Is it asking too much?


Fido says, “Sit, Lady.”

Is it asking too much of culpable females to not pee on the seats of public toilets?

You know who you are, and I have remained silent too long. I recently decided I’d had enough. My husband and I had driven from our rural home in northern Minnesota to the Twin Cities for a rare urban date. We had tickets for Mahler’s 4th Symphony at Orchestra Hall and we went to Barrio, a great tequila and small plates bistro, beforehand. I was in a euphoric mood—a night on the town! I went to the women’s room. My guard was down. I sat on a pee-splashed seat.

I gave way to an outburst. When I exited my stall, three young women were walking in. I said, “Someone peed on the toilet seat!” The young women looked at me with horror. I could interpret their expression in one of two ways. Either they shared my disgust or they themselves are among the guilty. I will never know of course. I washed my hands and stormed out of the bathroom back to my husband, a scrumptious little plate of pork-belly tacos, and a well executed margarita. Bravo to the bartender and the cooks in the kitchen. I regained my composure.

I try to make a habit of inspecting toilet seats in public places before using them but sometimes I am distracted or I mistakenly think to myself, “This is an upscale place. Surely the clientele knows better.” Not.

As long as I can remember, I have randomly encountered pee-splattered toilet seats all across America and in all manner of public restrooms. I can say from much experience this is not a socioeconomic issue. This I believe is an irrational germ-phobia issue. Perhaps the most disheartening place I’ve had to deal with the problem was in the employees-only bathroom of a world-renowned healthcare institution where my highly educated female coworkers, who of all people should have understood germ theory and disease transmission, regularly peed on the toilet seats.

I have long thought about getting little stickers printed up that say PLEASE DON’T PEE ON THE TOILET SEAT to post in toilet stalls. I have wondered countless times if the woman before me must pee on the toilet seat why can’t she wipe up her mess before exiting the stall? Why should she foist the proof of her germ phobia on the next user? It is hard for me to fathom such rudeness. I fume more because the perpetrator is never outed for her imbecility and bad manners.

Why are so many women so fearful of sitting on a toilet seat in a publicly shared bathroom? Have they ever heard of any illness or epidemic contracted and spread via buttock skin? Do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ever issue warnings about butt-borne disease? If you think about it, female buttocks are frequently bathed, rarely disrobed, and well protected from airborne germs. I venture to say our buttocks are cleaner than our hands. People who sneeze and cough in public and do not cover their mouths—or, equally gross, cover their mouths with their hands and then touch everything and everyone around them—constitute a well-known public-health problem. Speaking of the hazards of germ-laden hands, a 2015 article in The Cut (“Everything We Know about Human Bathroom Behavior,” by Clint Rainey brings up the prevalence of people who use their cell phones while going to the bathroom. Yikes! Rainey quotes a 2011 BBC News article about a British study that examined 400 cell phones and hands and found that 16 percent of phones and 16 percent of hands were contaminated with Escherichia coli, bacteria found in the human gut. It should be noted that most strains of E. coli are harmless ( and E. coli is often used in studies simply as a marker for the presence of fecal matter. Nevertheless, this is the take-away: In public restrooms—indeed, in the world at large—it is our hands, not our butts, that spread around germs. Toilet-seat-splashers should really be more concerned about whom they shake hands with and what surfaces and objects they touch.

My indignation is nothing new. Swirling endlessly in the whirlpools of Internet search engines are numerous essays like mine—and not a lot of current objective data on the subject. Although my observations are anecdotal, I see no signs the problem is abating, which indicates to me that my fellow indignant essayists and I are not changing any behaviors. We are merely venting. I take it as a positive sign that public restroom pee splashing, while disgusting, is really inconsequential in the realm of public health research. There are vastly more important topics to be focusing research on—like flu pandemics and the overprescribing of antibiotics. I don’t need scientists to spend their precious time and resources trying to determine the percentage of women in the population who pee on public toilet seats. For me, one woman is too many.


Although out-of-date and with a small sample size, a research article that is still often cited in essays about the behavior of females in public restrooms is a 1991 study entitled “Crouching over the toilet seat: prevalence among British gynaecological outpatients and its effect on micturation” (K. H. Moore, et al., BJOG June 1991). The researchers asked 528 women who had come to a general gynecological clinic to complete an anonymous questionnaire about their public restroom habits. The results showed that 85 percent usually crouched over the toilet when using a public restroom, 12 percent applied paper to the seat, and 2 percent sat directly on public toilet seats. Journalists writing for popular audiences about this subject hone in on the lopsided numbers of crouchers (85%!) versus sitters (2%!). What I found more interesting about the study was the clinical significance of the findings. The researchers found that crouching over a toilet seat reduces average urine flow rate by 21 percent and increases residual urine volume by 149 percent. Again I emphasize the small sample size, but based on these findings crouching to pee is incredibly inefficient and incomplete. Women who crouch would do their bladders a favor by sitting down to pee.

Posted in West Saari Road | 2 Comments


Diablo and Rosario, April 26, 2010.

Diablo has died.

The last day I saw him he was a skeleton in a black shroud. Dressed for his impending death. He was as usual shadowing Rosario. While Rosario stopped for a moment at our door to talk with us, I fed Diablo some stale tortillas. He listlessly ate a few bites until he saw Rosario walk on. He followed his virtually blind master, the ever-constant self-taught seeing-eye dog. I had a premonition I would not see Diablo again. He died a few days later.

Diablo was about ten years old. That he lived as long as he did is testimony to what a living organism can endure. As is Rosario, an ancient, at times obstinate, virtually penniless, solitary, sightless man who lives in a hovel. Diablo was the loyal companion of a destitute man. Not castrated, vaccinated, or medicated, he was a carrier of vermin and multiple canine diseases and he got into fights with other male dogs. He was forever gentle with us. I indulge myself by thinking he had a liking for me, because I petted him and cooed to him. I loved Diablo, and many times I imagined taking him away from Rosario for my own, a self-centered, dim-witted idea.

Diablo divulged a harsh truth about me: I have more sympathy for dogs than I do for certain of their masters.


Posted in Mexico

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

In the town where we live in Sonora, many women still hang out their laundry to dry. They drape the washing over barbed-wire fences or hang it from clotheslines on rooftops. Every day is a changing cavalcade of britches, blouses, underthings, socks, towels, sheets, toddlers’ clothes. This gives me joyous cause to remember on a regular basis one of the most beautiful poems in the English language, Richard Wilbur’s Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.

Wilbur died last year at the age of 96.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.

                                             The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,

Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”


Posted in Mexico



December 23, 2017, on the Tetajiosa Road, Sonora

Over the last two weeks—December 23, 2017 to January 7, 2018—during our random walks in the arroyos and ranchlands around Alamos, we have encountered two gate-closers we have never seen in our almost twenty years of rambling in southernmost Sonora. The design is almost identical to the metal gate-closers that are common and characteristic of the Sandhills of Nebraska.


January 7, 2018, gate-closer on La Luna Road.


David Smith opening the gate on La Luna Road.


La Luna gate-closer.

Between us, David and I have opened and closed Sonoran gates a few hundred times if not more. Most of them are simple stretch gates—barbed wire strung between a series of slender poles fashioned from one of the native trees. This floppy gate is secured by means of a wire loop that attaches to the gatepost, also of local wood. These gates vary in temperament. Some are easy to close and others almost impossible. The person provides the lever force, and for the harder-to-close stretch gates this can lead to pinched fingers and bloody barbed wire pokes, at least in my experience.

“The lever is a simple machine that changes the magnitude and direction of the force applied to move an object. It minimizes the effort required to lift the object. A lever
is a rigid bar which moves around a supporting point (pivot or fulcrum).”

The mechanical principle and virtue of the Sandhills—now apparently Sonoran—gate-closer is that it is the lever, thereby reducing the potential injury and embarrassment of the person who cannot close a difficult stretch gate.

The lever gate-closer, whether of metal or wood, is an elegant machine and lovely to behold. And added to the beauty is the mystery. Will we encounter more of these gate-closers in Sonora? How did the two we have seen come to be here? Did an ingenious Sonoran rancher or ranch hand simply apply the physics of leverage to make a better gate-closer? Or did a Sonoran spend some time on a ranch in the Sandhills and bring this technology back to his native landscape in Sonora?


Posted in Mexico

The man goes down to the river with his dog

For Dan Michener

The man goes down to the river with his dog.
He fishes. The dog runs arabesques.
The man is the prince of the river.
It is not a famous river but it is his river.

The trout writes verses in the water.
The man hurls stanzas in the air.
Nothing is said.
The dog runs arabesques.

The trout leaps.
It forsakes the power of its verse for the craft of the man.
For an instant the man is the king of the fish.

The force of the trout is his.
The man has won.
And then he slips the fish into the stream.
The trout has won.

All quarrels and wars should end so well.
The man and his dog go down to the river.

Posted in The Occasional Poem


November 6, 2017, Platte River Valley, Nebraska. Photo by Kim Bontrager Helzer.

In the above photo—which documents the first bite of winter on the Great Plains in early November—I am with my husband, David Smith, on the left, and Chris Helzer, a colleague from my days with the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska in the 1990s. We are standing in a restored prairie along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Isn’t it beautiful? The coppery grasses, pewter sky, distant picket of trees along the Platte, the guileless horizon.

The place we are standing was a cornfield when the Nature Conservancy bought the property. On a spring day in 1995, David and I were part of a group of folks who marched across the field hand-casting the seeds of roughly 150 species of native prairie grass and flowers in the fallow furrows. The effort was orchestrated by Bill and Jan Whitney of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, who developed some of the first techniques for restoring prairies on the Platte and continue to partner with the Conservancy on such endeavors. I remember vividly—and with pride and happiness—that day of coaxing back a piece of prairie. It is even more joyous to stand on that land twenty-two years later and know that it is part of 1,500 acres of high-diversity prairie that Chris Helzer and his colleagues have restored along the Platte River.

It was unforgettably windy that day—a wind of the potency and roar that contributed to prairie madness among pioneers on the Great Plains. In a photo from that day, as we leaned into the wind, we looked like living multiples of the Sower, the monumental statue on top of the State Capitol in Lincoln depicting a farmer sowing grain. Only our little band of sowers was bringing back a fragment of what settlers across the Midwest had obliterated in less than a century. One account of that statue proclaims, “Agriculture is the foundation upon which Nebraskans have built a noble life.” It wears me down that our culture casts nobility in terms of landscapes conquered, not landscapes conserved.

JPGB & W, famous 1994 prairie planting lineup

The prairie sowers. Photo courtesy of Bill and Jan Whitney, Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Chris has been on the Platte for 20 years. I hope he will stay another 20. He is now the director of science for the Nebraska Conservancy. He has intense focus, loves what he does, and has been able to grow and shape his career toward one purpose: bringing back prairie landscape health and diversity to benefit in subtle, often invisible ways the soil, its microbes and invertebrates, the flora, birds, insect pollinators, reptiles, amphibians, bison.

Chris and colleagues in Nebraska and other places across the Midwest are making swatches of the prairie fabric whole again.

He has written a book on the subject, The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States (2010, University of Iowa Press) and he writes and posts wonderful photographs on his blog, Prairie Ecologist,

After we left Nebraska in 1999, I basically put my prairie life on a shelf. We inhabit different landscapes now with their own beauty and riches. But on the rare occasion when I am back on the prairie, milling about, I feel like the prairie is where I belong.

Posted in Five Hundred Words or Less

Take THAT, Nolan!



A few days ago I walked out to our driveway and pulled my RANGERS FOR NOLAN bumper sticker off my old Subaru. Take THAT, Nolan!

Our Minnesota Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan, on most issues a principled Democrat, has morphed into a Trumpian dissembler and climber-into-bed-with-the-devil over the issue of sulfide-ore mining in the pristine watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

It is painful to hear and read the things coming out of Nolan’s mouth. It is also scary to think he may be putting himself in a precarious position to be re-elected in 2018 because of this stance. Five cases in point:

1.) Nolan is making egregious and dubious claims about the economic promises versus the environmental risks of sulfide-ore (also known as copper-nickel) mining. He—or someone on his staff—needs to spend a couple of hours reading A Short Course Handbook on the Environmental Geochemistry of Sulfide Mine-Wastes (a 1994 publication of the Mineralogical Association of Canada edited by D.W. Blowes and J. L. Jambor and available as an e-book on As this document makes clear, what poses the real and lasting threat of sulfide-ore mining is the long-term (think centuries) storage of the toxic tailings long after a copper-nickel mine has shuttered and the owners of the multinational mining conglomerates are long dead and have passed on their treasures to their heirs. The vast capital of mining never stays in the communities where the mines are situated. Another informative book Nolan et al. should read is Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story about Copper, the Metal that Ruins the World, by Bill Carter.

2.) At the same time, Nolan chooses to ignore the economic benefits derived from the varied and sustainable businesses that thrive on eco-tourism and outdoor recreation in and surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area while putting in jeopardy the water quality and safety of one of the most unspoiled watersheds in North America.

3.) To confuse things even more and make it look like water-and-landscape conservationists are anti-mining and anti-mine worker, Nolan misleadingly tries to conflate sulfide-ore mining with iron-ore mining, which has been the backbone of the mining industry on the Iron Range for more than a century, when the two mining processes are not comparable and have different time horizons and environmental impacts. While I cannot speak for every last one of us, my sense is that most of us who oppose sulfide-ore mining in the BWCA watershed are taking no issue with iron-ore mining. And there is broad support among us for labor unions and mine workers.

4.) He echoes those who claim the Boundary Waters Canoe Area “belongs” to Iron Rangers when in fact the BWCA, like all national parks and wilderness areas, belongs to all the citizens of the United States. He gets away with this parochial blather because the thousands of people across America who advocate for protecting the BWCA from sulfide-ore mining do not vote in Minnesota’s Eighth District. The definition of what is an “Iron Ranger” is also troubling and personally annoying. My husband and I were not born on the Iron Range but have chosen to retire here—in large part because of the tranquility and beautiful landscapes and waters. We own property on which we have paid taxes since 1989. We vote here. We shop locally. We volunteer in our communities. We are hard working and pro-union and respectful of all other hard-working people, including sleeping car porters, steelworkers, and mine workers. So we think of ourselves as Iron Rangers who respectively think sulfide-ore mining is not in the best interests of the Iron Range and Iron Rangers.

5.) Nolan touts as “bipartisanship” his recent cheap-shot alliance with Minnesota’s Sixth District Republican Tom Emmer to eliminate funding for an already begun U.S. Forest Service study of mineral leases in the Boundary Waters watershed, which they tacked on as an amendment to a huge omnibus spending bill. Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has recommended that this study proceed and Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen from Minnesota’s Third District opposed the Nolan-Emmer amendment.

About the passage of this stealth amendment, Nolan provided this gobbledygook in his online newsletter to constituents: “My Minnesota Republican colleague Tom Emmer and I also teamed up to pass an amendment to ensure the integrity of the environmental review process for any future mining projects that might take place in designated areas of Superior National Forest. “ Say what!? That sentence is classic Trump-speak. Representative Nolan, your amendment does exactly the opposite of ensuring integrity of the environmental review process.

Nolan is trying to get reelected in 2018 in a district that in the last decade has started to abandon its Democratic-Farm Labor roots and has grown evermore conservative. He barely won in the last two cycles—by a 2% margin in 2014 (winning by 4,000 votes), which narrowed to a 1% margin in 2016 (winning by 2,000 votes). The sprawling Eighth District encompasses 18 largely rural counties and stretches from the Canadian border to the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Nolan carried only six of those counties in 2016 and only one (St. Louis County, which includes the city of Duluth) by a wide margin. Hillary Clinton, while carrying Minnesota, fared worse than Nolan in his district. Of the 18 counties, she won only four, three by very narrow margins. Her widest margin was in St. Louis County, thanks to the urban Duluth vote. As of September 2017—14 months from the election—the National Republican Congressional Committee has already started rolling out ads targeting Rick Nolan.

I am not a political animal, but I think Nolan is taking some big risks with his headlong rush to embrace sulfide-ore mining and its proponents. I assume his calculus is that he can get away with insulting and alienating people like me— constituent-voters who support 90 percent of his agenda but oppose sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed.

To win in 2018, Nolan can’t afford to lose any of the 180,000 people who voted for him in 2016. Does anyone know what percentage of those 180,000 voters is opposed to his pro-sulfide-ore-mining stance? And of that percentage, how many voters on November 6, 2018, would decline to vote for Nolan on principle?

Let’s say, very conservatively, that 1% of Nolan’s 2016 voters defect in 2018 because of the sulfide-ore mining issue. That’s 1,800 voters, just shy of his margin of victory in 2016. To say the least, Nolan is unlikely to pick up 1,800 votes from the Republican camp!

Those defecting voters, whether they sit out the election or vote for a third-party green candidate (if there is one), will in essence be handing their votes to the Republican candidate—and ensuring one less Democrat in Congress. For that very reason, Nolan is betting those voters when push comes to shove will not abandon him, but if he keeps up his rhetoric on sulfide-ore mining he is doing so at his own peril.

Should Nolan be worried that I pulled his bumper sticker off my car?


Additional reading:

For an astute assessment of Nolan’s retreat from reason, see this editorial by Marshall Helmberger in the Timberjay:,13574

Aaron Brown is an excellent source for Iron Range culture, politics, and economy. Here’s his summary of Nolan’s 2014 race:

On Nolan’s 2016 race:

On Nolan’s outlook for 2018:



Posted in Conservation | 1 Comment