When Nature Calls

To pee, or not to pee (outside)?

– Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Meeting nature’s call in the great outdoors is one of the distinct, and unsung, benefits of living on Martha’s Vineyard. The Island’s rural character, more trees than people, and laid-back lifestyle allows for a freedom of fresh air’s expressive relief, a relief that is largely absent in much of postmodern America, with its port-a-potties, multi-bathroom houses, and its stainless steel and tile restrooms, in which few would ever think of actually resting. The outdoor call is answered in our cities mostly by the homeless, the drunk or the incontinent.

It is a convenient habit for many Vineyarders who work outside, and a custom approaching ritual for others. It is often spoken of as a conservation measure, saving the septic system, cutting water use, or treating the compost by adding minerals and nitrogen. Some just like the fresh air and the airing out under the stars, and some just like doing it outside.

Going outside for relief was something my brother and I were taught not to do. Maybe that’s part of what makes the act feel a little rebellious.

A mostly male thing

A girlfriend in high school once told me boys have outdoor plumbing and girls have indoor plumbing. This observation has held up pretty well, for the most part. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more males than females make a habit of peeing outside. Males can more easily relieve themselves behind a tree, or shielded by a car door, or for that matter out in an open field, without being too obvious, one hand innocently scratching the head or adjusting the collar while the other does the directing. Females must go to a little more trouble, but I have known a few women whose ease with the outdoors defies that adolescent dichotomy.

Personal health can be an issue when taking advantage of the great outdoors. It is more difficult to wash afterward, even though urine from a healthy person seldom contains anything harmful, according to information from the Internet.

As a teenager, I worked two summers on road crews, one with the Kentucky state highway department and the other with the county road department. Both summers were spent with poison-ivy-infected nether regions from taking roadside breaks. The heat, the sweat. It took a heap of self-control not to scratch my privates in public. Sitting in church was unbearable.

Classless relief

The outdoor release is enjoyed not only by the laborer, the rustic or the down-and-out. My father-in-law, a private school– and Harvard-educated man of great propriety, poetry, and manners, would take on a mischievous, childlike smile when he walked off his back porch in Vineyard Haven, a longer walk than to the bathroom, position himself between a tall Italian cypress and a chest-high boxwood hedge, and “water the lawn,” as he would say, all the while taking advantage of his harbor view.

He once told me a Harvard-Yale joke. A student from each school was positioned in front of a urinal. When the Harvard man finished, he began walking toward the door. The Yalie said, “At my school they teach us to wash our hands when we are done.” The Harvard man replied, “At my school they teach us to not piss on our hands.” So it goes.

An Island friend once told me about a compost pile his parents kept in the backyard of their off-Island suburban home when he was a kid, where his businessman father preferred to do his business. His mother, who was familiar with Charles Dickens’ work, called the compost “Urea Heep.”

There can be a social aspect to taking care of business outside. A young man who grew up in Vineyard Haven did his undergraduate work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He took a break from a school dance behind some bushes outside, and found himself shoulder to shoulder with a fellow schoolmate and the heir to the British throne, Prince William, who was also answering nature’s call. It didn’t turn out to be a bonding experience. The Vineyarder was not invited to the wedding.


Chilmark farmer Mitchell Posin of Allen Farm said the best way to break down a pile of oak chips or other organic matter is to pee on it. He has a compostable toilet in his house, but prefers the outdoors. “I just like to go outside,” he said.

And lifestyle

Retired West Tisbury carpenter and boatman Tony Higgins, a lifelong outdoorsman now in his mid-70s, said of his proclivity, “It is one of the pleasures of living in West Tisbury, and a custom of long standing to go outside. In West Tisbury, it is a way of life. I couldn’t live anywhere I couldn’t do that. It is horrible to even think about.

“If you go to a dinner party and it becomes time, instead of closeting yourself in some nasty little room, it’s very pleasant to just go outside and look up at the stars and have away at it. It gives you that breath of fresh air, and you come back into the room refreshed in more ways than one.”

When asked if he had ever had trouble finding a spot while at work, he replied, “It’s amazing how you can find little corners here and there, even in Edgartown, depending on the season. Up-Island it’s hardly ever a problem.

“It’s a rural thing. I lived in a small town growing up. Being outside is pretty much a lifelong thing for me. Not to mention it saves water, and there’s no splattering the toilet bowl.”

Mr. Higgins, who shares an appreciation of organic gardening with his wife Abigail — who writes the Garden Notes column for The Times — said, “The best thing you can do is use the compost pile; it helps break down the organic matter. People should be doing that.” Abigail added that she thinks it can help keep deer away.

He said the “urination factor” creates more lush and greener grass when the lawn begins to green up in the spring. It contributes to a healthier and greener lawn where a mark has been left, but only if the marks are left during the winter, the lawn’s dormant period. The grass will die if fertilized with urine during the summer, as anyone with a dog knows, he said.

The guest room and education

Mr. Higgins is not above sharing his fondness for the outdoors with visitors, and his son. “Guests at our place are sometimes uneasy about it during the day, but under cover of darkness I have been known to direct people if they start to go to one of the indoor facilities, ‘Go out the back door, take a left, there’s a compost pile.’”

When Adrian, the Higgins’ grown son, was young and not quite housebroken, they let him run around in nothing but a T-shirt in the summer. “When he began to look a little squirmy, we would just hustle him out the door,” he said. “He learned early on. He caught on pretty fast.”

The line in winter

“Writing your initials or whatever in the snow is always fun when there is a lot of snow, like this winter,” Mr. Higgins said with a smile. “The poor people down South never get to do that. They don’t know what they’re missing.

“I did kick snow over many of the spots this winter to make things more presentable. The snow was on the ground so long there were many, many spots.”

I was raised in the city by a mother determined to have mannerly children. Going outside for relief was something my brother and I were taught not to do. Maybe that’s part of what makes the act feel a little rebellious and, as with my father-in-law, brings a little smile to my face as I mark my territory in West Tisbury. We didn’t get a lot of snow in Kentucky when I was young, and I never practiced my writing in it, but we got enough that I was warned more than once, “Don’t eat yellow snow.” It wasn’t me, of course, but someone was outside answering nature’s call.