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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An Advent Paradox: From Filth to Flowers

 

The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.

The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.
~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”

 

 

 

 

As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.

Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.

Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.

Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.

There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.

If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future,  then surely so can we.

 

 

 Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

 

A Search for Solid Footing

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A few days of heavy rain have transformed our farm to mush. Puddles are everywhere, the ground is saturated and mushrooms are sprouting in the most unlikely places. Slugs are seeking out mushrooms for refuge from the deluge. It’s even too wet for the trumpeter swans and Canadian geese who glean in the nearby harvested cornfields, filling up on dropped corn kernels. They now are flying overhead to head south to drier places, noisily honking, their wings swooshing the air as they pass over.

The wet weather means chores are more challenging on our farm. Some of the stalls in the barn have flooded so moving the horses out to pasture for the day means braving wind and rain and soppy footing. At the end of the day, they eagerly walk back to the barn, soaked and dripping, diving into fresh shavings for a good roll and shake. I can appreciate the relief they feel as I like getting back to solid footing too at the end of the day. Much of my day also seems to be spent navigating slippery slopes and muddy terrain, both real and figurative.

It isn’t always apparent what ground is treacherous from appearance alone. The grassy slope heading down to the barn from the house looks pretty benign until I start navigating in a driving rainstorm in the dark, and suddenly the turf becomes a skating rink and I’m finding I’m picking my way carefully with a flashlight. The path I seek is to find the patches of moss, which happily soaks up the water like a sponge carpet, so not as slick to walk on. Even if moss ordinarily is not a welcome addition to lawn or pasture–I do appreciate it this time of year.

Another challenge is pushing a wheelbarrow with two 60 pound bales of hay back up that slope to our largest paddock for the day’s feeding. There is no traction underneath to help my feet stick to the ground for the push uphill. I can feel particularly foolish at this futile effort–my feet sometimes slide out beneath me, landing me on my knees down on the ground, soaked and humiliated, and the wheelbarrow goes skidding right back down to the barn door where it started.

Trusting the footing underneath my feet is crucial day to day. If I am to get work done most efficiently and make progress, I must have solid ground to tread. But the stuff of real life, like our farm’s ground, doesn’t come made to order that way. Some days are slick and treacherous, unpredictable and ready to throw me to my knees, while other days are simple, easy, and smooth sailing. Waking in the morning, I cannot know what I will face that day–whether I need my highest hip boots to wade through the muck or whether I can dash about in comfy house slippers. My attitude has something to do with it–sometimes my “internal” footing is loose and slippery, tripping up those around me as well as myself. That is when I need most to plant myself in the solid foundation that I know will support me during those treacherous times.

I need my faith, my need to forgive and experience forgiveness, my people holding me when I fall, and to help pick them up when they are down. Without those footings every day, I’m nothing more than a muddy soiled mess lying face down on the ground wondering if I’ll ever walk again.

There is good reason I end up on my knees at times. It is the best reminder of where I should be full time if it were not for stronger hands that lift me up, clean me up and guide my footsteps all the rest of my days.

 

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The Smell of Buttered Toast

Great Harvest Bread Company Chocolate Babka

“The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells can transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel.  One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode.  I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, feels everything as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure.  Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen, roasting turkey is my mother’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during the years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training. Today it is the warmth of a slice of chocolate babka bread for breakfast.

Occasionally I have the privilege of babysitting infants whose skin smells of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvet of my own childrens’.   The newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own.  My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes past blossoms planted along the house, wafting through open bedroom windows.  The fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell outside this morning.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit would include my most favorite–the farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer,  I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then.  It’ll take me back to a day like today with the best smells on earth in my own backyard.

They will simply speak to me with no uncertain voice.

Jose, lord of the manor and farm

Dust to Dust

Over the last several weeks on the farm we have been running low on wood shavings, the absorbent bedding we use to cover the horse stall floors in the barns. In the winter, the animals, due to the cold and rainy weather, spend a significant part of the week indoors, so their bedding is important for their comfort and for the ease of cleaning every night after we get home from work. The large truck load of shavings we had delivered into our shavings shed last summer was rapidly diminishing to the last few wheelbarrow loads so I called the shavings company we’ve happily dealt with for twenty years to request a new delivery. As is the case when local sawmills are slow in the winter due to less demand for lumber, I knew there would be a wait but it is worth it to get the perfect load: large fluffy shavings with no dust for a feather light and cushiony bed for our horses.

It arrived today while we were at work and I hurried outside in the dark after dinner to admire the shavings shed once again filled to the brim. As I got closer and turned on the barnyard vapor light, my heart sank. This was no load of shavings–typically aromatic curly remnant wood flakes. This was a building full of sawdust powder–way too fine, heavy in the shovel and extremely dusty. In short, it was several tons of a mess that I could not undo or send back and now have to deal with. What the sawmill had cast off as leftover waste product has become my ten foot high mountain of recycled regret.

This pulverized stuff is not fit for man nor beast. It gets into noses and lungs, irritates eyes and gets swallowed down with hay. I’m sick with disappointment. It was all I could do to haul it into the barn and watch the dust clouds go airborne as I spread it in the stalls. My poor horses wonder why I’ve condemned them to eat from a dust bowl. It is bitter irony that I’m paying good money for something that was to help me keep things clean when the reality is that it will make things so much harder to keep clean.

After shoveling a few hundred pounds of dust, I came back to the house covered in a veil of powder, my eyes itchy, my nose running, my throat burning. I can look forward to six months of this daily aggravation, but at least I won’t have to sleep in it like my animals. I can climb in the bathtub with water up to my ears and soak it off, at least until tomorrow’s chores.

Like times in my life when I must cope with being let down, sometimes those I have always depended on just don’t come through. Disappointment may cover me like a shroud, but I must wear it gently, not angrily. I’ll try not to stir up clouds of it wherever I go, eating and breathing disillusionment so much it hurts others as well. I can be perpetually grimy and disgruntled from wallowing in the stuff but that is not who I want to be.

Instead, I can seek out fresh air, breathe deeply, put on protective equipment and dive back in to do what needs to be done. Someday the mountain of misery will be made miniscule.

There will always be a bath to look forward to at the end of the day.

Bed Spreading

shavingspile

When I glanced out the  window and saw the large shavings truck pull up to our barn to dump its load in the shavings shed, you’d have thought it was the Second Coming.  I could almost hear the trumpet sound and the heavens sing.  It was that welcome and long anticipated.

We’re in the middle of a wood shavings shortage in the northwest and have been for over a year.  Even pellet stoves are going wanting. Here we are in the land of the evergreens, of thousands of acres of woodlands, and in the old days, a saw mill on every corner.  Many factors have threatened the lumber industry in our part of the country: less expensive lumber coming down from Canada, the spotted owl and the Endangered Species Act, and most recently, a new housing slump because of the economic down turn.  The mills shut down for extended times so the shavings stockpiles have evaporated quickly.  In addition, the mills have decided that their own shavings can convert to pretty decent fuel for steam powered machinery, so they are keeping it and burning it themselves, when previously, it went to whoever would haul it away–free.

No more.

I always try to plan ahead for when I’ll need my next truckload of shavings for bedding the horse stalls.  A two week lead time used to work pretty well, and by the time I’m scooping my last wheelbarrow load to haul to the barn, the truck will drive in ready to dump the next mountain for me, usually lasting about 2-3 months, depending on the time of year and how many horses we have.

I called in early December, knowing I’d need more shavings soon, but hadn’t run out yet.  The local friendly shavings guy said he was out of the business.  It’s not looking good, I was told.  Orders were backing up and the stockpiles were gone.  They were totally dependent on the mills starting back up after Christmas and I was totally dependent on them.

Meantime I was starting to be very careful in my stall cleaning strategy.  No more wasteful scooping of shavings and poop–I needed to filter out the good shavings as best I could.  It easily doubled the cleaning time, this “panning for poop” approach.  But I stretched the shavings I had another week or so.

Then I had to go buy baled shavings at the feed store to tide me over.  This is an outrageously expensive way to go–easily 6x the cost of bulk shavings hauled in by truck.   Pretty soon, even the baled shavings were sold out and none anticipated any time soon.  Then we resorted to straw bedding–a truly desperate measure.  Cleaning straw beds in horse stalls is one of the most difficult jobs as the horse manure just sinks to the bottom of the straw bed and has to be searched out like so many brown Easter eggs.    Straw makes Haflingers happy though–it is like a constant brunch underfoot.

So I was near despair and so were all my local horsey friends.  Then my ship came in from British Columbia today.  Yes, it is costing 150% more than it did when I last had a truckload hauled in a year ago.  But it is sweet fluffy shavings and it made my day.

When I came home tonight, it was pure joy to put on my muck boots and head to the barn.  I started in on the cleaning process and realized that two months of scrimping had left these dirt floor stalls in a sad and mired state.  They are not damp, but they are in dire need of a deep clean that I cannot even begin to do–it will take weeks to dig out all the old stuff so the new bed can be spread.  All I could really do was put on a coating of fresh clean shavings tonight on top of the layers, knowing full well they will be mixed up thoroughly and spoiled by the morning.  However, over time, I will manage to get back to the clean beds I once had.

We can tend to accumulate a lot of muck in our lives, never really doing a deep clean when it is needed.  We get pretty used to sleeping in it, eating in it and not even noticing it after awhile.  But the day when fresh new clean stuff arrives in our lives, how do we react?  Just put it on top of the muck and hope no one will notice what is still underneath?  Abandon the old stalls and build new ones, ready for a fresh start?  Or dig down and really get rid of the old dirt, working as long as it takes to remove it?  What an amazing thing to have a chance to clean it all up!

All I know is that I celebrate that there is still renewal that can come into my life when I least expect it or deserve it.  I can start again and hope for the best.   There is nothing like a sweet fresh bed to rest in.