NACOGDOCHES — Growing up in Nacogdoches, I used to spend countless hours in the woods near my neighborhood, in what is now the Gayla Mize Garden, back before it was anything more than forest.
The trails that wind serpentine through the garden these days follow the routes that, then, were nothing more than narrow tracks carved out of the iron-ore clay and sandy East Texas loam by spinning mountain bike tires and feet. There were no emergency stations or benches like there are now, and the only structures were rough-shod barricades of branches and brush put up by SFA’s ROTC program and used when they would run maneuvers with paintball guns. What is now a carefully cultivated labyrinth just off the corner of Starr Avenue and University Driver was then piles of rubble and old building materials.
It was the perfect place for kids like me to explore the stupidity of youth inherent in the years between ages 10 and 18; a place for watching the spectacular underwater detonations of firecrackers tossed into a Lanana Creek tributary (regardless of the calendar’s proximity to Independence Day or New Year’s), playing capture the flag and paintball among tire-sized chunks of concrete or seeing how fast you could take a narrow section of unimproved rut on your new Walmart mountain bike.
In short, it was a paradise.
But if there’s anything the vast body of literature and media explores uncompromisingly, it’s that even paradise is rife with hazards and shortcomings.
Inevitably on some warm, sunny day during spring break, hours into traversing this vast and unyielding wilderness, you’d find yourself a good long way from the porcelain comfort of Kohler or American Standard with a need to heed nature’s call. In those moments, hunkered down in some peaceful, sun dappled grove with your pants around your ankles, the closest roll of two-ply might as well be in Antarctica.
Those bears on the Charmin package are never around when you need them.
What do you do when you’re separated from the luxuries of the modern porcelain world? You summon your inner pioneer. You call upon the innate spirit of Lewis and Clark and Sam Houston. You reach deep to find the elemental self-reliance residing in the soul of every red-blooded American forging their own paths in the world.
You reach out and snag the closest broad-leafed plant at hand.
Mullein is largely considered the gold, or green, standard in organic, free-range TP. It’s frequently called “cowboy toilet paper” a moniker it earned because of its large, velvety leaves and a partiality to pastures, roadsides and other open areas. It has earned the ire from several states in the U.S., where it’s considered an invasive weed.
Another common choice for the self-reliant American eschewing the tissue is Lamb’s Ear. What moral qualms are to be had from using something named for an adorable critter from children’s tales as a disposable hygiene product is solely up to the user.
An abundance has been written, perhaps surprisingly, on what makes for good toilet-paper substitutes when you’re hunkered down in the wilderness, but the best choice, naturally, is what is at hand. Beggars can’t be choosers.
It must be noted that it’s prudent to make sure you can tell fragrant sumac from Poison Ivy, oak from poison oak and the like, and, if there’s any doubt it’s best to look elsewhere.
Pine cones ought to be avoided at all costs.
All this, more or less, is what rambled through my mind the other day as I walked past the empty bays at more than one grocery store that ordinarily would’ve been stocked with a veritable cornucopia of TP possibilities.
It’s been a matter of weeks now since the COVID-19 outbreak spurred runs on most paper products at stores around the country, and, given the outlook for more weeks of sheltering in place and working from home, I don’t expect we’ll see the shelves lined again with what is now unironically referred to as White Gold.
So maybe it’s time to check that pasture down the road for a few Mullein plants you can safely transplant into your home garden, Maybe it’s time to just keep a copy of a plant-identification field guide in your back pocket the next time you head out for a social-distancing hike. A lot of us might be calling upon our inner pioneers in the near future while we wait for the world to turn right side up again.
No one knows what the future holds, though, least of all a simple newspaper reporter from Deep East Texas. What I do know is I probably couldn’t get away with spending time time in what is now a more developed, cultivated place off Starr Avenue and University Drive the same way I did as a kid.
In all fairness, that’s probably for the best.
I also know I never thought writing about pooping in the woods would be part of my career, but then again, we are living in strange times.