Manure pile taught lessons [UPDATED]Published 9:51am Wednesday, August 29, 2012 Updated 11:55am Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the manure pile that formed every winter north of the barn when I was growing up.
One of the more unlikable chores that my brother and I had to do while we were growing up on the farm was shovel the gutter behind the milking cows every day. Dad milked about a dozen cows, so the gutter behind those cows was probably about fifty feet long, more or less. Fifty feet of cow poop. And pee. Push. Lift and carry. Four-tined fork, leave the liquid behind. Gutter-width shovel, heavy when full.
Choices. I’m thinking that we learned a lot about choices while we were shoveling that gutter. Remember, we weren’t very old when we started doing this, maybe around the age of ten or so. We weren’t very strong. “Pushing is easier on you than carrying,” I remember dad saying. Choices. I learned a lot about life from cleaning that gutter. There are lots of things that people don’t like to do, but even so, they’re usually better than shoveling manure. Quit complaining.
The manure pile only got bigger in the winter. In the summer, we threw manure into the spreader, which spread it on a field somewhere. But in the winter, it froze the spreader up, so no deal. Then, we shoveled it out that north door at the end of the gutter, and piled it up outside.
Life. The manure pile. If you didn’t throw the manure far enough out, pretty soon, it built up and got so wide and tall you had to really pitch to get it over the top. Not good. That’s kind of what problems you don’t solve do, isn’t it. Build up on you. You can learn a lot about thinking ahead from a froze-up-come-February manure pile.
At the time, neither my brother nor I really appreciated the life lessons the manure pile was teaching us. A lot of the time, the two of us were both cleaning the gutter. Invariably, one would be returning for another fork or shovel full, while one would be delivering a fork or shovel full. Oooops. Sorry. Didn’t mean to brush you with that shovel full of cow poop. (We definitely wore chore clothes, which we changed for school. For obvious reasons.)
Then the brushee, on his way with a load, would return the favor to the first brush-er. Maybe with just a bit more liquid, to get the point across. Soon, this escalated into a full-fledged manure war, and once or twice, I remember us stood off at about ten feet, enthusiastically flinging manure at one another. That was escalation, perfectly defined.
That’s how I knew, when the U.S. Army sent me to Vietnam, that we weren’t going to win. I already knew about stuff like détente, the arms race, and ground wars that escalated out of control in South-East Asia. More people should have had a manure pile.
Détente, you ask? How did I learn about that? When we showed up at the house, cow manure from head to toe, and ma saw us and our clothes? That was détente. We were much more chastened by her than anyone else. I think dad saw the aftermath of one of these manure fights, and figured we were learning about life, and just grunted and went somewhere else. (Far from ma. He’d already learned some lessons.)
But ma? Uh uh. See, cleaning the gutter was pretty unlikable, but doing laundry? Nope. No way. We rated that way less attractive as a choice. We cleaned up our act. Mostly. There were little skirmishes along the way, which we learned to ignore. If you wanted someone to help with a distasteful chore, you had to put up with minor stuff from that person. Another lesson.
One more thing about the winter manure pile. Cats died. Chickens. Pigs, big and small. Calves. Other assorted and sundry creatures. Dad would say: “Throw it on the manure pile.” Come spring, it would be mostly unrecognizable.
Throw it on the manure pile. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Get used to it, is what one did growing up on the farm. Death was all around. Still is, I guess.
I’m older now. I still think about the things I learned from that manure pile.