Hennig Brandt was messing around in his laboratory chasing the alchemist dream of turning base metals into gold. But his approach was very different from that of his fellow alchemists. That night he had cooked up a concoction of ingredients including his own excrement, and after heating it up, he found that he had produced some waxy white nuggets that gave off a whiff of garlic while emanating a mysterious radiant glow.

According to a report of this historic incident, which was later immortalized by a painter, Brandt dropped to his knees, looked toward the heavens, and then warned his two assistants to stand back “as a terrifying shaft of blue vapor shot up from a glass globe.”

Brandt named his discovery after the Greek word for the planet Venus – phosphorus, which means something like “bringer of light.” But, significantly, the Latin word for Venus translates as “Lucifer.” As Dan Egan whose account of this discovery is described in his book, The Devil’s Element, comments with a literary flourish:

That actually would have been a better name for the alchemist’s discovery because he soon learned that his curious nuggets had a propensity to spontaneously combust and burn as ferociously as anything that dropped from the nib of Dante’s quill. 

It wasn’t long, in fact, before people started referring to phosphorus as the Devil’s Element, and not only because it happens to be the thirteenth element discovered. The name stuck because of its dastardly toxicity and explosiveness.  

Egan goes on to remark that even to this day its explosive properties are reportedly being made use of in bombs Russians are using in Ukraine. And, historically, we know for certain of even more devastating uses of phosphorus in wartime. 

By one of the greatest of wartime ironies, several centuries after the discovery of phosphorus in Hamburg, that city suffered one of the worst fire bombings of World War II when the allied forces unleashed wave after wave day after day of these incendiary phosphorus-filled bombs on the citizens Hamburg. Egan spends several pages recounting these unspeakable horrors.

I will spare you the horrifying details of his account except to cite two brief passages. In the first, one of most vile of war criminals, known to history as England’s “Bomber Harris,” reportedly said, quoting the Bible in referring to the Germans: “They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”  (You can read more about Bomber Harris in Nicholson Baker’s book about World War II called Human Smoke.)

And what did the whirlwind feel like to those who were caught in its fiery maelstrom?

The thousands of fires lit on that unusually hot dry night merged in a matter of minutes into something war planners had never seen – a two-mile-wide whirlwind firestorm that burned as hot as a furnace. The winds that were sucked into the cyclone to feed the oxygen-starved flames were powerful enough to topple trees three feet in diameter, ferocious enough to tear children from their mothers’ arms.


But quite apart from the uses of phosphorus in wartime explosives, these phosphorus nuggets, if you should be unfortunate enough to come across one in your beachcombing forays, are also extremely dangerous.  Egan relates one such story of an elderly man who found a quarter-sized orange stone as he was walking along a beach near the Baltic Sea. He innocently dropped it into his pocket but ten minutes later, he heard a “pop.” The nugget had burst into flames and then began to sear into the man’s thigh like a molten knife. Fortunately, he was rescued and his life was saved, but he had to spend two months in a hospital and still suffers chronic debilitating pain and requires pills to sleep.

You definitely don’t want to fool with this stuff. All it takes is a little heat, such as was provided by this man’s pocket against his warm skin, to cause it to erupt into flame.  

So now you know a little about how phosphorous was discovered and some of its incendiary properties. But our interest in it in these blogs is of course mainly about how it has been used to fertilize crops and then, when it leaks into our waters, the damage it can wreak by causing noxious blue-green algae blooms to form. 

But where my first blog left off was with another alarming problem with phosphorus altogether. Since we now know how crucial phosphorus is for life on this planet, the prospect of its supplies running out, possibly within our lifetime, is obviously a threat even more dire than that of climate change. So now we have to confront that menace and find out if there is any way to avoid having to depend on the good will and generosity of the King of Morocco who is the sovereign over most of the world’s now known phosphorus reserves.  

The rest of this blog will consider recent efforts to find other means to provide abundant sources of phosphorus, but before we begin to consider this topic, I have a question for you.

What happens when you pee?

Well, I know what happens when I do once I get up at night to urinate. Because of my prostatic hypertrophy, I have a very weak stream, so half of it often dribbles down my thigh instead of landing in my toilet bowl. But I am not talking about that. I’m asking you what your pee actually consists of, chemically speaking. Any guesses?

I’ll save you the suspense. What you are depositing into your toilet bowl, if you are luckier than I am, is nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Does this give you any ideas?

If you know your chemistry better than I do (which should be a snap since I’ve forgotten most of my high school chem taught to me by an elderly woman named “Miss Newton” -- I am not making this up), you will remember the abbreviations of these elements: N (for nitrogen), P (for phosphorus), and K (for potassium).  And what are the ingredients in the bag of fertilizer that you can pick up at your local Ace Hardware store: N-P-K.

Bingo! (You can also imagine a light bulb.)

Not long ago, Elizabeth Kolbert loaded up a jug of her and her husband’s pee and drove it up to Brattleboro Vermont in order to check out an enterprise called the Rich Earth Institute. The institute’s stated goal is “a world with clean water and fertile soil achieved by reclaiming the nutrients from our bodies.” Its principal aim is to promote a practice known as urine diversion, or, to use the lingo of the trade, peecycling.

The institute’s director of its Urine Nutrient Reclamation Program, Arthur Davis, showed Kolbert the four kinds of urine-diverting toilets it has for that purpose, which allows it to collect and then treat urine so that it can be used to fertilize the crops of local farmers. Otherwise, this valuable resource would otherwise just be flushed down the drain, or, that is, a regular toilet.

As Kolbert explains:

The Rich Earth Institute has enlisted a network of volunteers around Brattleboro, who drop off their donations at specially designated depots or, in some cases, pay to have their pee picked up. After it has been pasteurized, the urine is distributed to local farmers. Peecycling can cut down on the amount of conventional fertilizer that the farmers purchase. At the same time, it keeps nutrients out of the sewage system and, by extension, it is hoped, out of Vermont’s waterways.

Of course, the amount of urine collected and treated in this way is – sorry, for the tired trope – “just a drop in the bucket,” as Kolbert acknowledges: “In an average year, New York City residents piss out about a billion gallons; Shanghai residents, three billion,” whereas the institute’s annual haul is a paltry twelve thousand.  Davis is frank to acknowledge this, but just as a journey begins with a single step, according to the ancient Chinese proverb, so these urine-reclamation centers are just the beginning of what Davis and others hope will be a revolutionary movement to harvest the fertilizing potential of urine instead of just pissing it away, as one might say.

In any case, the key is to reduce our dependence on rock-based phosphorus. Toward that end, Egan has some much more promising suggestions to offer. These not only conserve phosphorus, but follow and adapt traditional Asian methods of fertilization that also draw on animal and human production of what we still regard as “waste,” whereas we are actually wasting another valuable resource. After all, how do you think Asians have managed for thousands of years to feed their enormous populations, so much larger than ours?

I’m talking about shit.

Egan is on to this, and the last chapter of his book is full of information about various projects around the world that are now underway to use and process this invaluable resource. We need to start thinking in a new way, he urges, about human and animal excreta. It is not waste -- anything but. It’s not too late to follow the Asian way, buttressed by today’s waste removal technologies. We need, in short, to begin to practice the art of what I have lately come to call fecal fecundity.  

As Egan notes, “What Europe had come to view as noxious waste had, since antiquity, been recognized in many cities across the East as precious commodity.”

I say it is a novel way to think about the value of harvesting shit, but, in fact, it is not that new. Furthermore, there were some farsighted Europeans who centuries ago were already aware of the treasures contained in manure. Egan quotes an interesting passage from the great 19th century writer, Victor Hugo, who advocated this course in his book, Les Misérables:

All the human and animal manure that the world wastes, if put back into the land instead of being thrown into the sea, would suffice to feed the world. Those heaps of excrement at boundary-posts, those cartloads of muck jolted through the streets at night, those frightful vats at the municipal dumps, those fetid seepings of subterrain sludge that pavements hide from you—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, green grass … thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle … they are fragrant hay, golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are you, they are life.

James Elser is a University of Montana ecologist and the director of Arizona State University’s Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance. He, too, sees the fertilizing gold in what we have been accustomed to deposit into our toilets and flush away into our sewage systems: “If all manures were recycled and returned for [agricultural] production, I think you could displace halt of the mined fertilizer.”

Egan concurs and adds his own comment: “In other words, if we aggressively refined manure for fertilizer, we might essentially double the life of existing phosphorus reserves.”

As I’ve indicated, such efforts are already well underway at various universities and companies around the world, and Egan reviews some of them in his last chapter but here, for illustrative purposes, I will mention just one such revolutionary undertaking. By one of those charming accidents of history, it is taking place in phosphorus’s hometown – Hamburg. And today’s alchemical wizard, so to speak, is a man named Martin Lebek, a civil engineer with a Ph.D. Lebek’s charge for the company he works for, which has thirty thousand employees, is, effectively, to transmute the base sludge of crap into the gold of factory-grade fertilizer. 

I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the process involved – indeed, Lebek said he was not at liberty to disclose that information to Egan because other companies are also pursuing their own similar efforts to recycle waste products – but apparently it involves working with sewage sludge ash to release phosphoric acid used to make chemical fertilizer.  

According to Egan, Lebek believes that his plant will be fully operational by the end of the year and is confident that “this recycling technology, applied nationally, could dramatically reduce Germany’s reliance on phosphorus imports.” In short, the objective is to become phosphorus independent so that one can just tell the King of Morocco to blow smoke up his sorry shit-filled ass. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I will let Egan have the final more sedate word, which ends his book as well as this blog:

Lebek knows the story started when phosphorus’ elemental powers were unleashed just across the Elbe River more than three centuries ago. Now, less than a century after the city was burned to the ground by Allied bombers dropping phosphorus from the heavens, Hamburg is coaxing from its own ashes a more sustainable food system, and future.

“It is,” Lebek said of the phosphorus recovery plant rising along the west bank of the Elbe River, “phosphorus coming home.” 

July 9, 2023

Why Worry about the King of Morocco?

[Author’s note and apology. I know I told you that I was done writing blogs. At least that was my intent. But I found that my fingers didn’t know what to do with themselves after I had used them to comb my hair in the morning. (Yes, I still have my hair. I am not so sure about what lies beneath it.) And after all, I can only watch so much tennis. So, forgive me, friends, if I inflict another blog on you. I probably won’t write too many more, but I hope you’ll find the one that follows to be of interest.]

If you were asked to name the most celebrated scientist of the 20th century, no doubt you would immediately think of an old man with wild hair by the name of Albert Einstein. But suppose I were to ask you the same question, only for the 19th century. Who would come to mind then? You might have to think for a moment before the obvious answer occurred to you: Charles Darwin.

But if you named the co-founder of the theory of evolution (the other one, as you probably know, was Alfred Russel Wallace), you would be wrong. Care to try again?

I won’t keep you in suspense, but if you named Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, you get a gold star. 

These days, Humboldt is not exactly a household name. I confess that until I read Andrea Wulf's marvelous and enlightening book, The Invention of Nature, about him several years ago, I myself had only a vague sense of his reputation. But during his lifetime, he was not only the most outstanding scientist of his day, but apart from Napoleon (who was born the same year as Humboldt, 1769), the most famous man in the world. And he remained so even after his death in 1859.

Indeed, to commemorate his centenary, hundreds of thousands around the world held celebrations to honor his achievements. Let me take just a moment to quote a passage from Wulf’s book about the festivities that took place just in New York City where….

The cobbled streets were lined with flags. City Hall was veiled in banners, and entire houses had vanished behind huge posters bearing Humboldt’s face. Even the ships sailing by, out on the Hudson River, were garlanded in colorful bunting. In the morning thousands of people followed ten music bands, marching from the Bowery and along Broadway to Central Park to honor a man “whose fame no nation could claim” as the New York Times reported. By early afternoon, 25,000 onlookers had assembled in Central Park to listen to speeches as a large bronze bust of Humboldt was unveiled. In the evening as darkness settled, a torchlight procession of 15,000 people set out along the streets, walking beneath colorful Chinese lanterns.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, President Grant joined 10,000 celebrants who brought the city to a standstill. And in Europe, even vaster throngs assembled to sing Humboldt’s praises. One of the largest of these involving some 80,000 revelers was held in Berlin where Humboldt was born. And they had turned out in such numbers despite torrential rain.

Such was the measure of the man in the year when Darwin, himself a fervent admirer of Humboldt, had published his book, On the Origin of Species. If you were to read Wulf’s book, you would learn that more places and cities have been named after Humboldt than anyone else. From the Wikipedia article about him, I counted at least ten such cities in the United States alone.

Why was Humboldt so important during the 19th century? You would really have to read Wulf’s book about him to appreciate the tremendous scope of his achievements as well as his prodigious physical feats of exploration, but the short answer is, to quote Wulf again, “Humboldt gave us our concept of nature.” Remembered today, thanks in no small measure to Wulf’s book, as the father both of ecology and, more broadly of environmentalism, he influenced scores, if not hundreds, of important writers and other explorers interested in the natural world.

But all this is only so much background to what this blog is all about. And what the heck does Humboldt have to do with the King of Morocco? Well, read on, dear reader, because it is with Humboldt that this story begins when we find him in the very early years of the 19th century passing a few idle hours down by the docks of Callao, Peru’s major port, just west of its capital, Lima.

What had caught Humboldt’s eye – or rather what had assaulted his nostrils – was a powerful nauseating stench emanating from boats loaded with what looked like yellowish clay. Inquiring the locals, Humboldt learned that the material was bird poop from nearby islands, and that it was highly prized by farmers in the area. 

Intrigued and always curious, he decided to investigate, so a few days later, he was on his way to one of these shit-ridden islands. One can only imagine Humboldt’s revulsion when he found some five million nesting seabirds which had deposited millions of bird craps on the island. Some of this disgusting dung was in a mound more than a hundred feet high. Despite the vigorous objections of his crew at the powerful, sickening stink, Humboldt was now keen to take a batch of this stuff home with him to have it analyzed.  

By doing so, he changed history. He had found the native equivalent of Miracle-Gro. It was called guano.  

It took a while before a Prussian chemist was able to identify the composition of guano that made it a kind of El Dorado for farmers, but even before that, there was already the beginning of a kind of guano craze as people realized what a godsend it was for the flourishing of crops. Soon, the English got involved and made a deal with the Peruvians for them to ship millions of tons of guano to England. The harvesting of guano is ghastly and noxious work and it was done mainly by Chinese workers who toiled almost as virtual slaves. The Americans eventually got into the act, too, and after the Peruvian islands were exhausted, they laid claim to as many other shit-filled Pacific islands as possible to provide their own bounty of this wonder-food for American’s farmland.

By the 1880s, the supplies of guano were pretty much exhausted, but by then, it was well understood what had made guano such a powerful catalyst for plant growth. It turned out to be rich in phosphorus as well as nitrogen and potassium, which are now recognized as being the three essential ingredients for fertilizers.  But of these elements, the most intriguing – and worrisome – is phosphorus, and this is what this blog is really all about.

Do you know what happens if you plan crops without phosphorous? 


Most of what I have learned about this element is from a book entitled The Devil’s Element, which was published this year by an environmental journalist named Dan Egan. Listen to what he has to tell us about the vital importance of phosphorus:

Phosphorus is essential to plant growth, and that makes it essential for us, but the element is important beyond helping to grow our food. Phosphorus helps turn the meals we eat into the chemical energy that moves our muscles. Phosphorus is also crucial to our physical structure, in the biggest ways and in the smallest. Our bones and teeth are made with phosphorus. Phosphorus is also in our DNA. In fact, it is our DNA … From the corn we grow, to the animals that eat it, to the people who eat those animals, phosphorus is critical every step of the way.

No phosphorus, no life on Earth.

But phosphorus also has a dark side, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “the devil’s element.” Like fire, which when controlled can keep us warm, but when escaping our control, can rage and ravage our lands, so it is with phosphorus. While it may be a panacea for plants, when it begins to leach into our waters, it can quickly turn not only toxic but deadly. 

Egan begins his book by recounting a dramatic incident in which a 22-year-old Florida resident named Abraham Duerte was fleeing from cops who were chasing him down for excessive speeding. At one point, Duerte had to ditch his car, and had no choice but to jump into a nearby canal and swim away to elude his pursuers.

But, actually, Duerte didn’t know how to swim, and besides, the surface of the canal “was smothered in a brilliant green algae goop thick as oatmeal – and poisonous.”

Duerte began screaming for help, shouting “I’m going to die.” He was covered in slime. One cop shouted back, “You need to get out of that stuff, that is going to mess you up. Seriously, man, that is going to kill you.”

Duerte was finally rescued, covered with stinking green slime that “smelled like feces,” and then taken to a hospital, where he was to suffer further from gastrointestinal and respiratory distress (and eventually arrested). He did indeed have a close call with “the devil’s element.”

And here we come, finally, to thrust of Egan’s book and why he is so worried about what happens when phosphorus escapes the land and trickles into our waterways – and oceans. I will try to sum up the gist of the problem as succinctly as I can.

You may be aware that just about a half century ago, the U.S. Congress passed The Clean Water Act. It did a lot to reduce pollution for some years, but it always had one troubling loophole: it exempted farmers. So, in time, the fertilizers that farmers use, which or course contain phosphorus, would eventually find their way into surrounding waters. And that would cause a real problem because just as phosphorus promotes plant growth on land, it continues to be potent in water as well in causing the growth of something very noxious:  blue-green algae blooms.

In fact, the green muck that is now befouling our waterways isn’t actually algae, but as Egan explains, “primitive forms of photosynthesizing bacteria that collectively produce a suite of toxins, some powerful enough to rival anything cooked up in a military lab … If you haven’t heard about the emerging menace of blue-green algae that produce poisons known as cyanotoxins, you will.” This is what causes of our waters to form “dead zones,” and they are becoming more common and widespread.  

Egan’s book reports on his investigations of a number of these troubled waters, including Lake Erie and the Gulf Coast. But just in 2021 in the U.S alone, there were some four hundred bodies of water infested with these slimy wastes, which was a 25% increase over the proceeding year. And people who live close to these polluted waters, even if they don’t enter them, can become sick enough to be sent to the emergency room. Between 2017 and 2019, more than 300 people required such treatment. These infected waters stink – just like the guano that Humboldt insisted on transporting back to Europe. If you were to read Egan’s book – and I encourage you to do so – you will soon come to realize why the author is so alarmed at the spread of these contaminated waters.

But there is still another, quite different, problem with phosphorus that Egan is very much concerned with. We are running out of it.

While we have an abundance of potassium reserves and nitrogen is also plentiful, it’s a different story for phosphorus, which comes from sedimentary rocks scattered around the globe. But the problem is, according to Egan:

That we are blowing through Earth’s accessible deposits at such a pace that, just like oil production, some scientists now fear we could hit “peak phosphorus” in just a matter of decades at which point we risk … chronic food shortages.

Almost all our domestic reserves of phosphorus are located in Florida, but Egan warns that that lode will probably be exhausted in as little as thirty years, making us more dependent on foreign sources about which more in a moment.

Can we find a substitute for phosphorus? Unfortunately, no, says Egan flatly: 

“Phosphorus is the elemental link that completes the circle of life. Literally nothing else can do the job.” Famed science writer Isaac Asimov concurs:

“We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat … but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement.”

Where could we get the phosphorus we need to sustain us should our own reserves run out? Approximately 70 to 80 percent of the world’s remaining reserves are located in Morocco or in the Western Sahara, territory that Morocco seized control over, not without difficulty, since the 1970s. And who controls Morocco? The king of course. Egan is apoplectic over this situation: 

“For one country, essentially one guy – the king of Morocco – to control so much of something every soul on the planet so desperately needs is a recipe for global instability, or worse.” 

Egan goes on to paint a damning portrait of this king on whose beneficence we may find ourselves dependent. Drawing on a government publication, Egan comes across this encomium: “His Majesty Mohammed VI May God Glorify Him.” And then goes on to comment witheringly: “Under M6’s rule, you can be imprisoned for speaking ill of Islam, for speaking ill of the king, or for engaging in homosexuality.”

Finally, Egan goes on to quote the famous British billionaire investigator, Jeremy Grantham, who warns: 

“This share of reserves makes OPEC and Saudi Arabia look like absolute pikers, and phosphate is much more important than oil … We simply cannot manage for long under currently configured agriculture without Morocco’s reserves, perhaps 35 or 40 years.”

Humboldt’s Gift

Many years ago, the Chicago writer Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Humboldt’s Gift. But it wasn’t about Alexander von Humboldt’s toting guano to Europe. Instead, it was a novel based in part on the life of the doomed but brilliant poet, Delmore Schwartz. [Full disclosure: I never read the book, but I happen to know a lot about Delmore Schwartz. Never mind.]

But in fact Humboldt did bring a gift of incomparable world-changing importance to Europe in the form of guano. I don’t think he could have been prescient enough to suspect that it would turn out to be a gift that would ultimately be a threat of the ecology of our waters. But maybe he wouldn’t have been surprised because even in the early part of the 19th century, he was already warning of environmental disasters to come because of humanity’s seemingly unstoppable penchant for mistreating the earth and violating the sanctify of nature. In any event, we are left to ponder the irony of a man so devoted to nature who nevertheless was serendipitously led to discover the carrier of “the devil’s element” that would come to ravage our planet.  


Now for the good news and some important qualifications.

First, not everyone agrees that we will run out of phosphorus so soon. Some experts aver that we might have enough to last centuries. There appears to be no consensus on this issue.

Second, although there may be no substitute for phosphorus, there are certainly other ways to amass it without depending on physical reserves. I will discuss some of these promising methods in my next blog.

Finally, I have only grazed the surface of this issue. Egan’s book has much more in it than I had space to describe, and I have probably oversimplified some of the complexities. If you don’t have the interest to read Egan’s book for yourself, I recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent article in the February 27th issue of The New Yorker, entitled “Phosphorus Saved Our Way of Life – and Now Threatens to End It.” It was in this article that I learned about Dan Egan’s book.