An Out-of-the-City
Guide To Pumps, Plumbing,
Water Purification, and Privies

Max Burns
(Cottage Life Books)
Burns confesses to an affection for outhouses ... "backhouse, biffy, privy, or whatever one wants to call it." He titles it "the original restroom,"

    a moment in silent repose, outhouse door jammed open as it usually is, contemplating absolutely nothing as seven ruffled grouse balanced awkwardly on the top twigs of the nearest birch tree, doing the same as me.

He points out that a well-constructed privy is far more environmentally friendly than a septic system, for a "fluid" system leaches many more contaminants into the ground water.

He offers plans for three outhouses --- the pit privy, the vault privy, and the pail privy --- and gives exact building instructions and dimensions. He suggests preferred materials for the walls of the pit (old brick, cement blocks, fir), and even quotes --- what research! --- from a USDA farmer's bulletin of 1928 that states that "each American is responsible for expelling just under half-a-ton of personal body sewage each year."

This is a user-friendly manual, easy to read, carefully broken into thirteen chapters on, for example, Sources of Cottage Water, Pumps, Water Quality, Purification, Septic Systems and Gray Water, among others. Some age-old canards are refuted, such as the canon that beavers are responsible for Giardia, the disease that so many of us pick up from dream vacations at what we believe to be pristine lakes. Burns tells us that the source can be deer or moose, but most probably it is other humans. "Beaver fever" is misnamed, he tells us, if not a libel on an innocent creature.

    Stastistically, you are more likely to contract giardiasis from soiled diapers at the daycare center.

In water search, there's a section devoted to dowsing. I can attest personally to the power of witching. The last time I tried it, I carried around two metal reinforcing bars, about fifteen inches long, bent in a 90° angle, held aloft, near the chest. The damn things crossed over at the same spot for me and Juan and my friend Frankie. Frankie had been suspicious of the whole procedure until I put the bars in her hands and told her to go up the path. She did, and they crossed, and she damn near jumped out of her pants. We dug and found no water. I reassured Frankie and the others: "There's water here. I can guarantee you. But we just are not willing to go to China (or even China Lake) to find it."

Boiling water will rid it of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. If you boil it for a minute, all should be comatose, but some have the ability to reactivate. For that reason, the writer advises us to boil it for twenty minutes to be absolutely sure. Burns reveals, however, that "being Canadian, and thus genetically disposed to compromise, I boil for ten minutes."

And this on "spring water." For most it

    has the reputation of being the cat's meow for purity, but, in reality, it can be closer to some of the other things a cat emits.

Water is purified as it finds an aquifer, but "if the return trip to the surface is unprotected, there's little to stop contaminants from rejoining the flow." Wells, he reports, are safer, because of consistency: "whatever is in the water today is likely going to be there tomorrow as well."

    The protected environment of a well keeps animals away from the water and boaters away from the intake line.

§     §     §

For some of us who live outside the Homeland Security Belt, "safe drinking water" is an oxymoron. We would never drink tap-water, and some of us even go to the extreme of scrubbing our mandibles with beer, picking out the cigarette butts, preferring the sour taste of last night's party to putting parasites in the gut.

Anything in a bottle, is safe, no? Well, perhaps not. My friends Margot and Gary were traveling though Afghanistan back when it was possible to travel through Afghanistan without getting a bomb in your soup, and, when they arrived in some obscure village near Bagram, they stayed for what they thought was the night in a rude hostelry. They bought capped bottles of water from the old fridge the owner kept near the desk. And damn near died. She claims that on her way (again) to the bathroom (or privy), she saw the hotelier out on his knees, bottling the water from a nearby stream.

And despite our once thinking that freezing might purify liquids, I remember a long week in Haiti in a biffy because I had foolishly asked the bartender for a Sazerac cocktail with ice-cubes.

--- Carlos Amantea
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH