Let Us Now Praise Outdoor Plumbing

For years I kept a little book of quotations, jotted from here and there. Words I found compelling or inspiring, copied by hand or typed out and folded into the binder. They run a wide gamut, from Thomas Merton to Dag Hammarskjöld to Edward Abbey. Looking through it this morning to find an obscure quote, I was surprised to see a long-forgotten passage by Pierre Trudeau, on the topic of canoeing and canoe trips, translated from the French. For those of you south and west or even east of our long border, I point out that this one strikes a timely note since Trudeau’s son Justin and his cadre of “Liberals” (one of the three or four or five major political parties in Canada today – depends on what we want to call “major — there have arguably been only two major federal  parties in Canada over the years) swept back into power on October 19 in an election that ousted the ruling “Conservatives.”

I use quotation marks because “Liberal” and “Conservative” can excite some notions that upon closer examination quickly become untenable, and murky, and well, let’s not go too far down that road right now. Suffice it to say that in my humble opinion it’s still Mr. Big – as in Corporations, Guvmints, Insurance, and Banks – calling the shots and the dance steps.  Red, blue, even orange — slight swings of the big pendulum, all, and certainly a change is welcome from time to time (every political persuasion has a shelf life, like every lump of cheddar) but if you follow the money and blood trails up and down the political food chain, you always come back to various suits and stripes of Mr. Big and his armies and his boardrooms and his markets.  

But hey, my topic today is toilets, not politics. Thankfully, through the serendipity of sloppiness and of having had more than one working desk and overloaded bookshelf in odd corners of our various buildings over the years, my old wire-bound notebook of inspirations survived the wildfire of 2014. In it I found the quote I was looking for. Memory tells me I copied it from a collection of Morning Readings at the Outward Bound School where I worked from 1979 until 1984:

“I like to think that I am sufficiently in tune with the natural world around me that I hear every owl that calls within hearing distance of my house, day or night. Pissing outdoors is essential to this awareness; the invention of indoor plumbing was a monstrous step in the reduction of human awareness of natural phenomena, in the ability to recognize ourselves as earth animals.” — Daniel Kozlovsky

Now I have no idea who Daniel Kozlovsky is, or where he was writing, and a brief search this morning did not turn up any useful clues, but in my notebook that passage is noted as his. Whoever he is, I heartily agree with his line of thinking there. At the annual birthday milestone just marked, 58 years and counting, I count myself lucky that I have never lived for long with “indoor plumbing,” that is, an indoor flush toilet (and don’t get me going on indoor composting toilets either.)  In fact I have now lived far longer without this sacrosanct modern “convenience” than I lived, in those first 21 years of my life, with it. And I am thankful for that, because I know that not everyone is so lucky.   If you live in a city you must of course make other arrangements for this most fundamental animal necessity. Clearly the urban life, zippy and hopping and inspiring as it is (or at least as it can appear from this remove, on a quiet early-winter night – it’s quarter to nine already? Geez, I’m heading up to bed…) does not lend itself to a scenario of citizens casually strolling out to the deck and standing for a few moments there to “water the petunias,” or strolling up the hill to a quiet timber-frame outhouse to sit for a while and read poetry with the door open.

Last night, as every night, I did just that, the watering the petunias part.  As I stood out there at the edge of the creek bottom and beyond the pool of light from the workshop window, stars bright above on the coldest night of the autumn so far, I watched a big bird fly a straight course east, in absolute silence, at treetop level. By that time of night (ravens all gone to roost I would think), and since its wing strokes were so silent and powerful, I think it had to be one of the big owls – a Great Gray or a Great Horned. So I thought of Kozlovsky’s passage and this morning went searching for the old binder. His words ring true, and that traipsing out and back, out and back, out and back, in all weathers and all seasons and in every temperature from warm to mild to deeply cold, in mosquito season and wind and rain and sun, does help us to recognize ourselves as earth animals. It also contributes to a steadily refreshed awareness, renewed every 4 or 5 hours around the clock (male aging being what it is), of wind direction, sky cover, precipitation, ice noises, and on and on, year in year out. And that, I am saying, is important, and welcome. At least to me.

This line of reflection calls to mind a long-ago exchange with a friend in town, a city woman not much taken with bush life. We were chatting 20 years ago about the new log house Kristen and I were building out at the Hoarfrost. She worked the conversation around to plumbing and then asked whether we might at last be taking some step forward from the little brown shack out back, when it came to, well, toilets.

No, I said, we would be sticking with the outhouse, and with our eminently successful Precambrian Shield variation on that age-old edifice. To wit, the outhouse with no pit.   A 5-gallon pail, handily and frequently changed, with moist sawdust (in summer) and dry wood ash (in winter) close at hand, to cover, cat-like, one’s contribution. Alongside the seat, and alongside the pail of ash or sawdust with its handy scoop, a metal pail for toilet paper, to be burnt on a weekly basis. (This detail is important.)  

We have used this system for years and it continues to elicit rave reviews from city folk whose notion of an outhouse is the typical yawning hole and rickety wooden bench, perched atop a reeking cesspool of unpleasantness.

And what, you may ask, becomes of that pail of wood-ash and “night soil,” or sawdust and same, when it is swapped out? Here again the main thing is to avoid the pit. A simple mound out in the open air, atop solid granite maybe 60 yards up the hill, supporting a thick patch of raspberry and fireweed. Nearly odorless even in thawing springtime, frozen and snow-covered all winter, innocuous and blooming through the summers. Sunlight, you see, and the marvelous antiseptic qualities of dry moving air and ultraviolet radiation. Those are the secrets. And again, of course, this won’t work in the city, and I realize it wouldn’t even pass muster under the modern government “land-use” permit. (And maybe I am foolish to detail this here, lest the land-use boys show up and mandate some alternative to this eminently clean, time-tested, practical, raspberry-and-fireweed-festooned “system.”)

Visitors have even come back indoors and brought this up directly — “you know, that is the nicest outhouse I have ever used.” I suspect they might want to go so far as to say, “the nicest toilet I have ever used,” but I suppose that would take a few years. A few spring days with the door wide open, a good book at hand, the view out into the wide sun-washed world, where birds sing and a cool breeze wafts past… the Earth Animal at his or her ease. Which brings me to my twist on my friend’s query, and one I still trot out whenever I can.

“Oh, I don’t think I could ever do that – I mean, live with an outhouse,” she said.

“Oh,” said I, “I see. Yes. I understand. You really have no choice, living where you do, but to have one of those ghastly little rooms right inside your house, even right alongside your dining room or kitchen or bedroom, with one of those flimsy thin doors and a loud fan and a bright light, where you have to lock yourself in and go about your earthly animal rituals, fervently hoping that the gutless flush mechanism doesn’t clog up this time, sitting there alone yet almost still in the same room as your house-guests and family just a few feet away…

Yeah, I don’t think I could do that.”

So, no sympathy please. In fact, quite the opposite, thank you. And now excuse me, I need to step outside and check the weather and wind for a moment, and take a look off to the northwest to see whether the setting moon is visible. I’ll be right back.

And digging through the quotes book some more, there was this one. Comes across as a bit too feisty and Outlaw Country for my tastes these days, but Abbey had that streak, didn’t he?  And sometimes I do too.  Maybe we need a little more of it now and then, just to keep that pendulum swinging.

“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”
Edward Abbey


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