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Peggy Keener: Glorious and bountiful bat scat

Never in the deepest recesses of my mind did I ever dream I would one day write a column about guano. Yes, you heard me. That stuff that comes out of bats.

But, then, as it turns out, guano production is not only really important to bats (for obvious reasons), but it’s also really, really important to us. Or, at least it used to be. Were you aware that in the mid 1800s, guano was one of the hottest commodities in both Europe and America? At that time erupting populations had put a serious strain on agriculture, which resulted in over-used, depleted soil that was in grave need of revitalizing.

Enter guano, a product that would one day change many people’s lives, including my own.

Who knew it had the precise fertilizing properties the hungry soil needed? Miraculously, it restored farmland into a lush cornucopia such as the agricultural world had never before seen. The impact resulted in a financial boom that shaped diplomacy … and even sparked wars. For some investors, guano brought them undreamed of riches; for others it brought misery and financial ruin.

Who could have guessed that the universally feared …. and even despised bat …. could have such import? This is because the nutrients in guano are exactly the ones that are crucial to healthy soil: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. It is the world’s good fortune that down through the years, this has never changed. Guano then. Guano now. Guano forevermore.

In 1803, a Prussian explorer noted that even in the parched, desert coastal areas of Peru (where plants should not have thrived) those fertilized with guano grew exuberantly. This was no surprise to the local farmers for they had been using guano for years, way back to the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Moche and Inca tribes. Indeed, the word “guano” comes from “huanu,” the Inca word for “dung.” (But, then, you probably already knew that.)

The first guano shipped to Southhampton, England in 1840, came from Chincha Island, fourteen miles off the Peruvian coast. It was a place where vast numbers of birds came to feast on the teeming schools of fish that lived in its cool waters. Indeed, the island was a bountiful source of food for hungry birds, as well as bats.

The birds did their environmental part by depositing on the undisturbed island, layers of excrement over a hundred feet deep—the height of a ten story building! (I’m not sure if that’s where the expression “being in deep you-know-what” comes from, though). Thanks to the ideal arid conditions, this guano was considered to be the finest on the planet. (Again I must pause to reflect over just how many guano experts there were in the world in the year 1840. I ‘m thinking not too many folks in Austin did that for a living.)

I’m not sure if there was a publication for guano then, but if so it must have been the Guano Gazette that stated that merchants who bought guano at 12 pounds sterling per ton could sell it for double that; a single guano shipment earning 100,000 pounds of profit! Guano was gold. It was even, for a while, the center of the Peruvian economy. The country was living off bird excrement. In thirty years alone they exported 12 million tons of it! Up with doo doo!

But, not everyone thrived off guano. Some actually died. The problem was in the harvesting. Removing solidified bird and bat feces was an arduous task. It wasn’t only the stink and the searing heat, but when workers opened up the deposits with pick axes and shovels, they also opened up noxious dust containing pathogens which caused respiratory illnesses. One of these was histoplasmosis.

I can speak personally of this disease. In 1972, we lived in Bali, Indonesia. One day we decided to visit the bat caves there. Besides the wonder … the horror … of witnessing above our heads thousands of bats hanging upside down from the cave ceiling by their teeny toes, there were also many deep, yards-thick layers of guano all over the cave floor. Of course we had to walk through this. (Quite honestly, I do not recommend this as a must see tourist attraction.)

Some months later we moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where I became sick. The x-rays of my lungs looked like TB. After the doctors were unable to diagnose it, I was shipped off to Mayo in Rochester, where after many tests the doctors told me I had histoplasmosis. I asked them how I got it. “Well,” they replied, “people who live on the banks of the Mississippi River and also live in Southeast Asia get it.” Double whammy! I was a geographically perfect textbook case!

Who, upon looking at me, would ever guess that I was one of those people who—of all things—had their life changed by guano.