“I honestly thought they were going to have a little plaque on it, like on a bench at the zoo,” said Miller. “It’s this enormous sign. I’m actually feeling a little sheepish about it.”
And about using it. The restroom made its public debut Wednesday, but staff and friends had gathered earlier for an unofficial opening.
“In lieu of a ribbon-cutting, they had a toilet-paper cutting,” Miller told me over the phone.
There was a small group standing outside, so she did not actually, you know, take a seat — “I was a little shy about doing that,” Miller said with a laugh — but she did go in.
The toilet — made by a company called Clivus Multrum (the name is a Latin and Swedish concatenation meaning “inclined compost room”) — doesn’t use water or chemicals. It’s a composting toilet that breaks down wastes naturally.
“One of the things that really impressed me — and I think impresses most people who don’t know about it — is that there’s absolutely no odor,” Miller said. “The old-fashioned composting toilets — which used to be called outhouses — were pretty odorous.”
As nice as the comfort station is, it’s only one part of the $2.5 million renovation just completed at the Audubon Naturalist Society. The main aim was to create a nature trail accessible to people in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues.
That’s a group that may eventually include all of us. Even the so-called able-bodied are one twisted ankle or broken hip — or simply a few years — from appreciating a trail such as this one.
“I’ve watched our members age,” Lisa Alexander, the society’s executive director, told me on a recent “green-carpet” tour of the trail. “People who used to be avid hikers and birders start to lose mobility.”
Now anyone can amble through woods and meadows on a quarter-mile trail with no steep inclines. It’s wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass in opposite directions.
Encircling a pond is a wide, accessible boardwalk, with a deck where groups of children — including wheelchair users — can gather for educational programs. Nearby is what Alexander thinks is the area’s first accessible fire pit.
“You can take your wheelchair right up around it,” she said.
It’s important in any landscape to control water (or, in the case of the toilet, not to use it at all). The new trail is built atop 18 inches of coarse gravel topped with a layer of pea gravel that’s been mixed with a polymer.
“It looks like Rice Krispie treats,” said Alison Pearce, deputy director for programs.
Rather than sluicing rain away, as would happen on a concrete or asphalt sidewalk, the permeable gravel allows water to seep down.
The renovation work involved constructing dozens of pools, dams and waterfalls along a stream bed designed to catch and slow down gullywashers, preventing erosion.
“For the first time in decades, our stream is holding water,” said Alexander. “Dragonflies have found it — and frogs, toads, salamanders, tadpoles.”
Also new: 370 trees, 800 shrubs and thousands of ground-level plants. Planting them wouldn’t have been prudent if the society hadn’t encircled the property with a sturdy fence, installed large cattle grates at the entrances and ushered out every last deer.
Next on the to-do list is a wheelchair-accessible play space. It will be built not far from the Kristie Miller Comfort Station. Said Alexander: “If you invite kids into the woods and you don’t provide a bathroom, you know where they’re going to go.”
As we walked along the trail, I asked what birds might be lured to the improved landscape.
“We try to think of ourselves as about a lot more than the birds, because really all nature is our bailiwick,” Alexander said.
But she hopes the improvements to the grounds will prove attractive to one species in particular: the wood thrush, Washington’s official bird.
“It loves stream valleys,” Alexander said. “It needs a nice forest with good understory. When we get our first pair of nesting wood thrushes, that’s a species I’m going to be excited to see.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.