The Australia Day outhouse

For future Australia Days, I have elaborate plans for a composting toilet, together with reed beds to filter greywater into an ideal frog habitat. Unfortunately, for this year we still had our single antiquated bathroom with an ancient, undersized septic system, supplied with water from just one rainwater tank.

These are the realities of our new country lifestyle. When it rains heavily, we’ll be cut off from town; when it doesn’t rain, we’ll need tankerloads of water delivered. When we flush the toilet too often, the septic overflows as the water supply dwindles.

Having family and friends to stay, therefore, has its challenges. Which, as it turns out, can become opportunities.

Back in November 2021, our Introduction to Permaculture course began with the usual housekeeping run-through: emergency evacuation procedures, break times, and of course, the location of the toilet. Ladies around to the left, men out the back to the Gentlemen’s Pissatorium. Sorry, the what?

The Pissatorium. As it turns out, it’s a strawbale on the ground, semi-enclosed in sheets of corrugated iron wired to star pickets. At the end of each weekend, the semi-sodden straw is forked as nutrient-rich mulch straight into the soil to compost. We spent five minutes laughing over the predictable jokes about whether women also use the Pissatorium, but as permaculture students, we all agreed this was a great way to return both moisture and nitrogen to the soil.

In the December lead-up to family and friends staying for Christmas, my mind returned to the problem of our tiny septic system and single water tank. I pictured us all on the back deck, drinking Corona with lime (from our orchard no less) … and so the opportunity to return moisture and nutrients to the soil …

We already had an unused three-walled outhouse. Shaded by mango trees, a respectable distance from the back deck, it would be ideal. All we needed was an absorbent bale of something to place on the floor.

So on busy Christmas Eve I drove, part of a slow-moving procession of dusty farm vehicles, through to the loading section of the local drive-through produce store. I popped open the canopy on the back of the ute and was soon approached by an older man in faded jeans and a shirt in the produce store’s branded colours.

‘I’d like two bales of something absorbent I can use as garden mulch’, I began.

‘Lucerne hay is high in nutrients and good for the soil, but it’s more expensive. Bales of silage are cheaper.’

‘Does the silage have weed seeds in it? We already have enough weeds in the garden.’

‘Yes, it will probably have seeds in it. Sugarcane mulch is your best bet.’

‘Sugarcane is wrapped in plastic, isn’t it? I wanted something that stays together in a bale.’

‘Ahh, why do you need it to stay together in a bale If you want to spread it around as mulch?’

I glanced at the vehicles queuing behind in the drive through. Barely patient drivers wanting to buy food for their working dogs, worming paste for their livestock, new gum boots, or whatever else brought them to the produce store on Christmas Eve.

I decided the salesperson, with his kindly but now slightly confused face, looked like a salt-of-the-earth farmer-type himself, accustomed to the practicalities of country living.

‘Ok, I’ll tell you,’ I began. ‘I’m building a Gentlemen’s Pissatorium. We have people coming for Christmas, the small septic system backs up and we only have one water tank.’

Like a true pro, he showed no surprise at all, going straight into professional problem-solving mode.

‘Well, you could use the sugarcane mulch, you just need to cut one panel open for the top.’

And it worked.

Now, when friends and family come to stay, an introductory tour of our tiny farm includes the vege patch, dam, orchard, and the Gentlemen’s Pissatorium. Naturally, this is followed by the predictable jokes about whether women also use it.

The banter reminded me of my visit to Europe in my early twenties, when I encountered (from the outside), my first public pissoir. In the chill of winter it looked a breezy affair, with open panels along the top and bottom. There was no door, but the spiral-shaped entrance gave a modicum of privacy, although the occupants legs were visible from the knees down. My boyfriend and I had been out to dinner, then a walk, taking the scenic route back to our hotel. We happened upon a pissoir at a very timely time – for him.

I scouted behind the small building, looking for the cubical for women. There wasn’t one.

‘But I really need to go too,’ I said. ‘Where’s the girls’ pissoir?’

There wasn’t one.

In writing this post I needed to google ‘pissoir’ because I didn’t know if it was spelt with one ‘s’ or two. In doing so I learnt that the earliest pissoirs, ironically, were simply hay bales placed in discrete corners of European villages and markets. The bales were then used as mulch on fruit trees. I also learnt that controversy now rages over the few modern (with plumbing so they actually flush) pissoirs still in existence, due to the perceived sexism. Women are asking county councils why men are provided with pissoirs, while they are expected to just ‘hold on’.

Here in Australia it’s now Australia Day and our Gentlemen’s Pissatorium is on its third bale. After a few weeks of use, it takes two of us to lift out the bale to be replaced, but the sugarcane absorbs all the liquid and odour. We collect valuable nitrogen, among other trace elements, while saving four litres of water for every toilet flush.

In the future, our fruit trees will thank us. They’ll produce many limes, some of which will be sliced and placed in bottles of Corona, consumed on the back deck, a respectable walk from the Gentlemen’s Pissatorium.

And so, natures cycle continues its flow.

Author: Jen Pritchard

Creatively bashing with the keyboard and camera. Treechanger, nature-bather, sustainability-aimer, reader/writer.

8 thoughts on “The Australia Day outhouse”

  1. So well written.
    Funny, engaging and interesting.
    Well done Jen.

    My partner runs a property in Mudgee. He’s almost self sufficient. You would have to ask him as he’s been doing this 20 years and I’m behind.
    So he has solar power, a septic system that waters the property thru a system of underground tubes??? Not sure .
    Water tanks . He isn’t on main water or gas,
    All his water for his accomodation is from the tanks , heated by solar energy. He’s a mad scientist, so I don’t know how he does the stuff he does . But he actually is a scientist so who knows?


    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this piece. What a great idea. Very resourceful.
    I had nightmares about European toilets after holidaying with my family.
    Have you read ‘Back from the brink’ by Peter Andrews? He’s quite brilliant about land management and water. Australian story did a piece on him years ago. It sounds like you’re in a lovely part of the country.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this, so well written and entertaining as well as a fantastic tip! We also have a small tank for water and wonder how well go in the winter with hopefully a lot of snow bunnies visiting!! Maybe I could suggest this for the “gentlemen” 😅

    Liked by 1 person

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