one perspective on life in a remote northern community
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Tools of the Trade; "The Honey-bucket"
Yeah, sure. A misnomer if there ever was one. I'll agree with the "bucket" part, but forget the "honey". This is honey you'll never spread on your toast or drizzle in your tea. Ol' Pooh Bear will keep his distance from this stuff 'cause it has no place in the "Hundred Acre Wood". Bees aren't interested, but their cousins are. They're sure to swarm a bucket of this northern delicacy.
The honey bucket is indoor plumbing for those who lack indoor plumbing. It's a convenience that's very inconvenient; an uncomfortable comfort. Okay, I'll explain.
Many people already know the naked truth about the honey bucket, but if you don't, here it comes. Brace yourself! If you're about to eat dinner you may want to postpone reading this until later. In fact, if you just ate, you might want to skip it altogether.
Few things are as characteristic of remote northern living as the honey bucket. In a land where roads are few, indoor plumbing can also be lacking. Rural locations, arctic conditions and limited financial resources (see preceeding post) make infrastructure development an ongoing challenge for many communities. Add to that the common northern archetypes ("Sourdough", "Trapper", "Native", etc.) and you have a good recipe (sorry) for the honey bucket.
We all know about outhouses. The privy was an essential part of life years ago, well, how about generations ago. When greatgrampa had to go, he just ran outside to the one-holer. Standing or sitting, that was the place to do business. Gramps often had the Sears catalog handy; for reading material while waiting on the process and (here I beg your pardon) for clean up after. Basically it was a good system, which is why it's still in use today in many parts of the world.
Gramps had one luxury we don't share up here; a hospitable climate. Imagine the ol' boy going out at 50 below! The seating arrangement in the outdoor facility will be the very same minus 50, and that's gonna hurt when you make contact. It can still be done (I've done it) as long as everything is on schedule, but if gramps is going to need time for things to happen, you're gonna be looking at some frostbite (I didn't mean that in the literal sense).
Here's another consideration. If you've never lived in extreme cold you probably don't know how much work it is to get adequately dressed to go outdoors, especially when you just want to go to the "bathroom". I have a picture of my oldest daughter doing just that, which I'm very tempted to post here. The rest of my family (and you too) would find it quite humorous, but alas, she would most certainly kill me. So you must use your imagination.
Starting at the bottom, you see heavy, black rubber boots, bulbous and reminiscent of mickey mouse. Then a long red terrycloth bathrobe, what lies under it we just don't know. The face of a young teen girl, eager with the excitement of braving the cold, dark Alaskan night. On her head a dark winter hat, topped off with a headlamp. All this just to make a trip to the potty.
Now you begin to understand why the bucket was invented. Without the bucket there could be no "honey bucket". Before you scoff at this suggestion, try to picture the alternatives: the "honey bag" or the "honey basket" just wouldn't cut it. Even the "honey box" would pose problems, especially for large families. So there it is my friend, I give you...the honey bucket (and please take it with you).
I imagine some will find the idea of "going to the bathroom" in a bucket disgusting. I'm reminded of a story I heard once about a similar collision of paradigms. An American went to Papua New Guinea and traveled to a remote, primitive tribal village (not uncommon in PNG). As he met some locals he started up a conversation. They talked about various things (the primitive huts in the village, what they eat, etc.) When the American felt the need to answer nature's call, he asked the locals where he should go to the bathroom. "We just go anywhere" he was told (In case you're wondering how they communicate, I don't know. Don't interrupt the story!) "You mean all of you just go anywhere outside?" he asked, shocked that there was no privy. By now the locals sense something amiss. "Where you live, where do you go?" one of them asked. "Well, I go inside my house" the American proudly declared. "YOU GO IN YOUR OWN HOUSE???" the locals responded, appalled that he would actually urinate and defecate in his own home. (I suppose the honey bucket can be viewed as a good compromise between the two technologies.)
Now each household has its own code of honey bucket etiquette, based upon color. Yep, that's exactly what I mean. Our family was the most conservative and yellow was the only one allowed. There were occasional infractions when a second color was introduced (never by me I would like to add), but this was usually caused by the flu. Other excuses, such as "It was too cold out", or "It was late, and dark, and I was scared" were deemed unacceptable and the violator would be the one to...how shall I say it...empty the bucket. I'll let you figure out the possible color combinations, but yellow was our limit.
Procrastination is a bad habit. This can easily be proven with the honey bucket. As I alluded to earlier, honey buckets must be emptied. A half-full bucket is much easier to carry outside than a full one. Attempting to carry a very full bucket will increase your laundry and mopping chores, and will significantly raise your bloodpressure as well. I always prefer the stress-free lifestyle of the half bucket.
Logistically, honey buckets are a nuisance and a health hazard. In rural communities things are often NOT done the way they should be. This translates into buckets being dumped on the ground (surface) as opposed to below ground (in an outhouse). Frequently they are justed dumped at...the dump. I know of one large family that is currently dumping their bucket on the surface behind their house. I know this because the person who happens to live behind their house is not happy about it.
I remember the first winter I spent here, my initial experience with outhouses and honey buckets. Ignorant in the freezing dynamics of human waste products, I had much to learn. I knew nothing about "the pyramid" effect. I didn't know that paper products were not to be included. And I had no way of estimating the vital "available holding capacity vs remaining weeks of winter" ratio. But I learned.
When we ran out of "holding capacity" in our outhouse mid-winter, I was forced to improvise. My plan was simply to dig another hole and move the privy. Imagine the bitter dissappointment when I found the ground to be frozen. Like concrete frozen!!! Bummer! And chopping frozen earth with an axe is, well, its no fun at all. What to do now?
Remembering something I know I saw in a movie somewhere, I used what I like to call "the miner method". Build a fire; let it burn out; when the ashes are cool, shovel them out along with the 4"-6" of thawed ground. Another fire, another few inches. It took days to get below the frost line, but I got it done. I never did hear what my neighbor thought about the whole thing. I often picture that elderly native man looking out his window and wondering what the crazy white man was up to.
So the very next time you feel the need to visit your bathroom, flip the lights on, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy it.