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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Beauty Laid Bare

To be a poet…
you must believe in the uniqueness of every person,
and therefore in your own.

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.

And that will be your voice,
unsought,
singing out from you of itself. 


~Denise Levertov

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.
It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.
You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then –
and only then -it is handed to you.

Write as if you were dying.
At the same time, assume you write for an audience

consisting solely of terminal patients.
That is, after all, the case.
What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon?
What could you say to a dying person

that would not enrage by its triviality?

Why are we reading,
if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened
and its deepest mystery probed?
Why are we reading,

if not in hope that the writer
will magnify and dramatize our days,
will illuminate and inspire us

with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness,
and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries,
so we may feel again their majesty and power?


What do we ever know that is higher than that power
which, from time to time, seizes our lives,
and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves
as creatures set down here bewildered? 

~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

Some days my voice feels so weakened
I am unable to sing out from myself,
knowing I have said too much
that means so little.

I swing and I miss, over and over
swishing the air –
hoping, listening, looking, living
for a connection made
through sharing images and words.

I am bewildered by life most of the time –
how figurative and literal smoke and haze
can permeate and discolor our days and nights.

What I must do is lay bare the beauty I see,
seeking a way to make a sad and suffering world
less mystifying.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Your Days Are Short Here

Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

Lenten Reflection–The Best Work Of All

photo by Josh Scholten

If I can put one touch of rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman, I shall feel that I have worked with God.
G.K. Chesterton

This short video about a young man with Down’s Syndrome who changes a work place illustrates such a simple point: anyone can make a memorable difference in the lives of others by bringing a touch of beauty and meaning into their otherwise routine work. I found it inspiring as it was shared by one of my co-workers and now each of us is searching for our own special way to touch others with that daily “rosy sunset.”

The point is the unexpected gift, whether it is a palette of color in the sky at the end of the day, a thoughtful gesture that pays forward inspiring others to do the same, or the sacrifice that pays for all debts forever. It is doing the work of God in other’s lives–the best work of all.

thanks to our near neighbors Bellewood Acres for this beautiful sunset photo from 3/6/12