Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I’m progressing backwards through my life. My career finished before I went to university, aged 38, and I am now slowly regressing into childhood. I have many fond and funny memories from uni; amongst them was one of my favourite English Literature lecturers, Dr Brian Cummings, laughing as he was relating to our seminar group the story of his young son’s first trip to the lanes and fields of the countryside from their urban home in Putney, London: “It’s so dirty, Dad. There’s shit everywhere. Why don’t they clean it up.”

The English can be so prim and proper and are generally uncomfortable talking about toilet stuff. We go to the “loo” or the “little room”, we “pay a call”. Well, I shall confound all that and dedicate the rest of this blog to subject of shit. Living in Brighton, England, once I’d flushed the toilet the “problem” was no more: I was left with clean white porcelain and my shit was whooshed away in a network of new pipes and old Victorian sewers until it arrived at a sewage treatment plant for someone else to deal with. Par contre, here in rural France, it’s usual for each house to have its own mini sewage treatment system, most often, the ubiquitous fosse septique (septic tank).

It is, in effect, a settlement tank, so solids both sink to the bottom and rise to the top, breaking down by bacterial action to some extent, with the clearer water passing out and then, via a sand filter, into the rainwater ditch. It doesn’t totally process the sewage, so every four years or so, you pay to have it pumped out and the residue is driven off in a tanker lorry to a larger sewage treatment plant. If your system blocks up, not unusual on older installations, it’s your responsibility to sort it out and, for the braver or desperate, that means getting very smelly and dirty. This intimacy does have some positive benefits however, breaking down some taboos and allowing some decent debates and reflections on the subject of shit; oh how those long winter evenings just fly by.

We’ve decided to take a different route for our straw bale house and install a horizontal plant filter (see photo at bottom) and pond and asked Eléonore Clessin of the company Aquatiris to conduct a study of our situation. She arrived with an auger, tape measure, electronic (!) water level, and water in containers to conduct site and soil surveys and water infiltration tests. She then supplied a detailed dossier which we have submitted to the mairie for approval. Being in charge of a commune of only 206 people, they hand this responsibility on to the communauté de communes (French communes are grouped into cantons.) They, in turn, hand in onto the technicians of Service d'Assistance Technique aux Exploitants de Stations d'Epuration (SATESE) who come round to review our application and, after installation, verify it’s been done properly.

The situation in our département (Côtes d’Armor) is that it isn’t within the regulations but they will give us a lettre de dérogation which will effectively allow us to install our system. A condition is that we have a composting toilet. In the adjoining département, Illes et Villaines (both in Brittany) they do allow “black water” from the toilet to pass into the plant filter system. Before we get hung up on the glorious Frenchness of two départements in the same region being different when I thought that legislation such as this was meant to comply with Europe-encompassing norms, the dry compost toilet is considerably more ecological as the flush toilet is a huge waste of potable water.

We must get the OK for our proposed sewage system before we can apply for planning permission. All the indications are that it will be a “yes”. I shall keep you posted on the progress of our house designing and planning permission as it happens.