It’s a small wooden structure next to my studio here in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains outside of the burgeoning (far too burgeoning) city of Santa Fe.
I built it ten years ago at the same time I built my studio, in one of those spasmodic attempts to become self-sufficient. I have a well for water—it is beginning to run try and I supplement it with tanks of trucked-in water since we no long have enough rain to fill the barrels—and I live off the produce I buy at the Saturday Farmers’ Market—which of course requires driving there, although my Prius gets about thirty-five miles to the gallon and the market is only eight miles off so the gas consumption is minimal.
The privy is home to a Biolet, a composting toilet, run off electricity, that pretty effectively mixes everything up with the composting agent provided, although this extraordinarily dry climate makes the operation less efficient than it would be in the East. Next summer, I’m empty the tray into my garden compost heap, the old kind, contained within wooden planks.
My vegetable scraps go into a black bin in the garage; I used to keep it outside but it is a magnet for desperate bears who chew holes in the top and roll it down the hill.
The bears will be even more desperate this summer so the composter will stay in the garage.
Trying to become as self-sufficient as possible, ten years ago, was a dream that seems now to have been discredited. At that time, I tried to connect my solar-generated electricity to the city power company, but the cost of the cable required to connect to their box was prohibitive, and their notable lack of enthusiasm put the final nail in the coffin.
Here, at least, there has been some improvement: I’ve been able to connect at much less cost (I’ve also added a lot of solar panels to my first array) and so about seventy percent of what I generate goes back to the public utility. I just received a handsome check from them, almost eight hundred dollars.
Still, apathy seems to have taken over, here in Santa Fe if not elsewhere; I see no solar panels going up in the vast new subdivisions built south of town, where there is not a tree for miles and the heat this coming summer is going to demand air-conditioning. In the historic neighborhoods in town, where long-held and well-supervised rules prevent the kind of blight that is brought about by thoughtless modern housing, solar panels on roofs are not allowed. They would certainly be unsightly; the little old adobes relied on thick layers of dirt on their flat roofs for insulation, sometimes growing corn up there, but the dirt had the bad habit of leaking down between the vigas, something no modern home owner who may have spent several million dollars to acquire one of these modest, charming old houses would accept. Instead, we now have massive walls, gates that open at the touch of a button, alarm systems prone to malfunction that scream at all hours—nothing that suits the old houses in the least but has become a requirement for tense modern owners.
Now we would never accept privies in the back yards, as would have been common years ago, clothes lines with flapping sheets, chickens pecking and clucking, or small vegetable plots fertilized with malodorous horse dung.
All this makes me wonder if we have become so used to comfort, even luxury, that the tiny sacrifice represented by my privy, with its half-moon cut-out on the door, is now impossible even to imagine.
[For more on my privy, see “Cleaning Out My Outhouse.”]