THE GREAT TOILET PAPER DEBATE
The ancient Greeks preferred clay and stone, while the Romans opted for a sponge on a stick. The Nara-period Japanese pulled off the sponge and used the stick as a scraper. Henry VIII had his very own Groom of the Stool (a highly respected position) who provided hands-on ministration to the King. And until the Scott brothers introduced toilet paper on a roll in 1890, Americans preferred the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Sears Roebuck catalog as their outhouse attendants.
Today, toilet paper is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States alone. Someone even took the time to figure out that Americans, on average, use 57 sheets a day and 23.6 rolls per year. That’s more than 7 billion rolls of toilet paper consumed by the U.S. population each year, less than 2 percent of which is 100 percent recycled. And thus it is that we cut down about 7 million trees for that “one kind thing you can do for your behind” fluffy, luxurious wipe.
But dead trees are not what have Mabule and Sergio’s knickers all in a knot. It’s the dioxin—the carcinogenic chlorine bleach that impregnates most toilet paper, and certainly the toilet paper that we have available to us at Axladitsa-Avatakia. From a distance, you can see Sergio standing by one of the eco-loos, waving his arms about and from time to time stamping one foot. Mabule has his arms crossed, quietly listening and shaking his head no. Sergio is advocating that we burn our used toilet paper so that the bleach doesn’t leach into the soil, compromising the food chain. Mabule is equally resolute about not releasing the dioxins into the air; we should, instead, bury our toilet paper.
The two are at an impasse, so for the next few days, our toilet paper accumulates in garbage bags, awaiting a breakthrough strategy for disposal.
The Indians have one: Why not bypass toilet paper altogether and tidy-up Indian style, with water and the left hand? The Indians are beaming, smug with their incontestable solution—until chaos breaks loose as a few North Americans stand in shock, stunned at the notion that some people actually use their hand to wipe their behind.
But it will take more than the delicate sensibilities of a handful of North Americans to squash this proposal. The Greeks are aghast as well, since we are in the middle of a drought and are already spending several hours every day fetching water from the spring to hydrate, feed and wash this community. Water, they declare, is not the solution.
Back to the impasse. As several more days go by, a small mountain of garbage bags accumulates at the shed near the driveway. Tensions and tempers escalate as people who have devoted their souls to the health and well-being of the earth, air and its inhabitants stand witness to their collusion in creating a new mountain of toxic waste.
On Day Six of the gathering, Manish has a new proposal for the community: “Let tomorrow be the Toilet Paper Challenge Day. I invite each and every one of you to experiment with what it might be like to have a toilet-paper-free day!” Turning our trouble into a game is just the right spirit for re-engaging our creativity. While several people opt to keep their investigations to themselves (toilet etiquette being a rather personal preference), others eagerly dispense their newfound wisdom. There are those who try water for the first time, and those who praise the virtues of the smooth, long rock. One gentleman (who prefers to remain nameless) decides to time his shower for just after his morning movement.
But the greatest excitement occurs when Susan, a hiker from Washington State, returns to the group at lunchtime with wads of green bunched up in her hands. “Hiker’s Toilet Paper!” she crows, showing off the thick, velvety leaves of the mullein plant favored by campers for its fluffy, flannel-like texture. A sun-loving weed, mullein thrives on dry, hillside soil with high clay and stone content—and so has blanketed itself all over the upland slopes of Axladitsa.
Who would have guessed that it would take the combined wisdom of a Mexican, South African, Indian, Greek and American to invent a solution that would engage the whole community? One could argue that we might have gone straight to the solution from Day One—skipping over the unnecessary accumulation of toilet paper that would now be sent to landfill—had the right person bestowed the right knowledge upon us. Our participation in that solution would likely have been half-hearted, if we complied at all. (Imagine, if you will, arriving in someone’s home, only to be told that despite an abundance of toilet tissue, you will be instructed to wipe your bum with an unfamiliar fuzzy green leaf.) Instead, we discovered the resources available among us by acting together, in friendship, experimenting with what we could co-create, rather than being passive recipients of others’ knowledge.