Muck and Yuck

Or, Everything you always wanted to know about composting toilets (but we’re too afraid to ask).

On a rare, partly sunny day when the winds were calm and the meadows spun off wildflowers in the morning sun, M. said it was a good day for composting. One of us would muck out the winter goat shed, one of us the toilets. She was kind enough to do the toilets. 

A composting toilet is something you’ll find at a dry campsite. After you use one, you take a handful or more of sawdust and cover the business up, and shut the lid. This prevents flies from accumulating and keeps the odors away. But eventually, someone has to empty the barrel. You aren’t just going into a big pit dug into the ground like in WWI. Besides the currently used barrel, next to each of the four composting toilets is a barrel at rest, on its side. This one is full, and has been “composting” for about four months. Together, because it’s a heavy, two man job, we rolled the barrel (isn’t there a song that’s kind of like that?) all the way to the enormous compost heap that’s a combination of cow, sheep, goat dung, and you guessed it, human dung as well. Now, you might think oh gross! And imagine that what comes out of the composted barrel looks like your toilet did the day it was clogged or a sewer pipe that broke and spilled your glory all over the lawn. But it doesn’t look like that at all. It looks like brown dirt and smells… well ok it smells pretty bad, but that’s what the composted goat dung is for, which covers the odor pretty well. While M. shoveled out the well, you know, the crap, and heaped it on the large compost pile, I retrieved muck from the goat shed, which was sitting all winter and already become semi soil. M. covered the human muck with the goat muck. The large compost heap, thus made from the variety of excrements will sit all year, and by next summer, will be ready to use, in a nicely homogenized, rare earth blend. 

So there you have it. Not as scary as you imagined. Maybe gross enough for you to thank your local plumber and sewage treatment plant. 

We pulled some weeds from a garden afterwards, enjoying the day of sun; had fried egg sandwiches soon after. I decided to take advantage of the sun and washed some clothes in a sink in the barn, and hung them to dry down by my caravan; after that I walked to town. Nothing happening down there except for the one grocery store in town, so I stopped in and spent a good 15 minutes casing the snack aisles for something salty and something sweet for an afternoon treat. Bagless, I left the store with my pockets bulging: a roll of cookies, a bag of salted, roasted peanuts, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. I devoured the apple first, walking slowly back past St. Barnabus Church and graveyard. The gates were open, so in I went to explore. Built in the mid 1800s for farmers and families when the sheep farmers and woolen weavers and spinners were in full force, it now stands relatively quiet. The museum, just a quarter mile behind me and open every day till 5, used to be a functioning woolen factory, which still operates some of its apparatus for visitors. I’ll be back for that before I leave. The church meanwhile, is outfitted in stone floor, wooden pews, a Welsh inscription up by the nave, and a few beautifully stained-glass windows behind the alter. 

Wales must have done really well for itself before industrialization snatched its livelihoods. Herring and seafood from the coast, sheep, cattle and their byproducts from the inlands, grain from the fertile soil, and the copious rain providing enough water to run the mills. 

Opening up the bag of chips, I walked on, slowly meandering back hence I came, now assured of the right way. With my nose and fingers in the bag of chips, I was offered a ride back by a couple who decided to stop a good 100 yards in front and shouted back whether I needed a ride. I was enjoying the walk and the chips too much to interrupt it, and shouted back a thank you nevertheless. Licking the salt and oil off my fingers, I began to think about the family. Why people make an effort to deny themselves of life’s little pleasures and conveniences amazes me still. Nowhere in the house is a roll of cookies or a goody or jar of Italian olives. They order sacks of grain from the southern coast: oats, rice, buckwheat, spiral pasta bits, and a cracked wheat flour mix. The fruit is preserved without sugar, and consists of berries, little plums and blackberry currants. The vegetables are stewed without salt, but tons of bay leaves and little else. There is a pantry off from the mud room in which they keep their jars of preserves, root vegetables and sacks of grain. There is no special treat cupboard, as far as I know, unless they ransack it when I leave. Well, not to worry, I thought; I’ve found the snack store down the road.

I thought about how M’s habits changed a bit when P was at the scythe festival for four days. She brought out some sugar for the egg sandwiches, put a bowl of raisins on the table for the porridge, and let us serve ourselves from the pot, and even added curry and chili pepper to the stewed vegetables. We went to the food festival, where the children and she scarfed down burgers and attacked the sweets (admittedly I did the same with my food), and that evening, even made pizza- albeit from the same bread dough, topped with scant cheddar cheese, a thin veil of tomato sauce from a jar – ( I think it was store bought) and a few red pepper slices and even a few kernels of corn, from a can she bought at the store on the way home. She seemed to be more open discussing topics, laughed a whole lot more, and was more loose with a schedule. 

The reaction or rather non reaction upon P’s return gave me more clues to this Quaker type of existence. He came in just as we were finishing supper, a casserole of macaroni, goats milk and a little cheese, and neither child looked up from what they were doing at the table. One of them asked, “What place did you make?” referring to a competition that was part of the festival. Not “Hi da!”, or a hug, or a smile, a gesture, or any sort of affection. There was none either given to or received from M, either. She simply said, “Oh there you are. Just in time for supper.” I found this uncomfortably odd. I decided to break the pall after a bit and asked him, “Well, did you have fun?” He paused for a moment, looked at me, smiled, and said, “Yes, I had fun,” as if it were a new revelation and no one ever asked him that before. My feeling is that they both decided to leave the demands of society behind, preferring the silence of the land; they gave it their best shot out here. 

I came back to the caravan, stashed my cache, and returned to the buckwheat and stewed vegetable supper. 

That evening I heard the drops of familiar rain land on the caravan’s top and I quickly retrieved my almost dry clothes from the iron frame of the poly tunnel. (I always wondered what that was. It’s not an actual tunnel. It’s a type of green house). I hung them up in the caravan around the windows so the light form tomorrow would finish the drying. But alas, tomorrow came and the rains had not yet let up. It was steady, hard, and meant business. I donned my waterproof gear – by this time I had borrowed and kept in the caravan a pair of Wellingtons, those famous plastic garden boots that’s a necessity for farms and heavy duty gardening – and complete with my favorite green hat, my green waterproof North Face jacket, and my all weather quick dry pants, I braced the trek up to the house for breakfast. 

There are few activities one can do with wet grass, and besides watch it grow from a warm inside window, you guessed it, it’s scything. For whatever reason, it’s easier to cut. So P. thought it would be a perfect morning for me to scythe the other access path down to my caravan – this one wider and longer – and also scythe around the caravan and up to the other little path. I braced for what was in store, and in my always agreeable nature, feigned complete indifference to the cold wet bath waiting outside. Besides, I had my waterproof stuff on. 

But within half an hour, my waterproof jacket must have only been “pleasant mist proof” because I was feeling the wet enter my shirt and seep onto my skin. The hat, which did its best to prevent wind, can not fend off water, and so the rain came through my newly washed hair and soaked my head.(Yes, that sunny day just yesterday, the day I washed clothes, I also quickly washed myself, under the one-pail shower.) Water drops were falling off the rim and into my eyes. The boots were taking on water from the wide gaps around my shins, and my pants, well, why should they hold out? But for some reason, I refused to let it bother me. Instead, I took to wild laughter again, at the image of me out there. It’s one of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I’ll never do again – and eventually, I’ll be dry and warm soon enough. The other reason I may have had a sophomoric grin on my face was that indeed, although wet grass is easier to cut, and I like to have a handicap as the next best guy out there, I chose to believe that I finally got the handle of it – literally. The grass came off quick, with one swoosh after another, short to the nub and smooth as a pro. Ah, the joy! Pour the heavens onto my wretched self, I’ve learned to scythe!

Three hours later, a wide path trimmed and fit enough for the Queen’s carriage, I returned to the barn a dripping, soaked yet victorious, where P. was hammering the kinks out of one of his many blades. I carefully wiped down the blade of my scythe, return it to its place, and without a mention of my wet state, inform P, “I think I’ll make a cup of tea.” I may have earned some points in his mind about my fortitude out there – and even though young F. came out and said I was doing great after I asked him what he thought, there wasn’t a comment from P. himself. Now that I think of it, I’ve never heard any one of them say please or thank you to each other. The only person saying thank you around here is me, like in “thank you for breakfast/lunch/supper” and there’s never a “you’re welcome” or what ever else one might say to appreciate your thanks. When I listen to them talking at the table, during any of the meals times, when often the kids are talking between themselves, and the adults are talking about scythes or harvests or goats or cows, there’s not a solitary, endearing comment like “That woolen vest sure looks good on you!” Or, “I really like what you did with your beard!”  Or “Can you bring in the goats today, P? I’m beat.” “Sure, honey.” “Thank you!”

I finished my tea, informed P. that I was now going to warm up, and went to my caravan, where I peeled off the wet clothes and replaced them with dry. I was so thankful to my ski jacket for being light enough to bring along and efficient enough to warm me quickly. I got under the bed clothes as well, and as I slowly warmed, listening to the rain outside pattering incessantly, I regretted not buying some whiskey at the convenience store the other day, as I surely could have used this occasion for a celebratory toast if not a tonic against the chill. I settled for a piece of chocolate.

I had to be summoned for lunch an hour later; as hungry as I was, going back out in the continuous rain was not something I ever felt I needed to prove to anyone ever again. Besides, my new clean socks would have to go into the not yet quite dried boots, and the thought of that just made me shudder. So I decided to wear my own boots, and made a dash for the house. During lunch, which was bread and cheese, I offered to do something under shelter for the last two hours of a five hour workday, and since the only thing they have that fits in that category is sawing wood, that’s what I did. But I refused to get my remaining warm clothes and especially my ski jacket wet, dashing from the branch pile, to the shed, and to the cut log pile, and asked if he had a rain poncho or something similar. He did! He pulled out a bright red poncho and since then I haven’t gone out without it on. The kids call me Little Red Riding Hood and we all have a big laugh – but I just call myself warm and dry.  

 The rain belted on into the night and the next morning as well, now for the second straight day. The children left for their Home Ed community get together, M. took orders, fulfilled orders, and boxed up about 8 scythes, and I pulled weeds and harvested a type of Swiss chard in my borrowed red cape and green Wellingtons. In the barn, P. hammered away, straightening his collection of scythe blades.  As I inspected each leaf as to its edibility, I listened closely to the sounds around me. The ducks, who are now down from three to two due to a cunning fox just the other day, were honking away at each other. The birds were quite expressive, and I’m not sure if mockingbirds fly though the area, but one of them sure sounded like he was mocking me – singing the old grade school taunt you’d hear on the playground, A sound of Jurassic Park came from the valley – for a while I was really trying to figure that one out – but for the sake of being rational, it must have been a badly injured donkey. At one point two men showed up with a chainsaw, and went down by the caravan to cut a few trees. P. and M. are hosting another workshop on how to build a roundhouse with paying participants who will be building their roundhouse. 

We had stewed Swiss chard on rice for supper, and thickened goat’s milk over bread/cake for pudding.  And check this out – tomorrow, which seems to be raining still – I have a free day. I’m going to town!


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