This post is about the Goddess of Reuse. You have to wade through some text to get to her, but it’s worth it.
I was still young and good-looking when I installed my gutters. It was 1998, and my permaculture teachers had just answered a question I’d had since moving to Tucson: Was it worth having a garden in this desert, when you had to keep it going with groundwater so much of the time?
Yes! I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I know a few more things now.
Processed food from the store isn’t good for you. Packaging is a serious pollutant and natural-resource theft. Fossil fuel is heavily involved in the production and transport of that food. Soils are depleted and destroyed by modern agriculture, and its fertilizers pollute water sources. Gardening actually draws carbon from the atmosphere, whereas dry, desertified land only makes the planet hotter. You shop for your groceries inside, under unnatural lighting, instead of getting your essential soil microbes and vitamin D from outdoors—not to mention that hit of nature we all need (though we still don’t understand all the details). As a shopper, you’re supporting huge conglomerates that take advantage of you and their workers, too.
Well, that list came off the top of my head. Someone else could probably double it. The point is, I understood that it’s worth it to have a garden, even if you have to use extra water. (You can save it in other ways if you want, some of which I’ve written about in previous posts.)
So now it was time to put up gutters and, eventually, cisterns—though earthworks are fun to design and great exercise to dig. Not every gutter has to dump into a rainwater tank; they’re happy to pour their gift into tree basins, irrigation ditches, or swales.
Installing gutters might not be a “fun” job—though you may love it! In any case, it’s not difficult. I think the only math involved is the half-inch-drop for every ten feet of gutter; that is, just measure ten feet across and a half inch down to get your slope. I was shocked to find out I would have this slanted thing nailed onto my nice, straight roof boards (fascia is what faces you). But it’s really pretty subtle. You paint the gutters the same color as the boards. Nobody notices.
Anyway, my gutters have served me nicely for a quarter century, and I thought they’d continue to, until—well, I never gave it much thought. But one monsoony day the main backyard gutter started to drip, all along its lower half.
I figured it had been too long since I scooped out the gutter debris—leaves, twigs, old curls of roof paint—and the water was just overflowing. So I went up and cleaned. Yep, the gutter was full. But suddenly I could see a patch of pathway down below. Through a hole. Then I found more holes. The entire bottom of the gutter was rusted thin.
Yes, thin—which coincidentally reminded me of the Thinset I’d used to fix pots and glue down tiles. It was a version of cement, but very silky and spreadable. I loved that stuff. But I also hated it. Like cement, it’s nasty for nature. My bag would probably last me the rest of my life—it’s so thin!—but since I bought it I’ve heard that an eco-friendlier version is available now. I’ll get that kind if there’s a next time.
Wouldn’t Thinset be the easiest way to fix the holey bottom of the gutter? Just trowel it on, covering the weak, rusty bottom? No tearing down or remounting of gutters, just reinforcing the rusty part. Nobody I knew had ever done this, but that didn’t mean it was a bad idea.
Before mixing the adhesive I went up on the roof again for another look. This time I found I could poke whole sections of the bottom out with a touch of my finger. Even the thinnest layer of Thinset would probably just add weight to the bottom and cause it to fall out.
Sure, I could just buy new gutters. Sometimes I have to buy new stuff—everyone does. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I had seen gutters in alleyways—not often, but I couldn’t give up without looking.
There was another item I was looking for, too.
I was coming to the end of my patience with Terry’s toilet—as his landlady, and as a person who used it when I was at his place. No matter what kind of flush or fill-valve kits I bought, the water would start running again just weeks after installation. No toilet seat would stay attached. (You took your life into your hands if you stood on it to view a top shelf.) In messing with a repair one day, the porcelain got cracked. (Thankfully, the epoxy fix has held for almost a year now.) The house was unfortunately designed so that whatever was done in that little room was recorded in the air wafting just a few feet into the living room. Noises carried just as well. Worst of all, that naughty toilet refused to handle any normal, healthy dump. You’d have to stand there and . . . flush, plunge, flush, plunge, until you were almost to the point where you needed to use it again.
In twenty years I’d never had a problem with my composting toilet. Well, okay, a mouse fell into it once and couldn’t get out. I just took the bucket down the street and let the animal go—feeling magnanimous. (No, I did not mean to say magnanimouse.) With the most recent wiggly toilet seat I hatched a plan to make a small composting toilet for myself, and hide it in a little storage room Terry had, where the cover material, then the commode top, then the two intermediate doors should hide the event, unless you were around when I took out the full (smelly) bucket, or brought in some sweet-smelling cover material—pine needles, sawdust, California pepper leaves, eucalyptus duff—or neutral-smelling but beautiful dried flower petals.) I’d need a toilet seat to build this composting system. Thrift stores often had them. I had time to look.
The gutters were more important, though. They had already dripped on a metal cabinet underneath, and turned its top into a shallow funnel, which soaked everything inside—sleeping bags, bags of grout, a set of too-flowery couch and chair covers (do you want them?)—all wrapped well, but not well enough. Before I noticed, mold set in. There’s this movie now, “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Haven’t seen it yet, but I plan to. The title is so close to the catchphrase I’m pretty sure I came up with a while back: Water finds a way. Because it really does. Gravity pulls and water discovers the tiniest crack. Or even creates cracks.
So off I went to the thorny alleys riding our sturdy, tough-tired Vanderbike (named for the generous friends who gave it to us). I found some unusual metal troughs that resembled shallow gutters, and that was about all. They’d need a lot of adaptation to become gutters. I strapped them to the bike, but decided to look further before attempting that far-fetched idea.
But on the way home I spotted a toilet! I hadn’t brought tools and the sun was going down, so I memorized the spot and went home.
This is Terry: He’ll go walking with you after sundown, on New Year’s Eve, into a cold, dark alley, with a well-charged flashlight, to check out a discarded toilet. Which proved to be pristine. It looked new.
And maybe this is the Goddess of Reuse speaking: “You have been a good and faithful servant (she sometimes quotes the Bible). So here is what you’re looking for, and beyond, for it is rare in these alleys: a blindingly white toilet with no signs of use. The seat will readily detach with the tools you have brought. It is yours.”
I was excited about the project, to see how it would come together, but the next day I had an appointment on the east side of town, and it would take most of the day to bike there and back. It was perfectly gorgeous out and I was out of shape (too much time sitting at the computer, trying to finish the book I’d been working on for fifteen years) so I welcomed the bike ride.
On the way home I noticed a neighborhood with the telltale signs of an imminent Brush and Bulky pickup—piles of junk and branches and boxes of prickly cactus. There weren’t many piles yet; the pickup date might be a couple weeks away. But one house had already created a huge mound. It didn’t look interesting—I could only see tree prunings and bent-up, unusable trash. I was close to home. I was both hungry and thirsty. And yet, here I was, stopped now, five feet from the pile. What was under it?
You know very well what was under it. Gutters. There were three, about the length I needed. They were filled to the top with debris, and bashed in on the ends, but otherwise straight and true.
There was no way I could strap even one of them to my bike. They were probably too long to haul on a bike cart. This was a job for Terry’s car.
The sun was getting low. I rode home quickly. Yes, I could use the car. Happily, the residence was only about a mile away. Before leaving I grabbed a broom to sweep out the gutters so they wouldn’t shed leaves and such into the car.
I don’t always love the job of extracting usable items from someone’s curbside Brush and Bulky pile. There are homeowners that just don’t like the idea of it, and will tell you so. However, this is rare. Most people, if they say anything, will comment on the item you’re taking, often asking you what you plan to do with it. Usually it’s a neutral experience, with nobody home. It’s also not an OSHA-approved workplace, so you have to have to watch for sharp edges, harmful chemicals, etc. Whenever I feel shy about picking through piles, I tell myself I’m in the right. It’s just plain wrong to rob Nature of her resources to make products, and soon thereafter send them to toxic, methane-generating landfills. Most of the structure of our economies is destructive and wasteful; what I’m doing—however small the act of salvage—is moving toward a future that’s more livable for the kids and grandkids. I am not standing on private property, anyway; I’m on the city-owned right-of-way—and this way is more right.
When I reached the large mound, it was getting dark, and many of the neighborhood lights were already on. The house behind the pile of stuff was dark; it even looked empty. I could take the time to think carefully, and choose exactly what I needed. (I watch my hoarding urges!) What I needed was the two gutters that were only lightly weighted down, easy to pull out. I didn’t want to deal with the third one, and have to rearrange everything on top of it. The two I could pull out were heavy enough. They were packed, not with flighty little mesquite leaves but rather with a dense, black, sticky clay. No way would I be able to brush them clean with a broom. Guessing that the sticky stuff would stay stuck, I loaded both unemptied gutters diagonally into the car so they stuck out through the passenger window. Hopefully not too far out. I could go home via the backstreets. It wasn’t a long trip.
Except that halfway home, I realized I’d left the broom there. It was a pretty broom, with a hand-carved handle and strong, wavy broom-straws. I went back and got it.
Don’t expect the Goddess to do everything for you.
The next morning I discovered that the stuff in the gutters was unusually rich, dark soil—dense with clay, but all the better, since I can increase its volume by adding some airier dirt or mulch. Saves me the cost of a bag of soil from the store.
When I removed all that filling from the gutters I could see they were in excellent shape. The plasticky coating didn’t have a single scratch that I could see, much less a hole. I felt good about giving that plastic film another life.
I still needed to figure out what to do about the metal cabinet that got wrecked by the leaking gutters. I’d put a lot of time into it—painting it, situating it, adding a base so its height would be handier. So I didn’t want to get another one. It really just needed a top. I might be able to find a big piece of wood, but wood never lasts long in the outdoors. I had a piece of metal almost that size—but what good is almost at a time like this?
Glass. I needed a thick piece of glass for the top. I had a stack of different sizes and shapes leaning against one of the walls in the chicken coop. No problem if a found a piece that needed to be cut—Tucson Glass was two blocks away.
I took measurements. It turned out I had a piece that was exactly an inch bigger, all the way around. And I realized it wouldn’t hurt to have that small amount of overhang all the way around, like a roof overhang, providing a bit more protection to the cabinet top. It was already the perfect size.
Maybe I should thank myself for this one, not some goddess. After all, it takes both space and effort to collect and maintain a ready supply of building materials. And glass breaks. My largest piece cracked in half one day, and I’m not even sure how; I thought it was stored safely. Cleanup of the sharp bits has to be careful or you get cut. Still, in this case, the exactness of fit and the short distance to just the right thing—those are among the characteristic attributes of the Goddess of Reuse.
I don’t really believe in the Goddess of Reuse. How could I? I invented her! Conjured her up to explain all of these coincidental and timely finds. In actuality I have a more or less scientific worldview. Science and logic would have a different but simple way to explain these fortunate events: There’s too much stuff out there. The new stuff doesn’t last, or we want even newer stuff. The wave of discards has become a tsunami. We’re awash in . . . everything.
This isn’t good for our surroundings, our environment, our habitat. On the other hand, we live in an era of plenty like the world has never seen. Some of us—the smart ones—recognize this, and have a regular habit of thanking their lucky stars. I think this recognition, this gratefulness, may be incompatible with the desperate need for “retail therapy.” For me, if a thing has to be new, I try to love the hell out of it.
But most of the time I find what I need, free and/or used. There’s enough stuff “out there”—in alleys and piles, but also in thrift stores, yard sales, buy nothing groups, organized swaps—that even when I need something specific I can usually find it. It’s not magic, just statistics.
My friend Tina stopped by this afternoon. I showed her the saggy cabinet top, and pointed out the blue-sky holes in the old gutter directly above it.
“Hey,” she said cheerfully. “If you need gutters, I’ve got some you could have.”
See what I mean?