Seize the Seasons: Remembering the spiritual aspets of outhouses

Every once in a while something in a newspaper jumps right out at you. Some time back there were some Amish folks who were told by local authorities to desist from using outhouses.  They attempted to defend this practice claiming it was religious freedom. This may sound like a reach. But religion works in mysterious ways.I have a considerable amount of outhouse experience. My grandmother had a rustic cabin near Lake Michigan that lacked running water as well as electricity. There was a narrow meandering gravel footpath that led back through some hemlock, cedar, Canadian yew, and thimbleberry to an old fashioned “two-holer.” Since people tend to visit the privy alone, the obvious question is, why a two-holer? As Gramma would say, “when you boys are in there, use that seat on the left.” The right side was hers. I guess Gramma wanted her seat dry rather than child “tainted.”

The outhouse had a slant-back roof and two tiny triangular windows on either side, up near the ceiling. Red thumbtacks held up various and sundry ancient post cards, birthday cards, Christmas cards, and tidbits of philosophy.  There was also storage for a few implements: a hoe, shovel, rake, ax, and scythe stood in the corner next to a large bag of lime.

The outhouse provided occasional solitary sojourns, to a secluded place of contemplation and quiet. Twitters and tweets came from warblers, kinglets, and vireos, and actually enhanced the sense of place. The windows afforded a verdant view only to those who stood on tiptoe. But the door, if left open, provided a panorama of woodland beauty. An occasional mosquito would drift in through the gaping entrance, hoping that wooden seat might be serving supper. An ample amount of exposed skin would welcome the intruder, which could be dispatched either by a well aimed swat, or by becoming entangled in one of our spiders’ gossamer larders.

Bumblebees had found access to a nesting site, right next to the door, through a small knothole in the floor. It was strange to hear the buzzing grow louder until the insect appeared and then disappeared into its hole. As a child I felt no particular kinship with bees. In fact, one had planted a certain amount of fear in me with its stinger. But somehow, in the outhouse this armed insect didn’t scare me. Rather it roused my curiosity a great deal. I couldn’t help wondering what it was doing under that floor. Bumblebees became more interesting than they were scary.

Another critter had captured my attention in the outhouse; the daddy-long-legs, also known as harvestman (Opiliones). Unlike their relatives, the spiders, which have two prominent body parts (cephalothorax and abdomen), these unique arachnids appear to have only one oval body part, and lack the silk and venom glands of spiders. They move about on eight incredibly long legs. One came through the door tap tap tapping, feeling it’s way along the floor. It found the remains of a mosquito I had swatted, and carried it out. Just after a rain I watched a tiny tug-of-war as two daddy-long-legs struggled over a small worm.

One of my favorite memories of the old outhouse was being there during a rain. The drenched and dripping hemlocks and cedars, the intense shades of green, and a feeling of solitude gelled into a sublime beauty which could aptly be described as spiritual.  The only sounds were the rhythmic pattering and dripping of rain and a steady sonorous soughing from nearby Lake Michigan.

The outhouse became an unexpected destination. It provided a sense of place, revealing some of nature’s mysteries. From that vantage point I witnessed dramas of life and death as the spider came out to collect an insect in its web, or a startled squirrel would peer at me, or a chickadee would land in the doorway and quickly take off. For a brief time I was part of the processes around me. In short, I understand how an outhouse could be equated with religious freedom.

All of this notwithstanding, we just can’t bring back outhouses.  But in this era of hyper-connectedness: facebook, cell phones, email, and TV, we need to be grounded. More than ever, we need special places to regularly retreat and spend time alone, away from all the varied distractions, where we can, for brief moments, meditate and contemplate the universe in solitude.

Spring is right around the corner. You can create a special space in your own yard. It’s easier then you might think. All it takes is a little planning. Select a place to encourage plants to grow.  Enhance it with mulch and native flowers (native plants are more attractive to diverse native insects). A few well placed shrubs or a tree or two can help screen out distractions. Some people enjoy having a nearby bird feeder, bird houses, “toad abode,” (, or other habitat enhancements. Staff at Forest Park Nature Center (686-3360) or Luthy Botanical Garden (686- 3362) can offer helpful suggestions.

This isn’t just a hobby for an aspiring naturalist, it’s a motivating family activity. Kids could be as captivated by habitat enhancements as by passive TV watching. There are a lot of ways to notice and appreciate the transitions from spring to summer to autumn; a lawn chair, a notebook, a camera, or sketch pad can be a help.  Seize the seasons. There’s plenty of evidence that fascination with life can lead to a lifelong interest in science and art. Who knows where this could lead? Imagine congressmen and senators committed to protecting our diverse and fragile environment, upon which we and our future are dependent.

“Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” — Aldo Leopold

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