Shitting in the ocean is one of the greatest things. The first time I waded in about belly-button height and squatted tentatively as if the movement might not occur. The second time I leapt from an aging pier, plunged into deep blue waters and relieved myself while treading and swam back to shore. Yes we have toilets here. The fancy composting kind with the rolling barrels inside. I use them frequently and have no complaints. But sometimes you’re a mile from camp and no more than two hundred paces or so from the most beautiful bathroom in the world. No commode can compare. It’s almost as if the masterminds behind shitting into a white bowl of fresh water were onto something but somehow missed the actual point. Shitting into water is only great when you are also in the water. I remember we used to get frustrated with tapirs defecating in the stream dangerously close to our water source at our field camp in Costa Rica. “Why the hell do they have to shit in the water?!” we’d lament, suspicious this particular offense hinted at a cosmological plan to fuck with people trying to live in the wilderness. But I understand now. Absent of the knowledge that shitting in fresh flowing water obviously ruins the “freshness” of said water, I’d shit in it too.
Living on a deserted island with four other people obviously engenders a somewhat “open” dynamic. Being the kind of person who’s been relatively comfortable with nudity and necessary bodily functions for the last several years of my life (I was not always this way), I didn’t have a whole lot of adjusting to do. You could say I fit right into life on Johnston. Thus, the interesting bit of this adjustment has been pondering the way we do things in “normal” life. The stripped-down (literally and figuratively), no-bullshit lifestyle here brings a magnifying glass to the myriad ways we live in utter stupidity in so-called civilization.
Since I was old enough to comprehend the scarcity of fresh water on this planet (around two percent of all the water, only one being drinkable and the rest jammed up in icebergs that are slowly melting into the very salty, very undrinkable ocean) I recognized shitting in it was probably ill-advised. But it was always the sort of “oh well, what else can we do” feeling that followed this acknowledgment. Now, upon using the workable alternative, I’m completely flummoxed. Not too long ago, I read a Vice News story by a reporter who went to live at an eco-commune somewhere in Canada. She was horrified by the prospect of using a composting toilet. Let me re-iterate that. She was horrified by the idea of shitting into a plastic bin with a rotating drum instead of a porcelain bin full of water. The apparatus the shitting takes place on is almost indistinguishable, especially once you’re positioned on it. I suppose she just hated the idea of being that close to other peoples’ dung. And perhaps she didn’t realize that if properly cleaned and maintained, composting toilettes smell and appear far better than their putrid cousin the port-o-potty and many a public restroom. Either way, she probably could have dug her own cat-hole in the woods had the prospect of other peoples’ shit horrified her so. But my guess is she was even horrified by her own shit; a sad reality to live in. I suspect our penchant for shitting in water and flushing it “away” has more to do with the culture-hangover of puritanical body shame than it does practicality.
Many people probably think I’m roughing it out here. The truth is, life is so easy and straightforward here it’s a stark reminder that human existence doesn’t have to be that complicated. Sure maintaining camp takes some extra time and effort: refilling water filtration devices, hand-washing clothes and dishes, staying one step ahead of the ants and mice. But the tasks don’t loom like their “civilized” counterparts do. Cooking a meal never requires a trip to the grocery store (unless you count walking a hundred meters to a bunker with a little wagon in tow). Taking out the trash happens once every couple weeks if you burn all the paper and fibers (this also brings to light the startling fact that landfills are packed, in part, with things that could have been fodder for s’mores). Doing laundry simply requires doing laundry, not accomplishing several other things before the buzzer sounds and you have to put the next load in. Having limited clothes means the dirty ones can’t accumulate; having limited possessions and no internet means limited distractions. I also usually don’t see eels and spotted eagle rays in my basement, so there’s another perk of the ocean laundromat. There is no such thing as traffic.
Laughs also come easy out here. The things my crew and I find hilarious have quickly degraded from kitschy to hopelessly absurd. Not long after we arrived, one crew member found a disembodied mannequin head on one of the shores. “Linda” now appears in all our group photos. We spend our nights watching an animated children’s show called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and make incessant references to the characters the following work hours, giggling maniacally at mixtures of cartoon-world jargon and seabird sounds. We hash out clandestine secret societies such as the “Johnston Flat Fork Society,” named for an inexplicably two-dimensional eating utensil discovered among the conventional kitchen items. I’ve yet to experience boredom.
Setting aside the frequent and ever-stronger pangs for loved ones, living here has been just my cup of tea. We also drink a lot of tea, which is great. Though we still have the civilized pleasure of sitting in front of a glowing screen at night (a solar-generator charged during the day powers a projector at night) my crew and I spend our free time reading, making art, brewing kombucha and baking. Though I must confess I spend a good chunk of my spare hours falling asleep in hammocks.
At the risk of sounding braggish, I’ll divulge that there is work going on here. Previous weeks have had my crew conducting “mean incubation counts” for red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, and great frigate birds. These surveys entail counting every nest with an egg or chick on almost the entire one-square-mile island. The coming weeks bring hand searching and an all-island ant survey, both of which will have us on our hands and knees in the midday heat looking for tiny creatures we all hate. There are definitely weeks in which free time is precious and we have little energy for anything other than just laying around. But as I’m told, a busy camper is a happy camper and we have close to five more months to whittle away here.