Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Gift of Manure

Back in my city slicker days I had a friend who grew up in the country. Once I was driving through a farm area and he was riding shotgun. I remember with amusement how he rolled down the window, breathed in deeply, and exclaimed "Ah, the smell of manure!" At first I thought he was joking, as I found the aroma of cow and/or horse dung to be quite oppressive. He described it as more of a sweet, earthy smell that he found familiar and pleasant. Now, nearly 40 years later, I get it! Once one becomes accustomed to the smell of the farm ( a heady blend of animal musk, fresh air, cut grass) the association of the shared experience works some kind chemical magic in the brain. I sitll get a kick when young city kids come to visit and exhibit my ancient and unenlightened reaction to the 'gift that keeps on giving'.

To control flies and parasites, we clean our fields daily. Three horses and a donkey will provide a heaping wheelbarrow a day of droppings. This stuff can pile up fast, as we soon discovered. For awhile, there was a fellow who would drive 40 miles once a week to pick up a truckload from our growing mountain of horse crap. Unaware that we were sitting on an unmined treasure, we began laying the stuff out on future garden areas. When I noticed how quickly thick green grass grew from the spread manure, I realized I had discovered (among other things) the 'poor man's sod'. I started spreading the fresh, daily contributions to the bare spots on a hillside that was dissolving from erosion. Sure enough, within a week grasses started rooting and spreading.

As I pondered the wonder of the pasture ecology I realized that the grazer actually prepares a future smorgasbord by just doing what comes naturally. Our untended fields were the melting pot of horticultural invasion; every variety of grass, weed, thorn, and wildflower that found its way in competed for dominance. Being a selective eater, the horses meticulously nibble through the rubble....and shortly thereafter, deposit an amazing mix of half digested seed and nutrients that, if left by itself, will yield a healthy new growth of the animal's favorite fare! As the horse is constantly moving, and relunctant to eat where it has just 'plopped', each new pile is allowed to do its thing in peace until the horse knows it is safe to eat there again. Thus, over time, the horse's favorite grasses tend to take over the pasture, given all of the advantages gained by traveling through the digestive processor.

We no longer have a pile. During the summer, every morning wheelbarrowful, like a big brown band-aid, gets applied to any of a number of areas of soil or hillside in need of some healing. During the winter, we lay out future topsoil and fertilizer on the ever enlarging garden plots that will have this amazing mix tilled in with the soil and worms to yield more of the stuff WE like to eat. Sounds like a win-win all the way around.

And I suspect before I came along, there were many other benificiaries. When I apply the pitchfork to a fresh 'pie', I notice hordes of little beetles who just live for this fresh food. God only knows (literally) what future benefits domino off the activities of these little critters. I know the chickens like to feast on them and so are attracted to the field droppings as well. Fortunately, we are unable to find it all, so invarariably, there is enough to go around for everyone.

I marvel at the beauty and economy of it all. It's also cool to be on a first name basis with the One who set it up. Pitchfork prayertime!

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