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Of Woods And Words: The Septic Talk


FinalCutOWW02022011.mp35.81 MB

Sewage is one of the most fundamental elements of human existence and yet it remains largely taboo as dinner table conversation . . . unless you’re at my house. Gathered around a family dinner, information about the latest septic system so-and-so installed comes up more often than “Pass the potatoes, please.” We cut to the quick and talk about what’s really near our hearts. Why bother acknowledging weather that we all know is blustery, cold and snowy? Why inquire about the others’ well-being, when what we really want to know is how that holding tank really works?

I prefer to think of the toilet flush as an ending. Unfortunately, if you live in Cook County and aren’t willing to talk openly and honestly about your sewage, you’re viewed as a little prissy. Around here, sewage isn’t someone else’s problem: it’s your problem.

In these parts, septic alarms can send you running outside in sub-zero temperatures clad only in your pajamas. Frozen pipes and frozen bathroom vents are persistent everyday worries. Shallow wells dug on the county’s older properties go dry. New property owners bite their nails as their well is dug deeper and deeper without striking water. If you need some drama in your life, just have a septic system inspection. A myriad of problems come with what comes out of and what goes down your pipes.

I learned very quickly on childhood play dates that it always behooved you to check out the bathroom facilities with your host before using them. While some families thought you were crazy when you asked if it was all right to use the bathroom, others responded with: “Oh yeah sure, but no, not the upstairs one.” Toilets, it seems, are sometimes just decorative fonts homeowners put in certain rooms of their home to keep the real estate value up.

While living 55 miles out of town sounds awfully backwoodsy, in truth, our little home is fully outfitted with electricity and a mound septic system. There’s nothing off the grid at the cabin. Other than the normal worries that come from a septic system, we have a pretty carefree sewage set-up. I have to admit, I’m kind of glad midnight bathroom breaks don’t involve throwing on a coat and an untied pair of boots and tromping through the snow to a frosty outhouse. I do realize I’m missing out on some prime stargazing this way.

But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of people listening to this who are going: “Pipes? I don’t need no stinkin’ pipes.”

Outhouses remain a viable answer to the sewage problem for many northern Minnesotans. It just takes a tour of a couple outhouses in the winter to realize just how posh Styrofoam seat covers are. For those who don’t want an outhouse or indoor plumbing, Incinolets, which incinerate waste with each flush, are the new wave of the future. Forget the American Dream. Here we believe if you work hard and put in your time, eventually you’ll get a toilet that flushes.

It seems septic systems and other sewage issues are never far from our minds. It still may not qualify as great dinner conversation, but it makes us a little more aware that each flush really is a small miracle.

Airdate: February 2, 2011

Photo courtesy of Eric Hart on Flickr