Hopefully you’ve had a chance to contemplate some good intentions for the new year, and even better if they involve a commitment to being outdoors more often. Twenty twelve, after all, is not the year of “sitting behind your desk at your laptop, devising your next status update”. But being in the wilderness for more than a day or so, and being “at one” with it, necessitates
pooping in it; unfortunately, you can’t put your digestive system on hold just because there ain’t a toilet around (I’ve tried, it definitely doesn’t work).
I’m not going to go into techniques for how to shit in the woods here, for Kathleen Meyer does an incredibly thorough job in her book of the same name, which includes chapters titled, “When You Can’t Dig a Hole” and “For Women Only: How Not to Pee in Your Boots”. However, what I can do is recommend some of the best plants with which to stay clean, comfortable, and conscientious, and others to keep far, far away from your nether regions. It’s wilderness TP so appropriate it’s almost
like a spa for your buttcrack. Well, maybe not. But, it’s certainly better than a rock (which I also know from empirical evidence doesn’t work). This isn’t just some ha-ha-funny intellectual exercise either: In a lot of places, such as high elevation mountains and deserts where it takes eons for anything to biodegrade, it is both illegal and ecologically rude to bury or burn one’s toilet paper. Thus, it either gets carried out or done without, both situations that are less than ideal.
But there’s a pretty major bright side, and it’s not just your big bright butt mooning the heavens. As Meyer’s writes: “…once successfully maneuvered, brushing one’s posterior with a snatch of biodegradable nature can provide a noteworthy experience whereupon one’s ecologically proscribed place in the universe may come vividly into focus. Or even puffed up with ecological pride or jubilant with primitive freedom, one might be startled to hear a rousing chorus of approval from the forest fairies.” Finding one’s place in the Cosmos? Communing with congratulatory winged creatures? It’s like a religious experience just from wiping one’s ass. Front-to-back freedom.
**And as in all wildcrafting, whether collecting herbs for teas or making sure you stay as clean and sanitary as possible, NEVER OVERHARVEST! Know the species from which thy take, and pay attention to the environmental conditions to ascertain whether or not it’s okay for the population to be messed with.
Of the top three best wilderness toilet papers, corn lily (Veratrum californicum) gets first prize. While hiking the John Muir Trail last summer amidst pokey conifers and lithe wildflowers, my hiking partner filled his pockets with this species whenever
we tromped through a patch. Its broad, alternate leaves can get up to 15 inches long, and you will know them by their prominent parallel veins, a characteristic of all plants in the Liliaceae family. V. californicum grows at higher elevations, from 3,500-11,000 feet, throughout much of the western United States, preferring moist meadows and streambanks. The large congregations of stems
often fill in wetter areas and, faithful to the common name, are reminiscent of a field of corn. But remember! Just because you collect wilderness TP in one spot does not mean you drop a deuce there. The general rule is to pick a place at least 150-200 feet from water, as far above the water line as possible, and dig a hole at least six inches deep. Picking stellar wilderness TP is all about anticipation and preparation, virtues of any good backpacker. One caution: Consuming corn lily is toxic to humans and cattle. I am, of course, not worried about the possibility of snacking while squatting, but you wouldn’t want to mix, say, your TP pocket with your “edible herbs to add to the dehydrated black bean soup” one. I haven’t read any accounts of skin contact causing any reaction, and from experience this species has only proven a most wonderful plant-friend in times of desperate trailside need.
Second only to Veratrum californicum are various species of sage. I’m not talking the Salvias in the Lamiaceae family that are
native to Old World Europe and are used for cooking; those have tiny leaves that would hardly be up to the task, and they’re typically not found in the
non-Mediterranean wilderness. Nor am I referring to the Salvias of the cloud forests of Latin America, with their gaping bilabiate mouths that would make even the biggest pervert blush. Rather, envision the “sagebrush” covering the foothills of coastal California mountains and dominating huge swaths of the Great Basin Desert in eastern California and Nevada. It’s the color that Las Pilitas Nursery down in SLO County calls, brilliantly, “evergray”. That’s the good TP, either Artemisia californica (a.k.a. California sagebrush)
closer to the beach, or Artemisia tridentada (a.k.a. common/big/blue/black/mountain sagebrush) in the desert. Neither are true sages (a.k.a. Salvias); instead they are part of the sunflower, or Asteraceae, family. Next time you’re gathering the soft, grey-green leaves of Artemisia, check out the flowers: They have the disk and ray inflorescence as do all the flowers in this giant family, not the two-lipped form of the Salvias.
Sage is likely the heaviest wilderness TP you’ll encounter, in terms of mythological and cultural connotations. Named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the wild animals (my favorite goddess! Love that bitch!) you will surely feel like your own little wild creature as you poop in a hole, with all of nature watching. And though these Artemisias are not the species used in Native American smudge sticks — that honor goes to Salvia apiana, or white sage — they are incredibly aromatic, due to the presence of major amounts of volatile oils (which could reportedly cause an allergic reaction in those more sensitive, though again, my collective empirical evidence has never shown this to be the case). So not only do you stay clean, but you will also smell fresh and your buttcrack will be purified of all bad energy while getting blessed by the coolest goddess. Could you have a more symbolic bowel movement?
Hikers are unlikely to encounter Pelargonium tomentosum, or pennyroyal/peppermint-scented pelargonium, outside of the sandstone soils of its native South Africa or cultivated gardens in other Mediterranean climates (*Note*: Phyte Club does not advocate pooping in people’s yards, except maybe those of a nemesis). Part of the Geraniaceae family, this species might be easily recognized as a “geranium”, though technically it is not, for the Geranium and Pelargonium genera are separate though in the same family. P. tomentosum may have the most velvety leaves of any plant. They are coated in a dense covering of tomentose (one of many official words meaning “plant hairs”), as the scientific name indicates. Not only are they evergreen, equating to a reliable supply of TP, but they also reek of mint. Having some leaves of P. tomentosum in hand will make for a very happy squat.
Perhaps one of the most obvious plant species not to get near your genitals, much less any other part of your body, is poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobium). Not a true oak at all, P.O. is part of the Anacardiaceae, or cashew family. You know how some human families have generation after generation of no-goodnicks, of thieves and tweakers ready to make your life more difficult? In the plant kingdom, that’s the Anacardiaceae, a lineage full of species notorious for their ability to cause skin inflammation (dermatitis), such as sumac and poison ivy. The culprit is a compound called urushiol (oo-roo-she-all). In P.O., it
is found in the leaves and even in the bare twigs and branches — making the deciduous plant especially insidious in wintertime (the cream-colored, flowers, however, don’t contain the dreaded chemical, and neither do the berries. Wouldn’t want to discourage the pollinators and seed dispersers by poisoning them, after all). According to Wikipedia, upon contact, 50 percent of the urushiol is absorbed by the skin in a quick ten minutes, prompting some hikers to carry around a bar of soap while tromping through the wilderness. Though you’d hopefully never have to resort to using fruit as TP, chances are there are some Anacardiaceae in your trail lunch: Mangoes have urushiol in their skin, which is why some people will get an allergic reaction around their mouth if they are less than perfectly careful while maowing the juicy fruit; cashews contain urushiol in a liquid trapped between their two shells, which is why this nut is always shelled at the grocery store.
Poison oak and its urushiol doesn’t have such a gnarly affect of everyone, though, and some people have attempted to cultivate this this lucky immunity. I had an acquaintance in college who would put a tiny piece of new spring P.O. leaf in a glass of water with the intention of homeopathically vaccinating herself against it. Instead, she just got an itchy rash at the far end of her digestive system. This technique reputedly worked better for California Indians, who used P.O. in various capacities, from wrapping acorn bread in its leaves to using the black sap for dye in basketry and ink in facial tattoos (it is said, in the book Three Ways of Seeing California Plants, that none of these practices are very common anymore among CA’s indigenous communities). Regardless, I don’t think they used it as TP.
Just shy of the distinction of “worst common plant with which to wipe one’s ass” (see above) is Urtica dioica, commonly known as stinging nettle. As Amy Stewart writes in her book, Wicked Plants, there’s a reason why the medical term for severe hives is “urticaria”, derived from the Latin word for nettle, Urtica, and the name of the whole, painful family, the Urticaceae. Though the hairs, or trichomes, covering the leaves and stem of stinging nettle may look rather insignificant, they are actually miniscule botanical weapons. If so much as brushed against, the plant will inject various irritating compounds, including formic acid, a term you may recognize as a constituent of ant and bee stings. Hiking and realizing an Urtica is growing alongside the trail is a lot like walking in an alley in the Tenderloin and spotting used hypodermic needles tossed on the asphalt by litterbug junkies: You start paying attention, big time.
But though the searing welts subside slowly and the effects may be apparent for several days, nettles inspire more than fear; they are actually quite celebrated, especially in herbalist circles. First, there is often a plant growing nearby a patch of nettles that has the power to soothe the sting: Red elderberry (Sambucus callicarpa), and dock or plantain (both common weeds) can be crushed and applied to the site of contact. Nature planned that one pretty exquisitely. Second, nettles are full of health benefits, from strengthening the female reproductive system to relieving allergies. Cooking or drying destroys the stinging capabilities,
but how the hell are they harvested to get to that more benign point? This video gives a comprehensive instruction, and here is a recipe for “Stinging Nettle Soup“. It’s cool to transform a scary plant into a helpful friend. Third, don’t forget that nettles, like poison oak as well, are ecologically important, providing ecosystem services such as shelter and a food source. This was made apparent to me one time when I helped transplant dozens of baby stinging nettle seedlings at Redwood Creek Nursery (next to Muir Woods) for streamside habitat restoration.
Lastly, the most terrible species to collect for this task is any one that is less than abundant, meaning any plant that is rare, threatened, or endangered. Know your TP! Any of the 5,689 plants listed as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature should not be picked at all, duh. (Find out what IUCN and its Red List is all about here, and go straight to the list here.) Can you imagine literally wiping out a species? Bum luck, little plant….What an asshole!
Of course, now I want to hear your embarrassing wilderness stories, or your favorite wilderness TP, or any tips for shitting in the woods. Thanks for enduring this Beavis and Butthead post. Hey, did you know they’re back (I feel so happy, and old!)? Uh-huh, huh huh…..Great Cornholio, need some TP for your bunghole?