I can’t write about this without sounding like I’m blowing my own horn. Bill Gates, bless him, has discovered manure. I don’t know if he has read my book, Holy Shit, or Joseph Jenkins’ book, Humanure, but he’s acting like he might have. He is offering $42 million in grants to spur new designs and ideas for handling our bodily wastes in a less bankrupting way than we are using today. There are already good compost toilets out there, and other ways to handle or replace flush toilet water are in the process of development, but I am sure, and Mr. Gates must think so too, that the more brains we can get involved in this, the better. Clint and Bobbi Elston, founders of the Equaris Corporation in Afton, Minn., (http://www.equaris.com/) tell me that they have already applied. They have invented an impressive array of home appliances to recycle toilet water and gray water and to separate feces from urine, and to cleanse toilet flushes of the bad effects of throwing pills and hormonal products down the pot, which, in an advanced culture, would be forbidden. Scientists have announced a way to extract the phosphorus out of sewage water to use for fertilizer. Just last week the news was captivated by reports of new projects in the works to turn waste water into drinking water.
The problem with all these admirable inventions and discoveries is that they are expensive or are aimed at the whole society including densely populated areas where it is exceedingly difficult for people to use them at present even when they desire to do so. I think, as we begin the heavy task of changing our culture away from its fear of shit, that we focus first on areas where handling the stuff is comparatively easy, that is where populations aren’t so dense yet. If in the United States we could get just 50 million of our 300 plus million people to turn their wastes into valuable fertilizer, the savings in money and environmental damage would be enormous.
So I have a suggestion which would be a whole lot of fun as well as possibly the best first answer to Mr. Gates’ challenge. Why don’t all of us country people (and I’m thinking especially of the imaginative and innovative readers of this blog) amuse ourselves by designing, and perhaps even building, the MOST COMFORTABLE OUTHOUSE IN THE WORLD. I am talking about an outhouse that even the Queen of England would die to have in her backyard. Can you imagine how we could change our cultural attitude toward shit with a photo of the Queen seated on her plush satin-covered outhouse throne, with a shining little cut glass chandelier overhead, surrounded by richly brocaded interior walls and exterior walls of beautiful soapstone? Modestly veiled under several layers of the latest Paris styles (the latest Paris styles aren’t all that modest so you need a couple layers of them), she would be staring pensively and rapturously out her privy door at lovely gardens all around fertilized by her very own composted defecation. Overnight our wastewater problem would be solved. House and garden magazines would vie to see which of them could feature the most beautiful garden house privy. Gated communities would compete over who could adorn their outdoor living centers with the most sumptuous shithouse ever built.
I have some ideas about what that outhouse would look like. Jeff Cox, a California garden writer whom many of you know and who is an old acquaintance of mine, built, in his earlier Pennsylvania years, an outhouse with stained glass windows in it, or so he told me. I would like stained glass windows in my outhouse too and think, since we are talking here of very small-scale architecture, that they could be quite affordable. Stained glass windows would get around the problem of people peeping in on me, God forbid.
I’d want a brick exterior in honor of all those hoary old jokes about brick shithouses. I’d like a slate or tile roof. Inside, I want carpeting all around, mother of pearl toilet seats and seat covers that would keep all insects and odors out of sight and smell. Surely a heater and outside air exchanger would be standard. Also I’d want a coffeemaker, a shelf for books, a lamp to read by, and Internet access. I suppose I should specify Microsoft software if I want to catch Mr. Gates’ attention. Most of all, I’d have a built-in music entertainment center. Binoculars would be standard equipment so I could watch birds and other wildlife while I relieved myself. I doubt I’d want a phone however since this little retreat would be my sanctuary, as calm as a Trappist monk’s cell, but not at all austere. The line of world-weary people wanting to use my little house in the woods, or on the prairie, would stretch around the world.