Mucking About

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day
the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning, it feels as though it could be

the day before or a year ago or a year before that.
With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out, and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.
Time all but stops.
But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts,

and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

He <the professor> asked
what I made of the other Oxford students
so I told him:
They were okay, but they were all very similar…
they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies,
and they thought they would always win.
But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.

He asked me what could be done about it.
I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year
to do some dead-end job
like working in a chicken processing plant
or spreading muck with a tractor.
It would do more good than a gap year in Peru. 

He laughed and thought this was tremendously witty.
It wasn’t meant to be funny.

~James Rebanks from The Shepherd’s Life
(how a sheep farmer succeeds at Oxford and then goes back to the farm)

For well over thirty years, my husband and I have spent about an hour a day shoveling manure out of numerous horse stalls and I’m a better person for it. The last few weeks of sub-freezing snow/icy weather while running low on trucked-in supplies of shavings and straw bedding has been a particular character-building experience. It feels like everything, myself included, is in a process of decomposition.

Wheeled to a mountainous pile in our barnyard,  our daily collection of manure happily composts year round, becoming rich fertilizer in a matter of months through a crucible-like heating process of organic chemistry, bacteria and earthworms.  Nothing mankind has achieved quite matches the drama of useless and basically disgusting stuff transforming into the essential elements needed for productive growth and survival.   This is a metaphor I can <ahem> happily muck about in.

I’m in awe, every day, at being part of this process — in many ways a far more tangible improvement to the state of the world than anything else I manage to accomplish every day.  The horses, major contributors that they are, act underwhelmed by my enthusiasm.  I guess some miracles are relative, depending on one’s perspective, but if the horses understood that the grass they contentedly eat in the pasture, or the hay they munch on during the winter months, was grown thanks to their carefully recycled waste products, they might be more impressed.

Their nonchalance about the daily mucking routine is understandable.  If they are outside, they probably don’t notice their beds are clean when they return to the stalls at night.  If they are inside during the heavy rain days, they feel duty-bound to be in our faces as we move about their stall, toting a pitchfork and pushing a wheelbarrow.  I’m a source of constant amusement as they nose my jacket pockets for treats that I never carry, as they beg for scratches on their unreachable itchy spots, and as they attempt to overturn an almost full load, just to see balls of manure roll to all corners of the stall like breaking a rack of billiard balls in a game of pool.

Good thing I’m a patient person always seeking an object lesson in whatever I see or do ~ mucking out stalls every day helps me tolerate the proverbial muck I encounter every day off the farm.  And spending an hour a day getting dirty in the real stuff somehow makes the virtual manure less noxious. 

Everyone should be spending time daily mucking out;
I think the world would generally be a better place.

Wally, our former stallion, now gelded, discovered a way to make my life easier rather than complicating it.  He hauled a rubber tub into his stall from his paddock, by tossing it into the air with his teeth and throwing it, and it finally settled against one wall.  Then he began to consistently pile his manure, with precise aim, right in the tub.  I didn’t ask him to do this.  It had never occurred to me.  I hadn’t even thought it was possible for a horse to house train himself.  But there it is, proof that some horses prefer neat and tidy rather than the whirlwind eggbeater approach to manure distribution.  After a day of his manure pile plopping, it is actually too heavy for me to pick up and dump into the wheelbarrow all in one tub load, but it takes 1/4 of the time to clean his stall than the others, and he spares all this bedding.

What a guy.  He provides me unending inspiration in how to keep my own personal muck concentrated rather than spreading it about,  contaminating the rest of the world.

Now, once I teach him to put the seat back down when he’s done, he’s welcome to move into the house…

teaching my city nephews how to muck out a stall
Wally’s purposeful pile

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A Zone of Stink

Like a piece of rotten meat
which not only stinks right on its own surface
but also surrounds itself
with a stinking molecular cloud of stink,
so, too, each island of the archipelago
created and supported a zone of stink around itself.

~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books III-IV

If you’re looking for sympathy
you’ll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.
— David Sedaris (Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays)

As I’ve written elsewhere, I spend over an hour a day dealing with the excrement of my farm critters. This is therapeutic time for me as I have deep respect for the necessity to clean up and compost what is smelly/stinky/yucky and biblically objectionable. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14) None of us, including God, want to take a walk having to pick our way around poop.

As I’m busy picking up manure, I watch our dogs seek out the smelliest, most vile things they can find in the barn or field (preferably dead) and roll themselves around in it one after another until they are just as stinky as the stuff they found. They are clearly joyous about it, especially when they do it together. It is curious throw-back behavior that I’ve assumed, wearing my animal behaviorist hat, was about a wild predator covering up their scent in order to stalk and capture prey more effectively without being detected – except they are really truly so smelly that any prey could sense them coming from a mile away and would learn quickly that a moving creature that smells like poop or a dead carcass is bad news and to be avoided.

This is the main reason our farm dogs live full time outdoors. We prefer to avoid stinky dirty creatures too. So I’ve tried to understand this behavior for what adaptive purpose it may have.

Here are some interesting theories at this link.

What makes the most sense to me is the “pack mentality” that suggests that once one dog/wolf rolls in something objectionable, that the rest of the pack does too. This is a unifying theme for anxious individuals – they aren’t really on their own if they smell and blend in with the rest of the pack. So they spread the “wealth”, so to speak. Stink up one, stink up all. Like team spirit, it seems to improve morale – until it doesn’t anymore.

I’ve been feeling covered with stink myself lately as I’ve searched for those sympathetic around me and found myself stuck between shit and syphilis. There are so many divisive opinions right now about a variety of current issues; vile nonsense has been flying right and left on social media as well as face to face. The theory is if all stink the same from rolling in piles of misinformation, we are then no longer alone.

Yet our destiny does not have to include believing, sharing and “flinging” the stuff that stinks to see who it will stick to. I no longer want to be a target.

Time for a bath.
Time for soap and cleansing and some serious self-examination.
Time to stop joyously rolling around in it.
Time to bury the excrement so we’re not staring at the ground, picking our way around the piles and can actually hold our heads up to see where we’re heading.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

The Redeemed World

You get down on your knees in the dark earth—alone
for hours in hot sun, yanking weed roots, staking trellises,
burning your shoulders, swatting gnats; you strain your muscled
midwestern neck and back, callous your pianist’s hands.

You cut roses back so they won’t fruit, rip out and replace
spent annuals. You fill your garden dense with roots and vines.
And when a humble sprout climbs like a worm up out of death,
you are there to bless it, in your green patch, all spring and summer long,

hose like a scepter, a reliquary vessel; you hum
through the dreamy wilderness—no one to judge, absolve,
or be absolved—purified by labor, confessed by its whisperings, connected to its innocence.

So when you heft a woody, brushy tangle, or stumble
inside grimy, spent by earth, I see all the sacraments in place—
and the redeemed world never smelled so sweet.

~Ken Weisner, “The Gardener” from Anything on Earth.

We are in full-garden produce preservation mode right now on the farm – these are the days when we pick the fruits of Dan’s labors – all the hours he spent this spring preparing the soil with rich compost, meticulously pulling out weeds by the roots, rototilling and cultivating, then staking/stringing/sowing the rows, then standing back to watch the sun and rain coax the seeds from the dark.

All this happens in a mere few weeks – we never tire of this illustration of redemption and renewal we’re shown year after year – how a mess of weeds and dirt can be cleared, refined and cleansed to once again become productive and fruitful, feeding those who hunger – both now and deep into winter and next spring.

It gives me hope; even when I myself am feeling full of weeds and despairingly dirty and overwhelmed, I can be renewed. It takes a persistent Gardener who is willing and eager to prune away what is useless, and sow anew what is needed for me to thrive and produce – His hands and knees are covered with my grime.

And the fruit that results! – so very sweet…

If you enjoy Barnstorming posts like this, you’ll enjoy this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

I Can Scarcely Wait

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.
So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
and still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
“Light splashed…”

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
~Stanley Kunitz  “The Round”

It is too easy to be ground to a pulp by the constant irritations of the day – my aggravations are too easily expressed, my worries never seem to wane – all of it sucks gladness out of me. When my feelings become four-dimensional and surround and drown me, I lose all perspective on what got me out of bed to begin the day.

God is in these intricate details, whether the splash of light on a petal or the smell of rotting compost; it is my job to notice this. It is tempting to look past His ubiquitous presence in all things, to seek out only the elegant grandeur of creation and bypass the plain and smelly and homely. Yet even what lacks beauty from my limited perspective is worthy of His divine attention.

He knows the value and purpose of each thing He created, including me and the things that aggravate me no end.

The time has come to be refreshed and renewed
even when surrounded by decay.
His care is revealed in the tiniest way.
He is worthy of my attention because I am constantly worthy of His.

If I rise early enough, I can see each new day’s light splash everything awake. By the time I come in to sit down to record my words and photos, I’m thoroughly washed with a fresh dawn. I can scarcely wait to take on what this day will bring.

A new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

Maybe you or someone you love needs encouragement and a splash of light and beauty? Consider this book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Pause for the Parable

Every happening, great and small,
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.
~Malcolm Muggeridge

Every day is filled with storied moments
though I feel too rushed to listen.

If I take time to be changed
by what I see or feel or hear,
when I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:

A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.

An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
far beyond.

An old barn roof with gaps torn by fierce winds,
is repaired and renewed,
no longer allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside;
once again safe and secure,
a sanctuary protected from storms.

I am looking.
I am listening.
Feeling in desperate need of repair
before I topple over:
to be transformed,
and forever changed.

Decomposing Standards

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day

the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning,

it feels as though it could be
the day before or a year ago
or a year before that.

With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out,
and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.

Time all but stops.

But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.

I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.

Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right?
Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.

There is a lesson here in the manure pile.
There must be a pony buried here somewhere.
And there is.

We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.

We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.

So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.

At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.

Once the Weather Warms

As a child, my father helped me dig
a square of dense red clay, mark off rows
where zinnias would grow,
and radishes and tender spinach leaves.
He’d stand with me each night
as daylight drained away
to talk about our crops leaning on his hoe
as I would practice leaning so on mine.

Years later now in my big garden plot,
the soggy remnant stems of plants
flopped over several months ago,
the ground is cold, the berries gone,
the stakes like hungry sentries
stand guarding empty graves. And still
I hear his voice asking what I think
would best be planted once the weather warms.
~Margaret Mullins “Lonely Harvest” from Family Constellations

We were both raised by serious vegetable gardeners; as kids we helped plant and weed and harvest from large garden plots because that was how families fed themselves fresh produce rather than from a can. Even frozen vegetables were not plentiful in the stores and too expensive, so grow-it-yourself was a necessity before it became a trending hashtag.

Now, with his parents’ past guidance in his ears, my husband works the soil to prepare it yet again for yielding: the over-wintered shells of squash, the limp left-over bean vines, the stumps of corn stalks. Dark composted manure is mixed in, rototilled and fluffed, grass and weed roots pulled out. Then he carefully marks off the grid of rows and the decisions made about what goes where this year; what did well in the past? what didn’t germinate and what didn’t produce?

Then he lays the seeds and pats the soil down over the top and we wait.

Our garden has been yielding now for two weeks – plentiful greens and radishes and now fresh strawberries with peas coming on strong. It will be a resource for our church community and our winter meals as well as a fresh bounty for our table over the next three months.

Planting a garden is our very tangible expression of hope in the future when the present feels overwhelmingly gloomy with despair. Yet a garden doesn’t happen without our planning, work and care making that first spinach leaf, that first pea pod, that first strawberry taste even sweeter.

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our
garden.”

~Voltaire’s last line from Candide

So Much Better

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line,
With a gray-brown wooden clothes pin.
~Jane Kenyon “The Clothespin”

I get easily overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done:
a full day of telehealth computer visits with patients from home but all the usual household and farm tasks waiting for me –grass to mow, flower beds to weed, garden to plant, fences to fix, manure to haul, animals to brush out — the list is endless and there are never enough hours in the day.  

So of course, I moan and whine and write about it.

Or I can set to work, tackling one thing at a time.  A simple task is accomplished, and then another, like hanging clothes on the line: this one is done, and now this one, pinned and hanging to freshen, renewed, in the spring breezes.

At the end of the day, I pull them down, bury my face in them and breathe deeply, knowing how much better I am than before I began.

So much better.

Springtime Passion

You come to fetch me from my work to-night 
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see 
If I can leave off burying the white 
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree. 
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite, 
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea);
And go along with you ere you lose sight 
Of what you came for and become like me, 
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth. 
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed 
On through the watching for that early birth 
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed, 
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes 
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
~Robert Frost “Putting in the Seed”

The garden is ready;
the soil turned over,
the compost mixed in,
rototilled to a fine crown.
Next will come the laying out of strings,
the trench hoed straight,
the seed laid one by one in the furrow
and covered gently with a light touch.

Then the sun warms
and showers moisten,
the seeds awaken to push upward,
bold and abrupt,
wanting to know the touch of sky and air
to leaf and leap
and bloom and bear.

Oh, how Love burns
in the Putting in the Seed.

The Worm Forgives the Plough

Field with Plowing Farmers by Vincent Van Gogh

O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…


Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

As my farmer husband applies our rich composted manure pile to the spring garden, turning over the soil, thousands of newly exposed red wiggler worms immediately dive for cover. Within seconds, the naked little creatures …worm their way back into the security of warm dirt, having been rudely interrupted from their routine. Gracious to a fault, they tolerate being rolled and raked and lifted and turned upside down, waving their little bodies expectantly in the cool air before slipping back down into the dark. There they will continue their work of digesting and aerating the tired soil of the garden, reproducing in their unique hermaphroditic way, leaving voluminous castings behind to further feed the seedlings to be planted.

Worms are unjustly denigrated by humans primarily because we don’t like to be surprised by them. We don’t like to see one in our food, (especially only part of one) and are particularly distressed to see them after we’ve digested our food. Once we get past that bit of squeamishness, we can greatly appreciate their role as the ultimate recyclers, leaving the earth a lot better off once they are finished with their work.

We humans actually suffer by comparison — to be called “a worm” is really not so bad but the worm might not think a comparison to humans is a great compliment.

My heart land is plowed,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness,
the steady teamster centers the coulter.  

The furrow should be straight and narrow. 
I am tread upon yet still will bloom; 
I forgive the One who turns my world upside down.

The plowing under brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturns to the cleansing dew,
as knots of worms stay busy making fertile
our simple dust. 

Plow deep my heart, dear Lord. 

the cut worm forgives the plow...
~William Blake from “Proverbs of Hell”