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Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Valley Drift…Or Poo Poo Number Two…

poosprayDisclosure: this property may experience sudden smells…

I came home from work one afternoon; mid-spring, I think it was, cool enough, I remember, to be wearing a wool sweater—my school clothes. As I stepped out of the car, I was nearly poleaxed by a pungent odor that instantly brought tears to my eyes. We’d lived on our slim acre for two or three years at most, were newcomers adjusting to the Valley. Obviously more adjustment was needed. I opened the garage door, quickly closed it, and went inside to dry my eyes. Somewhere nearby I heard the rumble of an engine. A farm tractor was cruising the pasture west of the property. Hitched to the machine was a large tank bouncing along on balloon tires. From the rear of the tank waves of green liquid gushed and spewed over the pasture. Curious to learn what the commotion and stench was all about, I marched out to investigate. When I returned to the house, I brought more along with me than a satisfied curiosity. Wool, I discovered with dismay, had a memory of its own; the fibers of my sweater had recorded the backyard smell and I now wore a “hair shirt” of stench. No amount of cleaning could entirely remove the smell, and the sweater went out with the trash…it was one of my favorite sweaters, too.

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A manure musing….During his stint as our thirty-third president, Harry S. Truman was once criticized for using the term “manure” during a press conference. Afterwards, a member of the press approached Bess Truman and asked her if maybe she could speak to her husband about his use of the word. Bess replied, “It took me years  just to get him to say that.”

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March. Several years later. Early spring. My school clothes are permanently retired and I’m afoot in the Valley. A fair breeze, the prevailing wind coursing from the southwest, leans against me and as I round the corner above Swiss Hall, my nose detects the signature aroma, a manure sprinkler at work. And sure enough, there the contraption is, spraying away in the field east of the Hall.Green mist I have had a fair amount of experience with rotating sprinklers and know that avoiding a cold splash in the face requires timing: wait until the stream passes and then while it’s on the backswing, quickly make your move. With the exception of size and what it’s spraying, the manure sprinkler operates much the same way as the rotating lawn sprinkler, and this one was a good hundred yards out in the pasture. I paused my walk, marked time while I waited for the arc to swing 180 degrees opposite my route. When the sprinkler nozzle shot a straight stream to the south, I judged it was safe to continue walking. But I failed to consider three variables: the first was the speed at which the sprinkler rotated; the second, the distance I had to walk to stay dry and out of harm’s way; the third, the Valley drift: windage, in other words, the deflection of an object (or liquid) on account of the wind. Watch OutJust as the stream swung parallel to my walk, a gust of  Valley March wind caught it. Suddenly the world took on a green hue. But I wasn’t wearing Ray-Bans. The lenses of my glasses misted over. I felt a sudden dampness on the windward side of my face. Shades of green, I thought as my nostrils began to quiver, I’ve been misted, a victim of the Valley drift. That was it. My walk was done. I headed home to shower. I was careful not to lick my lips.

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Same subject…different stench. March, it seems, is manure month. March back with me three years ago. Gladys and I were homeward bound and battling a headwind (we always battle headwinds in the Valley).  We were huffing along up the straight stretch toward the Grange. As we came upon Willie Green’s driveway, a horrific smell almost bowled us over. Smelling salts would have drowned in that stench.”For land’s sake! What can that be?” I wondered. For a moment I thought I was going to be sick. “It’s a body,” I thought,” someone died here or was murdered and dumped.” I was just about to dismount and investigate the roadside brush when I noticed a long mound of something by the driveway. More manure it turned out—this time chicken by-product. I have yet to smell anything as caustic as chicken manure. Someone must have filed a complaint with the odor police because in years since, the pile has been tarped over.

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In the days before the Werkhovens installed the Qualco anaerobic digester, before the dairy by-product was piped from the barns across the Valley, I would pull on my barn boots, hop in the truck and make my annual manure pilgrimage to the big green mountain of organic heaped up beneath the separator. It was good exercise loading a couple of truck loads of the stuff by shovel and pitchfork (a bit less work offloading it at the garden site) and after the first few shovels full, I got used to the smell. Pouring PooI would try to find a bit of high ground for my work site so as not to have to slosh around in the green puddles that filtrated from the pile. Periodically, I would hear a rush of liquid, like someone flushing a huge toilet, and turn to watch a wave of green pour from the stalls and cascade into a cement flume where it flowed into a collecting pond.

On one poo-gathering occasion I had scarcely begun forking when I heard the familiar flush. This time, however, something went awry. Instead of gushing into the flume and flowing to the pond, the flume filled, then overflowed. Suddenly there was a tsunami of green headed my way. The only high ground was the pile of manure before me and I clambered up into it while the green tide swirled around the base of the heap and eddied around the truck. I waited until most of the liquid backdrained, climbed down into the substantial pool remaining and finished my loading, meanwhile keeping a close eye on my boot tops. For the next several days every time I approached my truck, memory would revisit that  fragrant experience.

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More poopourri. The other day I read that poet Maxine Kumin passed away, age 88. I had never heard of Maxine, nor did I know she was the Library of Congress’s poet laureate for the years 1981-1982. My ignorance stems from the fact I don’t read much poetry and as far as U.S. poets laureate are concerned, why should I know their names when only a handful of U.S. presidents come to mind, namely those who manned our Ship of State during my lifetime. Maxine has made a cameo appearance in this post not because of her laureateness but because, inspired by the daily cleaning of her horse stalls, she wrote a poem about manure (“The Excrement Poem”), not a poem to be pooh-poohed like some vulgar limerick scribed on a bathroom wall (as one might expect from the subject matter) but a bona fide poem: six quatrains, twenty-four lines, of unrhymed verse on the subject of excrement….

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One April day years ago—on the garden’s behalf--I was addressing Werkhovens’ big pile of green gold when a pair of duck hunters passed by returning from the day’s hunt. Noting my labors, one of them called out: “Say, do you use that on your strawberries?” I assumed by his query I was talking to a fellow gardener. “Well,” I replied, “I don’t grow strawberries anymore, but when I did, I certainly used it.” A broad smile and then: “I use sugar on mine.” I was left speechless, standing there in my barn boots with a silly grin on my face. I had certainly stepped right into it that time, hadn’t I? You know, I’ll bet the fellow had waited patiently all his life for the opportunity I’d just given him. And he was no spring chicken, either.

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  1. Thank you for once again broadening my world and exposing me to great literature. I loved the excrement poem, although it is way too long for me to ever commit it to memory. Poo certainly deserves a bit more respect for its important contribution to the fertility of the earth. By the way, I do raise strawberries and I also prefer to use sugar on them.

    1. I have read a great deal of literature and believe that manure as a topic has been sorely overlooked. There are references to "the manure pile" in Charlotte's Web, but to my knowledge that's about the extent of coverage for the scatological subject.Thus, as did you, I found the excrement poem refreshing. Sorry, though, that it's too long for you to commit to memory. Surely there's a good limerick out there that does justice to the subject...only five lines with the familiar meter and rhyme. I know your cerebrum cortex can manage that. Thanks, as always, for reading The Ripple. TMJ