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.

Meeting the new house

I knew immediately I needed to slow down. Slow down to meet the house on its own vibration. Bringing my big-city buzz through the door would stop me connecting with this quiet, tired cottage that has nestled here amongst established eucalypts for forty years.

Driving those few hours to our new property, to finally move in, I was anxious to check the reality of my new home and country life against the preconceptions I’d developed. Will I feel safe in the country? Will I miss city cafes, bootcamps, walking to the shops and other conveniences? Will I be overwhelmed by the renovations required and the reality of looking after country acres? Will I still love this house or will this all be a terrible mistake?

I’d thought of various ways to introduce myself to our new home with more ceremony than simply walking through the door. I could light a sage smudge stick and waft pungent cleansing smoke through the rooms and into every corner, clearing old energy to make way for new beginnings. I could rub some soil from the bank of the dam under my armpits and sprinkling it into the water, to announce my arrival. (An idea inspired by ABC TV’s Back to Nature, ) I could say hello to the spirits of the traditional owners and let them know my intention is to care for land and wildlife, to be respectful.

I drive along those final few undulating kilometres of gravel road, skirting the national park, threading between huge gum trees in an area listed as critical koala habitat. As I round the last bend and glimpse the rusty A-frame roof and views down the valley, the house greets me like a sigh of relief. I know this is where I’m meant to be.

I also know my convoluted plans to announce my arrival are not necessary. My smudge stick will stay in my suitcase, the soil at the dam, the traditional owners undisturbed.

This cottage, on its ten acres, has witnessed floods, drought, and the terrible bushfires of 2019-2020 when almost the entire East Coast of Australia was on fire. Who am I to land here from the big city with my big ideas, to come in as the new owner and start pushing things around? I’ll move slowly, get to know the land over time. The patterns, the seasons. I have much to learn.

Getting to know the property began simply that first day. Cleaning. My husband and I rolled up the ancient, filthy carpet and scrubbed the concrete slab beneath. I started cleaning high inside the house and worked my way lower. Vacuuming what I could reach of the vaulted ceiling, squeegee mopping the walls, then the windows and floors.

We unpacked the sound system and learned of the beautiful acoustics provided by the solid walls and soaring ceilings.

My husband had arrived at our new home yesterday, while I packed up the last of our city belongings. I asked him how he’d slept last night on a mattress on the floor. He hadn’t slept well. Kept awake by rustlings in the cupboards, scurryings in the attic, and scamperings along the gutters and over the corrugated iron roof. I was glad our furniture had been delivered. Although the bed was one of the few items unpacked, at least tonight we will be sleeping up off the floor. After vacuuming droppings from cupboards and corners today, I knew we were not the only occupants of the house.

Exhausted we flopped onto the bed. So far there’s no scamperings or scurryings. We chat about how different the night sounds in the country. No sirens. No drunk people stumbling home from the pub, post COVID lockdown. There’s no hoons in loud cars. No neighbours dragging their Thursday night bins out.

So what can we hear? Frogs. An owl. Crickets. Our heartbeats. And nothing at all.

Time to treechange

A treechange is what I’ve wanted for twenty years. I’m now plagued by doubts, but it’s too late to go back.

The last of the furniture was carted away by removalists earlier this morning. All that’s left is a scatter of half-used cleaning products in the centre of the loungeroom. After hours of wiping and scrubbing, the house glows with love and care, ready for tomorrow when the new owners take possession.

My husband has gone on ahead with the removalists to our new property, a few hours away in the country. I’m here alone, except for the cat, Charlie, who anxiously follows me from room to room.

I drag the old single mattress which sags in the centre to the bedroom wall, where this morning our king-size ensemble was located. The removalists have accidentally taken the vacuum-packed sheets and doona, so I’ll be sleeping on the bare mattress in my clothes with my bathrobe over the top to try and stay warm.

This is my last night in what has been our home in the city for ten years. It’s also the last night where meals can be home delivered, so I treat myself ordering Chinese online.

No longer filled with our furniture, paintings, books, and belongings, the house already feels less ours. Yet I’m still here, clinging to this out-dated version of what home is.

What will be our new home is not, as yet, a home. I barely remember it as our only inspection was more than three months ago. I’m a little scared of the house – I recall dust, musty and perhaps mousy smells, spider webs, filthy carpets, imposingly towering raked ceilings, and … ‘good bones’, ‘potential’.

I imagine the new house sitting silently awaiting me, windows murky, accessible via dirt road and far from the lights, sirens, and city busyness I’m accustomed to.

And this is the reason I’m here alone tonight.

Today I exaggerated the need to stay and further tidy up our city home, ready for our purchasers. Secretly, I wanted my husband to go before me to tame the spectre of the new country house, and the wild unknown I’ve built it up in my mind to be.

‘Will you be scared, staying in the new house by yourself?’ I’d asked my husband this morning.

‘Hah, don’t be silly.’

I text him now, ‘How’s it going?’

He replies: ‘It’s raining and the lights are off. I’m standing, walking, looking, listening and learning.’

I picture this, him becoming aquainted with our new house. His senses stretching as an aura around him in the dark. Alert to each sound. The creaks and groans as the house settles for the night.

Will our new house nurture, support and inspire us? Will I come to love it? Will it become a home?

Tomorrow, the house and I will be introduced as my husband will have already been there twenty-four hours. He’ll have some observations and stories to share.

My Chinese meal arrives, and I settle on the mattress, the cat purring and curled against my leg. Just for five minutes I cling to the normality and stability this home has provided.

I’m apprehensive moving to a community where we know no-one, to look after a patch of land we know nothing about. To a country house beyond the reach of town water and sewer services. What has been a long- held dream is now very real.

I wonder if my husband has completed a circuit of the building, explored outside as well as every room? Does he hear the rain on the roof flowing into the water tank, or are the gutters choked with leaves and overflowing – the first indication of a house more neglected than we’d anticipated. There’s so much for this house to reveal.

How’s my husband feeling there alone? Does he hold fears? Overwhelm? Regrets?

Then another text arrives from him.

‘I think we are going to fill this house very well,’ he says.

And my oppressive blanket of uncertainty immediately feels lighter. After an evening of second guessing our treechange decision, I’m again looking forward to our adventure together, which for me, starts tomorrow when Charlie and I drive to our new country home.