I joined the impromptu clique of smokers outside the coffee shop and slid into a conversation about tiny houses and woodstoves, teepees and yurts, composting toilets. Some dreadlocked white boy just off the Appalachian Trail was rambling happy about his tarps and tents and his buddy’s yurt, and I let him pronounce it App-a-lay-shun because he said he’d walked the damn thing four times, but I made sure to turn up the twang on my own accent, dropping consonants off the end of words and stuffing extra syllables into the vowels.
Somehow we started talking about outhouses – he called them privies. He described the pit toilets off the Appalachian trail, the toilet facilities for the folks hiking through. There’s a small building with a toilet in it, and that toilet is planted over a deep hole in the ground, and when you shit, you just shit down into that hole. Don’t fall in. There’s somebody who’s job it is to clean those pit toilets when they fill up.
Up in the deep woods, so far from town that you must pack in every bit of necessary survival gear, in a place where adventurers pass through on their way to somewhere else, there’s a man who lives in a tent. He has a shovel. He lives his own particular kind of solitary stillness in a place where people seeking aloneness pass through, like marbles in motion down a chute they’re walking every day, getting somewhere in a search for the the elation of transience and the end of the trail.
The adventurers, with their expensive tents and calibrated backpacks and freeze-dried nutrition packets, need to shit when they’re walking from here to yonder, so they shit in the privies built along the trail, the simple wooden shacks with an unplugged toilet and spiders and a deep deep hole. When that hole is no longer a hole but a pile of steaming rotting shit, the man in the tent brings his shovel down and opens a small door underneath the shack and he shovels out the shit.
And he finds things dropped in there, treasures from the adventurers: cell phones and jewelry, six packs of beer and pocket knives, condoms and fermenting books. He shovels out the shit and he’s thrilled by what he finds.
Elliot Patterson is a single mother/part-time farmer/full-time programmer & wild foods medicine maker, embracing the fertility of the decline of civilization through the self-sufficiency traditions of the deep hollers of backwoods Appalachia, rooted in the ground where her Irish ancestors are buried.
Header Image: Creative Commons, photo by Shawn Ford, modified.