The Manure Chronicles, Part One


Rabbit Manure Garlic Mulch photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” Hank Williams

Sandy calls to say she’s gotten permission to harvest rabbit manure from her friend’s rabbit barn. So I load my wheelbarrow and a big shovel into my little old pickup and head for Fort Bragg. A sunny spring morning, the angry winds of the past few days in abeyance, I roll along the Comptche-Ukiah Road at forty miles per and try to remember if over the decades of gathering manure for my various gardens, I have ever scored more than a baggy of rabbit manure. Horse, mule, cow, sheep, goat, chicken…but never a truckload of rabbit poop, until today.

At the intersection of Little Lake Road and Highway One, I pull over to pick up two scruffy humans, their formidable backpacks, and three large dogs. Before I can announce how far I’m going, the humans and dogs scramble into the back of the pickup and hunker down around my big blue wheelbarrow, a smile on every face. I roll down my window and say, “I’m going to Fort Bragg. Please keep a good hold on your dogs.”

To which the taller human rejoins, “No worries, man. No worries.”

And I think to myself No worries. Why not? Sure. Let’s go with that.

As we near the new roundabout at Simpson Lane, one of the humans taps on my window to let me know, I think, that they want to disembark. Blessedly, I navigate the roundabout without incident and pull off to the side of the road, expecting humans and dogs to jump out with the same zeal and alacrity with which they jumped in, but both species remain onboard. I roll down my window and ask, “Is this not where you wished to get out?”

“Sorry, man,” says the shorter of the humans. “Can we have a minute to figure something out?”

“Sure,” I say, being free of worries and in no great hurry.

The humans confer for a moment—a fine moment full of cars and trucks and buses rumbling by on the ribbon of highway (cue the Woody Guthrie.)

“Can you drop us at the post office?” asks the taller human.

So on we trundle, I and my cargo of humans and happy dogs; and I am reminded of my favorite Sufi tales, the ones in which God speaks to a person stuck in some quandary or another and tells that person to go forth into the world, to stop fretting and fly the coop, to go on a quest, or at the very least take a long walk, and in so doing the person becomes available for interactions and experiences he or she never would have had staying home; and through these interactions and experiences, the person’s quandary is transformed into a deeper appreciation of the miracle of life.

“We have been God-like in our planned breeding of our domesticated plants and animals, but we have been rabbit-like in our unplanned breeding of ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee

We arrive at the rabbit barn, an L-shaped windowless building containing some sixty cages, each wire cage containing a single white rabbit. The rows of large square cages sit atop platforms some three feet above the ground, rabbit poop falling freely down through the spacious weave of wire into earthen troughs we find heaped with hundreds of thousands of grape-sized pellets, some freshly dropped, some several weeks old. Concrete walkways crisscross the room and are hosed off several times a day. Florescent lights give the room the feel of a factory, and that’s what this is, a rabbit growing factory, the end product being slaughtered and dressed rabbits for the restaurant trade.

Indeed, rabbits are being butchered just around the corner from where we are busily filling my wheelbarrow with rabbit manure, the rabbits in the cages near us sitting quietly, eating and defecating and waiting to die. There are no flies in here, no life really, other than the white rabbits and the man around the corner killing the rabbits and skinning them and dressing them, and Sandy and Todd, eager gardeners glad to be getting so much good shit for free.

I return home with my pickup brimming with rabbit pellets, Sandy having needed only enough to dress her two small raised beds; and the first thing I do with my bounty is mulch my burgeoning garlic. When I water down my beds, the thousands of silver gray pellets glisten in the sun, my garlic appearing to be growing in pea gravel.

But as I wheel my wheelbarrow back and forth from truck to garden, and the pile of pretty pellets grows into a goodly pyramid atop the patch of ground that last year yielded a bushel of potatoes, I keep thinking of those white rabbits, small, medium, and large, growing inexorably to the size of slaughter. They never know sunlight or grass or sex, never stand on terra firma, and never even enjoy movement because their feet are forever pressing down against the subtly cutting wire.

And thinking of what I imagine to be the constant sorrow of those rabbits, I find I am less happy about this manure than I am about the manure I bring home from Kathy Mooney’s corral, her magnificent horse Paloma so well-loved, the apples she eats from my hand becoming the manure I dig into my soil. Yes, Paloma’s crap seems imbued with love, and…I don’t eat horses.

“A lovely horse is always an experience…an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.” Beryl Markham

When I lived in Sacramento I had a huge backyard vegetable and flower and herb garden, and for three of the fifteen years I tended that soil, my manure came from a champion pony (a breed, not a young horse), a slender white pony too small to be ridden by adult humans, though children could ride her and she pulled some sort of cart in her performances. This horse had won so many trophies and ribbons in competitions all over America that her owner had dedicated a gigantic room in his house solely for the exhibition of the pony’s myriad prizes, as well as dozens of framed photographs of the pony adorned with victory wreaths and standing with her owner as he accepted trophies on her behalf.

I always went to the pony ranch with my friend Doug because he knew the pony’s owner, I’m not sure how, and because Doug had access to a pickup truck. Those were the days when I did not own a vehicle and so depended on the kindness of friends. We’d get a truckload for Doug and a truckload for me, an excellent blend of horse manure and sawdust, nicely aged in a spacious old barn so the rich mixture was not disempowered by hard winter rains.

The only drawback to this source of manure was that every time we went to get our loads, we had to pay obeisance to the horse’s owner, an elderly fellow with a terrible case of logorrhea, by going with him into the vast trophy room where he would tell us his champion pony’s life story, beginning with lengthy biographies of the pony’s champion father and champion mother, which biographies set the stage for a riveting account of the pony’s birth and her remarkable childhood full of startling exhibitions of her extraordinary intelligence and innate talent leading to her first triumphs as a young adult pony doing whatever such ponies do to win whatever they win, and moving along to stirring tales of her multiple and consecutive championships at state and national levels, culminating with her tour of England and France where she was hailed by the pony people of those nations as a visiting god.

Then we would go out to the champion pony’s barn adjacent to the barn wherein was piled the poop we sought, and we would have a look at the champion and feed her sugar and scratch her muzzle, and her owner would command her to do things, and she would bow and paw and spin around and sit on her haunches like a polar bear. Amazing knee-slapping wow kind of stuff.

Finally, before this verbal blitzkrieg of a man would let us get on with our shoveling, he would ask us each to think of a number between one and ten, and to look into the pony’s eyes as we thought about our number. And then the pony would paw the ground as many times as it took to paw the number she thought we were thinking.

Now the first time I went through this lengthy rigmarole to get the manure, I found the ordeal tolerable and even kind of interesting, though an hour and a half seemed excessive to me. But the second time through was pure torture, and the third time I had to excuse myself when the old fellow began to recount the pony’s remarkable childhood. I hurried to the bathroom where I stayed for as long as I could, humming to drown out the sound of the blitzkrieg’s voice while leafing through an excellent collection of vintage Playboys. And the following year I got my manure somewhere else.

No, the pony did not correctly guess the number I was thinking. I was thinking four all three times, and she always guessed seven. Then again, Doug was always thinking seven, and she always guessed seven, so maybe Doug’s thought waves threw her off when it came to guessing my number. I dunno.

Coming soon: The Manure Chronicles, Part Two.



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