Toilet taboos

Most of our friends and family in the Lower Mania understand the appeal of our slow farm life. Visitors marvel at our starry night sky and stunning mountain views. In winter, they beeline to the wood stove with outstretched hands. At mealtimes, they ask for second helpings of our homegrown food.

Reactions to our sawdust toilet, though, range from alarm to bewilderment to disgust. Some family members flat-out refuse to visit until we install a flush toilet. Others are mortified to think that LW, who hauls and empties the bucket, might see their poo. One friend allowed, “I’ll come, but I’ll carry my own shit bucket!”

We didn’t plan on using a 5-gallon bucket for a toilet.

Our farmhouse was built without plumbing in 1924, and the daughter of the couple who built it lived here until she died in 1996. Edith never saw the need for indoor plumbing. Until the 1970s, she pumped water by hand at the pump house. In her 60s, she agreed to have a hand pump installed in the kitchen. She drew the line at a toilet in the house, however, and her outhouse stands to this day.

The outhouse in winter

The outhouse in winter

After her death, the house was rented for a couple of years to some friends of the nephew who inherited the place. They put in a septic tank and tacked a small bathroom onto the porch at the back of the house. Carpentry was not the man’s forte. “Jean le Screw” as we affectionately call him (because he hailed from Québec and he clearly felt the answer to any woodworking problem was to drill as many drywall screws as possible into it) did things on the cheap with whatever supplies he could scrounge. As a consequence, when we bought the house in 2003, even though the bathroom addition was only a few years old, it was a mildewed, mouse-infested eyesore. Tearing it down was our first order of business.

We planned on using the outhouse until we could plumb in a bathroom on the upper floor. The existing one was serviceable, but the pit was three-quarters full. LW mentioned to some friends in Victoria that she needed to dig a hole and build a new structure. As a tongue-in-cheek going-away gift, they gave us two books: Outhouses of the West (Cameron, Firefly, 2000, 2nd ed) and The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure (Jenkins, Chelsea Green, 2005, 3rd ed).

After we finished laughing, we read The Humanure Handbook. It made sense. Why treat something as waste when it can be useful? Even more to the point, why squander our precious water in the process?

Author Joseph Jenkins writes:

The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in their drinking water supplies and those who don’t. We in the western world are in the former class. We defecate into water, usually purified drinking water. After polluting the water with our excrements, we flush the polluted water “away,” meaning we probably don’t know where it goes, nor do we care.

Each time we flush a toilet, we launch five or six gallons of polluted water into the world. Do the math. If you really want to boggle your mind, look here. (Sadly, the global flush counter has been discontinued, but this site has great information along the same line.)

I’m alarmed at our global waste of water, but on a micro level, I had a more selfish reason to try humanure: I love to garden, and I make a lot of flower beds. Our property is short on topsoil. I need compost. Lots of compost.

LW followed the instructions in The Humanure Handbook and built two boxes, one for the toilet and one for the compost. She attached a seat to the toilet box.


As you can see, the compost station is actually a three-box system. In the middle box, under a roof to keep it dry, we store cover material. Hay. On either side is a compost box—without a roof because compost benefits from light and water. The first year, we emptied our toilet into the box on the right. We covered with hay and added kitchen and garden waste. The second year, that box continued composting while we filled the box on the left. We watered and turned the pile periodically. After two years, the compost was ready to use. Every year since, we’ve produced another boxful of beautiful compost to nourish the garden.

Step 1: Collect sawdust (we get ours free from a fellow who manufactures birch flooring; for him, the sawdust is a waste product that he's happy to give away)

Step 1: Collect sawdust (we get ours free from a fellow who manufactures birch flooring; for him, the sawdust is a waste product that he’s happy to give away)

Step 2: Collect excrements in bucket, covering with sawdust as necessary

Step 2: Collect excrements in bucket, covering with sawdust as necessary

Step 3: Make a hole in the pile

Step 3: Make a hole in the compost pile

Step 4: Empty bucket into hole in pile

Step 4: Empty bucket into hole in pile

Step 5: Cover with hay

Step 5: Cover with hay

Step 6: Let nature work her magic

Step 6: Let nature work her magic

Lots of people use humanure on their vegetable gardens. We don’t. Frankly, the idea makes us queasy. It’s not surprising. In a chapter titled “Crap Happens,” Jenkins notes:

One reason we have taken such a head-in-the-sand approach to the recycling of human excrement is because we can’t even talk about it. If there is one thing that the human consumer culture refuses to deal with maturely and constructively, it’s bodily excretions. This is the taboo topic, the unthinkable issue.

The Humanure Handbook contains all the information one needs, backed up by science, to monitor the temperature of the compost pile to ensure all pathogens are killed. Still, LW sells her garden produce. Given our societal toilet taboo, we suspect using humanure would be bad for business.

Besides, I can happily use all the compost we produce in my flower beds. The flowers aren’t the least bit squeamish.


photo of garden

Update: After LW injured her bucket-hauling arm while fixing the combine a couple of years ago, she pondered the feasibility of carrying a full 5-gallon bucket down the stairs and out to the compost box on a daily basis into her old age. Consequently, we installed a flush toilet in April 2016. It was a day of mixed emotions in our house, but we have noticed that our visits from family and friends have increased, if only slightly, since that date. Coincidence? You be the judge.

2 Responses to “Toilet taboos”

  1. Diana Z

    Why this post made me smile so much, I cannot really say! But it does! 🙂 I love: “Given our societal toilet tabou, we suspect using humanure would be bad for business.” The use of the word “suspect” cracks me up because I picture the two of you sitting at a table one night talking about this while shaking your heads.

    I have read a bit about humanure and it makes a lot of sense. Fascinating that you guys are making it work! But as a city girl, though, the thought of using an unheated outhouse in the middle of winter makes me shiver. Especially since it’s likely a bit of a trek from the house, non? And the image of someone walking around with a bucket of my poop does feel a bit weird. 😉 But I get it. Forge on, ladies!

    • commatologist

      Diana, I failed to clarify something: We keep the toilet inside our cozy, warm bathroom in the house. The purpose of the sawdust is to keep it from smelling – and it’s actually quite effective!


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