Oh, poop 

Kathleen Meyer's poetic how-to

Bully for Kathleen Meyer. Why reach for some fancy Latin derivative when there's already a perfectly good, short, blunt Anglo-Saxon word for the very same thing? Such obfuscatory recourses are priggish and cowardly, and a cheap sort of linguistic social-climbing.

"Studding an entire book with urination, defecation, elimination and stools seemed depressingly clinical," Meyer writes in her author's note, defending her choice of title and running terminology in How to Shit in the Woods. "The pronunciation alone of the terms 'bowel movement' and 'BM' seems to emit something foul—from my childhood, I remember them being breathed in whispers." Her intentions in writing the book, Meyer writes, were to educate, not alienate, but decorum imposed its own problems. Trying to write a book about shit without mentioning the word, and without resorting to coyness, labored circumlocution or clinical fustiness (not to mention "chips," "scats" and the aforementioned "stools"), was proving difficult.

click to enlarge Kathleen Meyer reads from How to Shit in the Woods at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, May 10, at 7 PM. Free.
  • Kathleen Meyer reads from How to Shit in the Woods at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, May 10, at 7 PM. Free.

Twenty-two years old, now in its third edition, with two-and-a-half million copies sold, How to Shit in the Woods has earned its "backcountry bible" status many times over by teaching readers the correct way, or ways, to dispose of their waste while in the great outdoors. The new edition contains more product descriptions, weighs in heavier on packing out versus burying waste, and strikes an even more urgent environmental note than the previous editions. It is above all a practical book, but also a mighty entertaining and funny one, laced with light science and history, and anecdotes amassed over years in the company of other river guides, environmental activists, and fellow outdoorsmen and -women. It is wholly devoted to what happens to shit.

Meyer cannot be accused of writing around her subject, even if, using one particularly memorable analogy, she invites the reader to imagine finding 200,000 helpings of spaghetti and meatballs buried in the beaches of the Grand Canyon instead. That's the fresh-food equivalent—about 50 tons of it—of how many human "deposits" end up in the same sand every year. There's no getting around shit in How to Shit in the Woods, though the original edition did come in two different covers: one that spelled it out and another that censored it.

Based largely on guiding river trips, Meyer is firmly decided that the average adult is no better, no less clumsy and inept, at dropping trou in the boonies than a toddler. Like carding wool and skinning bison, she maintains, shitting outdoors is a lost art, and there are people, plenty of them, who need comforting and encouragement as much as a bawling-out.

She devotes her first chapter to technique, or rather to cautionary tales of how not to shit in the woods with names changed "to protect the incommodious." If one such tale defies literal belief—to hear Meyer tell it, this rogue turd behaved much like a rolling snowball in an old Scooby-Doo cartoon—it's still worth it for the cinematic quality of descriptions like "locked into that deadly slow motion common to the fleeting seconds just preceding all imminent, unalterable disasters."

Meyer's writing is earthy and her humor dry: How to Shit in the Woods does not stoop to puns or go begging for laughs. Often it takes poetic flight in the oddest of places, with slightly startling passages like the one about the man in need who finally finds an accommodating log to sit over and "floats into the rhapsody that tall treetops find in the clouds."

In its copious notes and prefaces, we learn as much about the genesis of How to Shit in the Woods as we do about where—and where not—to dig our catholes. Even as the book started taking shape in the late 1980s, no polite synonym for the wholly unambiguous "shit" seemed to Meyer quite up to the task, quite as all-purpose as needed to be. A dip into a bowdlerized 1950s dictionary (the same apocryphal volume, one hopes, in which "fart" is defined as "a small explosion between the legs," to the delight of schoolchildren everywhere) got Meyer seriously thinking about the s-word: simple, direct, pedigreed by the same hardiness in the English language that allowed Meyer's father to defend, on literary grounds, his own preference for "piss" in everyday conversation.

Though venerated for its ecological soundness by institutions and individuals around the world, closer to home How to Shit in the Woods has perhaps been a little under-appreciated in recent years. Were it not also practical and informative, it would still deserve props for its literary qualities. As with the rhapsodic treetops, loftier literary aspirations than simply dragging "shit" closer toward respectability reveal themselves in a discriminating selection of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. In Meyer's hands, so to speak, shit can be sublime.

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