Thursday, October 11, 2012

potty talk

From 2010, a long weekend of installing a composting toilet in and below the old bath house. I thought we should dig a hole next to the house, then manually dig back under the house: in order to avoid moving the thing off its precarious perch on two old railroad ties. However Evan has a tractor and wants to use it, so we tried lifting the structure onto rollers and shoving. It moved gracefully sideways and started to topple. After recovering from this we started digging next to the house.

The Sun-Mar bogger was bought from a survivalist, whose business card says
“I buy Winchester”
Toilets and Survival Training.
It's a US Western thing, this survivalism: fantasies of competence in a post-apocalyptic world, plus sustainability, another fantasy: "that nauseating fig-leaf for priapic capitalism", as Will Self called it.

While digging the pit below the bath house we uprooted an old bit of sewer pipe, specifically orangeburg pipe. This was popular in the 50s and 60s, but had an expected life of 50 years at best, more like 10 years if rudely treated. It was made of wood pulp sealed with pitch, which seems unlikely at best for applications involving burying it underground near trees. In our case the pipe was from a water line run up to a now-defunct mine just up the hill, so was not too icky.

The throne room, ready for action. We took turns seeding the organic material in the drum with the appropriate intestinal flora, and called it a job well done.

By way of reward, a couple of hours up on the Grand Mesa for a water quality check. This is a simple test - as John Gierach says, if it's good enough for trout, it's probably too good for the likes of me. Here's Little Gem reservoir, in the traditional October horizontal snow. Caught a bunch of skinny funny-looking brook trout, Evan got the big one of about 12” upon which I noticed these fish had forked tails. So I think I caught my first lot of splake.

Artie the Wonder Dog behaved very well, hunted quietly around the yurt all weekend, with an occasional foray to swim in the canal when it got too hot. One of our farm syndicate had bought some chickens which soon fled the coop and went feral. They are the handsomest birds I ever saw, plump and glossy. The farm manager Manuel told us, "there is gold beneath the green", as they liked to lay below the one spruce tree: finding the eggs is a kind of easter egg hunt now. They do stick close to the farm manager’s house where Artie did not rove luckily.

On Sunday evening we we picked and ate elephant heart plums: not from the fridge or cold, but a sort of revelation all the same, scented and voluptuous. The chickens hung around our feet chooking companionably. To be honest our company might not have been so very attractive, it was more Artie sitting at the end of a taut peach-tree anchored leash, staring fixedly at them with the slaver running from his jaws. We left after that, I hope he doesn’t remember next time where the birds are.

2011 was the Great Potty Flood. I passed by the yurt on another fall weekend in the course of scouting for elk (which is another and longer story, full of trauma and incident).  On Saturday morning the irrigation pipe behind the bathhouse was leaking. The pit containing the composting toilet was completely full of water, so everything but the throne itself was immersed. The leak was fixed Sunday and the pit drained by Monday morning. I guess we'll never run the electric fan on the bogger now, but the drum still turns, good enough. 

2012 brings the annual potty warmup, adding warm water and some starter bugs, also dumped some compost and raked out the compartment.
The above picture shows the proud result of several years' use - all my own work ! well not really. Whoever went last, DID NOT ROTATE so there were TP blossoms in the output. It's possible there was some uncovenanted usage, as there were numbers of cigarette butts in the outhouse too.

Smells sweet as a nut.. really, no odoriferous assault at all. None of that 'whoreson saucy stink', as the inventor of the flushing toilet, poet Sir John Harrington, says:
even in the goodliest and statliest pallaces of this realm, notwithstanding all our provisions of vaults, of sluces, of grates, of paines of poore folkes in sweeping and scouring, yet still this same whorson sawcie stinke, though he were commanded on paine of death not to come within the gates, yet would spite of our noses, even when we would gladliest have spared his company..

'Scuse me,  I'm off to fertilize something..

Robert Gordon puts this in perspective with a thought experiment for the meliorists and iEnthusiasts:
With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002.
Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. 
As a late slow suspicious adopter I am still at option A anyway, but we do hauling and carrying at the yurt by way of practicing for that post-apocalypse.

Meantime the Gates Foundation is making artificial poop :

This is in service of reinventing the toilet. The ambition is laudable, the execution suffers from that same technocratic hubris which corrupts other efforts of the Foundation. Take a look at these gleaming marvels of engineering,


I particularly like the little arrow on this one, to show the synthetic poop where to go.

Now imagine how long either of these would last, in their target environments - desperately poor countries with good supplies only of dust, heat, hungry goats and inventive cannibalizers of technology. Let me hasten to add that I mean 'inventive cannibalizers' in the most complimentary sense and in no way pejoratively.
A thoroughly exercised composting toilet built like, pardon the phrase, a brick shit-house, would seem to be a better approach than chromed steel and microprocessors.

By way of contrasting example, World Bicycle Relief builds a massively under-engineered bike as simply as possible. This is supplied together with training for maintenance so there are field technicians available, providing both a decent job and running bikes.