12 September 2008

Quakers in the Country: The Biffy

Recently I described what it's like for a family of two adults and five children to live out in the hills without a reliable source of household water. Not having reliable water out here also means that we’re missing another household item often taken for granted by modern Americans. I mean that porcelain fixture somewhere in the house, usually in the littlest room. Without cities, you don't have public water treatment plants. Without water treatment plants, you need a household septic system. But septic tanks and leach fields need a lot of water, or they dry up and don't work. And without a septic system, you don’t have a flush toilet, high-volume, low-volume, or otherwise. So, enter here the time-honored country heritage that our family shares with hundreds of years of rural-living Quakers, the biffy.

Most of the old Quaker meetinghouses here in Ohio seem to have biffies out back, as do all the old steeplehouses, farmhouses, and various other country buildings. Sometimes they've been replaced by indoor plumbing, sometimes not. For meetinghouses, there will be two--a "His" and a "Hers," dating back to when they still dropped the shutters between the men's and women's sides of the room during business meeting. Perhaps there is a connection, somewhere. Some biffies are better built than others, but generally they're pretty spartan. Nobody wants to spend a great deal of time on their design and construction. It's just a biffy, after all.

Except for ours, however. As biffys go, ours is a particularly fine example, and our neighbors compliment us on it. It’s definitely the most up-to-date biffy in a neighborhood where biffys are taken for granted. It has a spacious concrete floor, sturdy wooden framing supporting the walls, and a real metal roof. It doesn’t have any electricity out there, as it’s too far from the house, but we use a kerosene lantern for light, and in the winter the lantern also warms the inside up pretty quickly. Relatively warm, anyway. After a minute or two out there on frosty nights I sometimes notice that my boots have frozen to the floor. We have a spare fuse socket in our house, and I occasionally toy with the idea of installing electric heat in the biffy. But so far the kerosene lantern works fine, as long as the kids haven’t stolen the matches for science projects.

The only unpleasant aspect of our biffy occurs during the spring and fall, when the nights are below freezing but the morning sunlight melts the frost quickly. The metal roof, of course, will have frost on both sides. As the sunshine warms the roof, the frost melts, and begins to drip. If you happen to have a schedule that corresponds with the sunrise, you are treated to a random but steady rain of small drops of ice water, falling from the roof onto your head. If you have literary tastes, then the water drips onto the open pages of whatever you're reading. After an hour, of course, the problem goes away, but sometimes one's schedule is not very flexible.

As with the household well, there is occasional maintenance involved. Mostly the biffy needs no attention, but every year or two, it’s time to remodel. Remodelling is indicated by the approach of the growing stalagmite down in the hole which delicacy forbids me to describe further. Remodeling our biffy consists of digging a new hole in a congenial spot, and then driving our ancient forklift up to the biffy, picking it up, and putting it back down in its new home. Then we top off the old hole with extra dirt from the new one, and voila, we’re back in business. Other than that, and keeping the biffy stocked with mousetraps and a fifty pound bag of lime to assist in organic decomposition, there’s no routine maintenance involved. And moving the biffy to a new spot now and then means that you can always face the door in a new direction, to enjoy a new and different view of the distant neighbors and surrounding countryside for a year or two.

In the summer, a clean and comfortable biffy provides a pleasant country experience that is totally absent from the lives of the members of our meeting who live in town. The birds sing, the clouds float by, and you only have to close the door when the mail carrier drives up. And we can hear her vehicle coming at least a half-mile away. Where the biffy solution breaks down is in the winter, when small children refuse to go outside to have their own boots freeze to the concrete. After a month or so of cleaning up accidents among the kids, we arrived at another answer—our sawdust toilet, aka, the litter box.

At this point, I must break for negotiations with my wife, who has expressed misgivings about making some aspects of our lifestyle better known among the general public. "You're writing about what?" she asks. "I'm going to go to the FWCC meeting in Indiana and people are going to say, 'Shawna, we've read so much about you, and your, uh, uh, you know!'" So, I guess I'll leave this topic until next time. If there is a next time, anyway.

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