Just a word of warning: folks with delicate sensibilities may find the subject of this post somewhat unsavoury. If you are on the squeamish side, you may want to give it a miss….
On this chilly spring day, I am going to write about poop. Not exactly about it, as in manure for the garden or anything like that, but about human poop and how we deal with it, both at home on our island and collectively, if not somewhat historically.
The subject of sewer systems came up some time ago when we gathered together with C.’s family in order to sort through some of the ancestral photographs. Among the older, sepia photos was a portrait of an elderly gentleman, one Donald Cameron, C.’s great-grandfather, the great-great grandfather of our children.
On the wall in C.’s office there hangs a lavishly hand-decorated certificate of appreciation dated September 25, 1902. It was presented to Donald Cameron on the eve of his retirement as City Surveyor and Engineer, after more than 25 years of service to the City of Exeter in the county of Devon in England.
Among other things during his time in Exeter, Donald Cameron modernized that city’s water system. He also implemented a state of the art public sewage treatment system.
Although Frenchman Jean-Louis Mouras is credited with building the first septic tank in France around 1860 (a concrete unit known as the “Mouras Automatic Scavenger”), it was Donald Cameron who brought Mouras’s successfully patented technology to England. Cameron improved upon the design and first used the term “septic tank” for his system that was built in Exeter in 1895. As an aside, and in an eminently practical move, the methane gas from the system was used to heat and light the treatment works.
At first Donald managed to secure a temporary patent in the U.K. for his “septic tank” system. However, he was unable to patent the system permanently in that country. Following his retirement in 1902, Donald emigrated with his family to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he continued to try, unsuccessfully, to patent the system both in the Dominion and the United States.
According to historical documents, a natural process such as the anaerobic one used to transform sewage within the tank system, could not be patented. In the end Donald was never able to reap the real rewards of what has become one of the most common sewage disposal systems in the world.
Ironically, an early septic “cesspool” system, with inlet and outlet pipes, was patented in England in 1882 by a man called Lake. This happens to be my father’s name (and my surname) as well, though I don’t think we are related in any way to the cesspool Lake.
Coincidentally, my father once attempted to introduce another, natural, and relatively inexpensive sewage treatment system, the reed bed system, to the island where he lives down the coast from us. Sad to say, the powers that be on that island were loath to believe that an ancient, simple, and proven system could possibly work in the modern age. They preferred to spend more money and hire more expensive consultants to solve the septic system problem on that over-crowded island.
Meanwhile, back home on our wild island, we still use an even less technical and slightly more primitive method for our septic system needs. We call it an “outhouse” but it is known elsewhere on this planet as the “long drop”, the “dunny”, the “bog”, the “loo”, the “latrine”.
The traditional outhouse is a deep hole dug in the ground over which a small wooden structure is built. Within the structure and over the pit there is a rectangular wooden box with a hole cut in the top. This is where one sits to do the job. A plastic, ex-honey bucket with a lid, on the bench beside the hole, contains the roll of paper. The lidded bucket keeps the dust and mice out. A sprinkle of slaked lime and fresh sawdust every now and then combats odour. A good outhouse will last a long time, but even the very best outhouse eventually fills up. That’s when it is time to start all over again, with a fresh hole in a new spot, and most often with a new structure over that hole.
Always thinking ahead, C. had been planning for this eventuality for some time. Last autumn our daughter R. and her friend S. came to visit. As is their way when visiting the aging parental units, R. and S. kindly asked if there was anything they could do to help. C. did not miss a beat as he handed them a shovel and a pick-axe and pointed to the new “spot”!
A couple of days later, with much sweat and a few sore muscles, there was a new and very deep hole, not far from the previous one, in the back yard, at the edge of the forest, all ready to go! The topsoil and clay excavated from the new hole will be wheeled next door to the former outhouse to completely cover the previous 20-year old hole. The fate of the old outhouse building is still being contemplated; tool shed or roaring bonfire?
A few months after the hole was dug and in need of an early spring-time project, C. began to build the new outhouse structure. When I went off on my holiday he was in full swing; seeking out milled lumber from the various piles he has squirrelled away; measuring, sawing, framing, siding, and roofing. Three and a half weeks later I arrived home to find a handsome, brand new outhouse complete with a see-through roof to let in the light.
The new and improved “Cameron-Lake outhouse septic system” boasts a beautiful door, with opposing crescent moons cut into it. The user now has the option of privacy (door closed) or a bucolic view (door open) into the forest.
So far there is only a single hole cut in the spanking new wooden bench, and this is probably how it will remain. The previous outhouse was once a two-seater with a junior sized hole beside the big one, perfect for toilet training the kiddies when they were small.
I am going to splash out and invest in a new, oak finish toilet seat with a lid as well as a tin of pale green paint for the plywood box bench. C. intends to add a hand basin with running water and we have plans to camouflage the new outhouse building with a nice evergreen, flowering shrub, perhaps a spring flowering camellia. I might even put a sweet-scented hanging basket in the foyer! Perhaps something to attract the hummingbirds!
The way things are going, we should be in good shape with the “C&L Septic System” for at least the next quarter of a century!