The soft leaves of mullein plants can be used as a toilet paper substitute.

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On Friday the 13th this year, Covid-19 turned some of my neighbors into monsters: Monsters who hoard toilet paper. At some point, before I arrived in the paper goods aisle, everyone else got the memo to stock up. 

To be honest, at the time I wasn’t all that concerned about the bare shelves. After all, Wisconsin leads the nation in paper product production. I figured they would be restocked before I shopped the next week. With just two people in our household and a 4-pack at home, we could get by. I might even have joked about knowing where to find a big patch of mullein, which most loggers and foresters here call “Nature’s toilet paper”. Those plants were still under a foot of snow, but I cracked wise with all the confidence of a farm kid with a lifetime of experience at making do.

If you listen carefully you can hear music that signals my impending awareness of terror. Call that tune Nightmare In Aisle 12.

As you have already deduced from my careful foreshadowing, the shelves were still empty the next week. I haven’t been back to town since to see for myself if there are tumbleweeds and cobwebs there instead of 2-ply.

My friends and neighbors now talk about the toilet paper shortage like an 8-year-old with a book of fart jokes. By some unspoken social contract, I know not to ask “How much did you hoard?” I’ve heard helpful advice (“be there at 6 am when they open for senior shoppers”) and lots of theories about why TP is still in short supply.

Finally, I called my friend Jane to help me understand. Jane spent 35 years in the paper industry in Wisconsin. She made clear that she was not representing her former employer in our conversation. And also that she does not have a basement full of the soft, premium toilet tissue for which said former employer is known and beloved.

Her theory is that when people were advised to work from home, they realized they would need more TP there than usual. Makes sense: If you won’t be using your employer’s TP after that 3rd cup of coffee every morning, you’ll need to provide your own. For a supply chain based on just-in-time delivery that meets the usual consumer demand, the colossal surge in purchases wasn’t part of the script. 

Jane explained to me that there are big differences in making and distributing soft, thick, premium consumer tissue compared to the institutional stuff used in most work settings. It’s not a simple matter to switch over from one type when demand drops like a lead balloon to the other when demand for that skyrockets. And you don’t bring a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar machine on-line overnight, so manufacturing capacity for consumer tissue is unable to increase quickly. But those machines are running 24 hours a day. The teams running them are considered essential workers. And all of her former employer’s plants are working to produce as much as they can as fast as they can.

We branched off into why putting paper towels in the toilet is so bad for your rural septic system compared to toilet tissue. I need to embroider her a pillow that says “I Temporary Wet Strength”. Then we got sidetracked and talked about wild turkeys and the timberdoodle that flies though her yard every day around sunset. 

By then my third cup of the day had kicked in and I had to go — I mean, end our conversation. 

There is a happy ending to this story. A few weeks into Wisconsin’s Safer At Home order, I heard from a little bird where some TP might be available. I spoke the right words to the right person, who returned shortly and discreetly passed me a beautiful plastic-wrapped 4-pack of exactly what I needed. We’re good for another month.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin, where an Easter snowstorm is melting to reveal those mullein plants. She may be good for more than a month now.