Across the road from my cabin are two outhouse, standing some distance from their companion houses, that always makes me smile. One is painted green (below, right), and the sign above the door says “library,” a nod to the old saying that “you’ll find me in the library”; there’s probably a good stack of magazines on the floor. Nearby is a more decrepit structure, a flap of toilet paper caught in the door—a flag of white fluttering in the always constant wind, a sign of surrender in the war of attrition against these old outhouses that are fast becoming a thing of the past.
Many are starting to crumble, losing a board here, another there, leaning slightly off their original foundations. In the process they’re becoming part of the natural world. Last summer my neighbor noticed the strip of white toilet paper being pulled out the door of the outhouse, through the pine needles and over the kinnikinnick bushes. Curious, he continued to watch and finally saw a chipmunk that had apparently decided TP was the perfect lining for its nest.
Lots of critters live under my outhouse, which I rarely use because I have a compost toilet inside the cabin. But the outhouse is a pleasure to use, a model of comfort. It’s a one-seater with a finished wood floor, a lamp to read by and a heater to keep your bottom (and the rest of you) warm. On pleasant days, you can keep the door slightly ajar and enjoy the pine-scented breezes, the sound of the birds.
Hiking through the hills around the cabin, I often stumble upon cabins and their outposts—sheds and outhouses, each one built differently, according to the whims of its creator. There’s one in the shape of an A-frame (above, left), good for keeping snow off the roof; and another has the same turquoise trim as its companion cabin (top). I found one outhouse that I was sure was about to collapse until I saw a venting pipe (left) , which I assume means it’s still in use. Even with new septic system regulations that will mean the gradual end of outhouses, many of them still stand, often assuming the personality of its original builder—a tribute to ingenuity and quirkiness. As far as I know, there has never been a manufacturer of outhouses, so no two are alike.
I don’t know what the government policy is in Ireland or Britain, but there are plenty of outhouses still standing and being used. They carry the flavor of their countries—whimsical, a bit eccentric. In Ireland, while sitting down I read a message you would not normally see in this country: “Dear customer, please shut the door after you as my sheep will eat the toilet paper.” In this Scottish outhouse (right), I could never quite figure out what the winch would do whilst in use and what I was supposed to do to avoid it.
As an environmentalist, I endorse the county’s mission to get rid of not only outhouses but old septic systems, anything that might pollute the water, yet I mourn the end of these distinct small structures. Unlike the outhouses, the septic systems are all the same, modern structures that efficiently remove most of the contaminants that would otherwise flow into the groundwater and streams.
But maybe there is hope for the outhouse. I just found a government document in which the county approved a historic designation for a home and outhouse in a nearby town. And just last week, hiking up the road behind the cabin, I was amazed to find a newly built outhouse, with contrasting logs perfectly arranged and what looked like a new window. It seemed like a small work of art.
Long live the outhouse!