This past summer I spent a few days in a place where one relieved oneself in an outhouse. And now I shall show you the world in a grain of poop.
My retreat was a nature preserve-slash-primitive-farm-slash-education center in the mountains of western North Carolina called Turtle Island. It’s owned and run by Eustace Conway, subject of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fine book The Last American Man. It’s 1,000 acres big, mostly woods; the full-time occupants include Eustace’s significant other plus a few interns, along with chickens, ducks, goats, dogs and horses. There are often a handful of visitors like me (this was my fourth visit over the past several years), and any given day in season there’s a good chance of a pile of chaperoned kids visiting to learn about nature, traditional crafts and the like.
The place has no electric lines or plumbing. The only heat’s from wood fires, also the energy source for the open-air kitchen. There is a little electricity generated onsite from small solar arrays, and a mini-hydro setup powers a chest freezer. (I visited in the middle of a drought and the turbine was idled, the season’s deer meat spoiled.)
Every time I visit Turtle Island, one of the commonplaces I’m most struck by, however, is the outhouse. In urban society, outhouses are a punchline, a hallmark of rustic boobery. In fact, outhouses used to be quite common in cities; the Pittsburgh rowhouse I live in had one until the late 1940s. But building codes wouldn’t allow them these days, to say nothing of social opprobrium. Outhouses are something our society has supposedly “risen above,” like walking, growing our own food or hanging laundry out to dry.
To understand the wisdom of the outhouse, know that in the average American home, the single biggest water-user is the toilet. Like all the water that enters most homes, toilet water has been pumped from some river or reservoir, treated with chemicals, pumped to a water tower and then to your house.
Because all of this water is treated to be potable, it’s really an enormous waste: Millions of gallons of drinkable water no one will ever drink goes down toilets and into lawns.
Water treatment is also one of the City of Pittsburgh’s biggest single uses of energy, so every gallon contributes to things like global warming, too.
The irony is that this perfectly clean water, having been run at great per-gallon expense through your toilet, is now fit only to flow back to some pump and be treated again before it’s dumped in the river. (A worse irony: Water unnecesarily treated to drinkability that’s used to water lawns picks up pesticides and herbicides and then makes its way inevitably into our ground and surface water. So glad we bothered to clean it …)
It’s a classic industrial-civilization overkill to manage a function literally older than humankind: Maximum resources employed to minimum effect. Of course, open sewers are not an option. (Modern plumbing and sanitation, which date back only a century or so, are how cholera and typhoid were exiled from cities.) But there must be ways to accomplish the same thing without so much effort.
The wisdom of the outhouse is that there is no waste, so to speak, in the disposal of one’s feces. No industrially sanitized water is required to flush it away, and no chemicals to strip away its microorganisms before its mass returns to the river via sewage-plant outfall. And when the hole beneath the outhouse is full, you just move the little wooden house. (I’ve never asked whether Turtle Island’s poop is used for any purpose — but even if it’s not, burying it in situ is preferable to sending it miles through a tube to some obscure useless fate.)
Turtle Island also has a smart way of accommodating those of us privileged to pee standing up. Three five-gallon buckets filled with sawdust sit under a small awning. The sawdust in them absorbs the urine, which contains nitrogen, a valuable fertilizer. When saturated, the sawdust is spread on the gardens.
Of course, outhouses require space. But city-dwellers have options. My wife and I, for instance, do most of our toilet-flushing with either captured “gray water” from the shower or water from our rain barrels. That’s one reason that our water usage is about one-fourth the average household’s.
More advanced, plumbing-free options include a composting toilet, which is just what it sounds like, though I understand it’s not entirely legal in many municipalities. In fact, a fellow Western Pennsylvanian named Joseph Jenkins is author of the cult classic called The Humanure Handbook, which describes how to make your own composting toilet. The finished product is, I gather, great for gardens.