Since Emily and I sowed the inaugural bed of romaine lettuce in March, 2011, hundreds upon hundreds of community members have graced the Duke Campus Farm with their toiling hands and sweating brows and triumphant laughter. Our workdays, festivals and workshops have attracted students, faculty, media, chefs, out-of-towners, and top-level University administrators.
Through it all, we’ve tried to foster a community space that evokes a modernized version of the Jeffersonian ideal. As Jefferson wrote in 1781, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”
Alas, it seems that while the Duke Community is eager to tap DCF’s deposit of “substantial and genuine virtue”, while they are keen to “keep alive the sacred fire,” while they willingly toil in this little square of paradise on the edge of the Duke Forest, sometimes nature calls them back into her bosom. That is, sometimes they have to pee and poop.
Today, I am pleased to write, we can do a whole lot better. Thanks to Green Grant funding from the Sustainability Office, and the patient work of many hands, the Farm celebrates the opening of its very own outhouse. It is, to quote one user, “certainly the nicest outhouse in Orange County.”
If you’d like to take a virtual tour, Bryan Roth over at the Duke Communications shop has prepared a lovely little video.
Since the outhouse project began, I’ve had a lot of questions about its purpose, design and construction. I’ll try to answer a few common questions here. Feel free to add your own in the comments, and I’ll do my best to respond.
Why build a pit privy instead of a composting toilet or an artificial wetland?
I’ve gotten this question many times, including from one disgruntled reader on Duke Today who expressed her “shock” and “disappointment” that we would build such a primitive structure. The simple answer is that we tried—really tried—to convince Orange County to permit a composting toilet. After all, the Duke Campus Farm strives to minimize our external inputs and, to be blunt, poop can be an excellent and safe source of plant nutrients. We wouldn’t have used the compost (aka “humanure”) on any vegetables, but we could have used it to grow a rainbow of zinnias and sunflowers. Alas, the gods that be in Orange County were having none of it. So much for a progressive county, huh?
As far as artificial wetlands go, I think it’s a great idea. I helped design the artificial wetland that processes the brown water at the Montessori School of Raleigh Middle School in rural Durham County. It’s a lovely system, complete with plant-lined berms, a UV-light and a constructed wetland. It also cost about $100,000 to build, or about 10X the annual operating budget of the Farm. If anyone is looking to cement their legacy, the Farm is happy to offer naming rights for the wetland successor to the outhouse. Email email@example.com.
Another common question. It’s true that the outhouse cost $1,000 in materials alone, not to mention over $600 in permitting fees and non-negligible labor costs. It has ample space inside, two sliding windows, a Dutch door, and a small library.
The answer is several-fold.
First, I’m out at the Farm a lot. Emily, Sarah, Damon, Anna, and others are out there even more. I want a pleasant place to do my business and I imagine that they do, too. While I’m “busy” I like to watch the deer that mosey on the edge of the Duke Forest, and watch the sunset out the window as I catch up on the latest issue of Mother Jones.
Second, there is a growing perception of farming as a second-class occupation, dirty work, even uncivilized (ironic enough given agriculture’s leading role in the birth of settled society). The Duke Campus Farm exists to, among other things, renew the image of farming as a rewarding, attainable and, yes Mr. Jefferson, virtuous occupation. Even—ahem—for young people with a world-class education. Farmers should not be relegated to a dark cramped putrid bathroom any more than they should not go to the opera or enjoy world-class healthcare.
Finally, the Farm is a center of community. Beauty inspires community. Comfort facilitates community. If we can’t be proud of what we build together, with our hands, we will surely struggle to build something worthy in the intangible dimensions of community space. Or, as Emerson wrote, “I have heard that stiff people lose something of their awkwardness under high ceilings, and in spacious halls…to teach us manners, and abolish hurry.” Indeed.
What qualified you to build this thing in the first place?
Stubborn patience, an abundance of time, and really well-written and specific building plans.