Subterranean home septic system blues

PHOTO: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Flickr CC-BY

Guess what, everyone? We put in a poo. 

That’s not a typo. Indeed, we did *not* install a heated in-ground pool. That is, unless you consider an underground reservoir where you should never, ever swim to be the same thing. No, we put in a new septic system.

People like to use the term “adulting” these days in reference to mundane, difficult or expensive tasks that one must complete in order to be a functional adult. Over the years I’ve identified several tasks that my teenage self would not have imagined for my future. These include removing ice dams, pulling ticks off children and extracting fraudulent charges from my credit report.

But replacing a rural septic system stands, or, well, sits among the more ambitious adulting activities I’ve ever experienced.

First, make no mistake, we hired professionals to do this. Some rural residents like to do these things themselves. My dad tells a charming tale about my grandpa sending him and my uncles out to empty a septic tank with buckets and a ladder. Indeed, those were the good old days.

Not me. I handed over my “man card” when I began this column with wordplay. Some people came over, looked at the dirt, told me the dirt looked bad, and then we spent some time talking about the foul-smelling lagoon in my back yard. 

There are a few things that really stink about a failing septic system. Obviously, the first is the “escaped effluent” that the dog equates with potpourri. 

The next is that septic systems, especially larger mounds like we need, cost quite a lot. I’ve been dreaming of building a really nice sauna someday. You’ll be happy to know that a good septic costs almost exactly what it would cost to build the sauna, which has now been rescheduled for 3-5 years after my funeral. 

Septics take elaborate digging, wiring, piping, and landscaping to complete. It can feel so futile. I mean, pooping is free and usually easy. Why should it cost so much to get the poop out of my house? 

The answer is that rural septic systems represent a lot more than just a hole in the ground. They’re elaborate science projects that last four decades, if you’re lucky. Tiny bacteria happily chow on the toilet fodder, harmlessly mitigating waste that might otherwise harm people and wildlife.

As humans left the land to enter the ethereal realm of industry and technology, we lost some of the natural connection with the land that once dictated the pace of our lives. As silly as it seems, where and how we “Number Two” is part of that delicate ballet. By taking responsibly, both as individual land owners and broadly as a society, we create a world where humans live within nature. To do otherwise destroys the land and water so important to our lives.

I like to think that there’s a critter out in the woods giving me a satisfied Robert Redford/Jeremiah Johnson nod when it saw my new septic mound.

This has been a chaotic month as shovels and machines mangled our yard. We got to revisit meals we ate 17 years ago (well, the ones with corn, anyway). But in the end, we have a clean, efficient system that will allow us to live comfortably and responsibly in the woods of northern Minnesota.

Just remember, kids. As you dream of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll of adulthood, remember that it all ends up down the toilet eventually. And then you’ll know what being a grown up is all about.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Hoping you get your sauna sooner.

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